Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Mad Monster (1942) – MST3K Review


Dr. Lorenzo Cameron (George Zucco) has his panties in a twist because none of his peers understand him. They call him crazy because he wants to fuse the essence of animals into humans and create a race of super soldiers. I mean, that’s not insane, just different thinking. So he drags his daughter Lenora (Anne Nagel) to an isolated mansion on the edge of a swamp to continue his work. He enlists the aid of Petro (Glenn Strange) who seems to be channeling Lenny from Of Mice and Men. Dr. Cameron injects Petro with the essence of wolf.

Quicker than you can say lunatic, Petro grows fur and sprouts fangs and terrorizes the swamplands. Cameron hatches a plan to unleash Petro on his mocking colleagues, to simultaneously prove his point and to maul them. But plucky reporter Tom (Johnny Downs) is on the case, and has the hots of Lenora. Can he unravel the mystery of The Mad Monster before the movie stumbles to its conclusion?

Movie Review:

This episode starts with an episode of the Commando Cody serial Radar Men fro the Moon. It’s entitled The Molten Terror and is the second in the series. It has the same production values as the previous episodes. Everything is low budget, and looks hastily thrown together. But there is a verve and energy to the editing that keeps things fun. Sure, its pretty dumb when you get down to it, with Cody flying around in his rocket suit, beating up aliens and getting into one jam after the other, but that was the point. I did like the finale where the aliens use a beam to melt the side of a mountain in on our heroes. For a low budget serial it looks pretty cool. But yeah the acting stinks and the script is lame.

The Mad Monster is like a classic Universal horror film on life support. It’s got a gothic set, but it looks cheap. It’s got a terrifying creature, but he’s not scary. It’s got a mad scientist, but he’s just stupid. It’s got an intrepid reporter, but he’s dorky. It’s got a damsel in distress, but she’s barely in the movie. Honestly it’s just a mess.

The best character is Dr. Cameron. Zucco is obviously enjoying the over the top antics of his character, shouting lines, glowering and just behaving like an ass. It’s unfortunate that the script is so poor that his motivations and behavior don’t come across as mad, but more like moronic. If he were so brilliant you’d think he’d have a better plan to use his monster, but no, it’s all pretty slapped together depending on coincidence more often then not. Luckily the writer provided plenty of that too. My favorite moments with Cameron are at the beginning of the film when he envisions his colleagues watching his experiment. They all appear in ghostly form like some kind of dead Jedi council from Star Wars frowning at him and mocking him. His responses to them confirm that he is in fact mad as a hatter. It’s the best sequence for him and one of the best in the film.

The rest of the folks look a bit lost to tell you the truth. Strange plays Petro as the lovable, but simple gardener. He’s like a bulky version of Forrest Gump but way less annoying. When he transforms into the monster, well he still looks like he’s playing the same part, but with more grimacing. He’s never scary, just silly looking in all that hair and fake teeth.

Nagel seems to be channeling Judy Garland for some reason. She’s OK, but barely in the film. Downs plays Tom as the bright eyed report out for the scoop. But he’s so eager and bright that you want to pop him one. He’s supposed to be our hero in the climax, but he’s acting like an 11-year-old boy the whole time, so you figure he’s going to get eaten by the monster. Kind of a surprise when he makes it.

The main issue with the movie is that it’s slow, really damn slow. It clocks in at 77 minutes, but it takes so long to do anything that you’ll think the movie is three hours long. The issue here is that the plot is so skinny that director Sam Newfield stretches everything out to pad the movie. Now at the best of times Newfield can make competent films, but his work has appeared on MST3K numerous times for a reason. Here there are endless walking scenes, endless scenes of Petro standing around looking constipated, and scenes of Dr. Cameron looking out a window with various expressions on his face. Just odd. There’s no tension, no horror, no fun to be had.

When the movie finally staggers over the finish line, with the blazing house and scattered corpses you’re happy that it’s over. Do Joel and the bots have a chance against this beast?

Episode Review:

This is one of those episodes that improved after my initial viewing. This seems to happen a lot with the early episodes of the show, because I have to keep in mind that the riffing rate is just going to be slower and that the jokes haven’t evolved to the point they got to in Season three. The first time I watched this episode I was bored to tears. The movie is turgid and the riffing is sparse. Lots of the jokes are just statements of the obvious and it really didn’t work for me. I thought I’d found one of the worst episodes of the series.

Watching it gain I’ve found some more bright spots and it’s gone up a bit in the ratings. It’s far from the worst episode, but it’s nowhere near the high points of the series. Let’s start with the short. MST3K did a good job with the shorts, and this is no exception. They have a lot of fun with Commando Cody and his adventures on the moon. They comment on everything from the wonky science to the hilarious sets and special effects. The finale with the molten mountain flooding in our heroes provides a steady stream of comments from the boys as they try to identify what is being used as the molten lava. All in all, it’s one of the best Cody shorts they had to work with and it’s a funny one.

When it comes to the movie, they do their best work when the plot is actually moving along. My favorite scene in the movie is also one of the best riffing scenes. As Dr. Cameron envisions his ghostly peers and converses with them Joel, Tom and Crow provide all kinds of alternate answers and counter arguments for the scientists. It’s great stuff, a highlight of Season One for sure.

Tom Servo is known for singing during the film, but I always associated that with Kevin Murphy who has a really nice voice and singing ability. So I was surprised when Josh Weinstein (playing Servo in Season One) burst into song during the film. A swamp dweller appears out of the mist, shotgun in hand. Immediately Servo starts singing the theme song to Beverly Hillbillies but immediately takes the lyrics and folds them to fit the plot of Mad Monster. It was hilarious, probably the high point of the episode.

I also loved the transformation sequence where Joel and the bots run through what Petro looks like with each frame of the transformation. Comments include Abraham Lincoln and Isaac Asimov.

But in the end the movies inertness overcomes them. There just isn’t enough to work with, and the energy of these episodes is more on the slow side. For a movie like this you need high energy and lots of riffing. But I realized that Season One is still focused on watching the movie, not really using it as the main vehicle for the comedy. That shift occurs near the end of the season, but this is still an early episode. You get the feeling that Joel and bots are there, watching this with you, and chiming in when they feel like it. It’s kinda nice in a way.

The episode starts with the Mad scientists reminiscing about when they became “mad” and then calling Joel up. The invention exchange starts with Joel showing a purse with automatic protection from purse snatchers called “Hell in a Handbag”. The Mads create a real dangerous toy, a fire-breathing lizard to torch your army men. Then it’s off to the movie. The first break starts with Tom Servo happening upon a blender, who he believes is another robot. He starts hitting on it, with a series of doofy robot based come-ons. It’s pretty funny stuff. The next break Crow and Tom question Joel about how the werewolf in this movie works. The next break has Joel inspired by the film to switch Tom and Crows heads on their bodies. All hell breaks loose! After the movie ends, Tom and Crow try to come up with one good thing and one bad thing about the movie. They don’t do so hot. The Mad scientists are in morning because Dr. Cameron died, and the world is out one more mad scientist.

The Mad Monster has its moments and Commando Cody helps out, but it’s not a stellar effort. Compared to its brethren in season one, it falls in the middle, providing some solid laughs for a Sunday afternoon, but not something you’ll be seeking out for serious comedy. I’d reach for later episodes to scratch that werewolf itch like Season Eight’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Season Nine’s Werewolf. As with all these season one episodes I’d drop one level of rating when comparing it the series as a whole. But with the other season one episodes I give it three ghostly scientists out of five.

This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection Volume XIV.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds fun, and I loved Commando Cody which aired on Saturday morning TV when I was a kid. Leonard Nimoy made his brief screen debut in Radar Men from the Moon.