The first “Things I Read” of 2011, and the first 2011 entry in my insane mission to see all the films illustrated in Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies, the quest known to legend as “See REPTILICUS and Die.”
Not that there’s that much to read off the screen in this movie, but what there is, is choice. The movie is a PRC production (I always think that stands for “Poverty Row Company,” but no) starring Ralph Morgan (the Wizard of Oz’s brother) as a famous pianist, and J. Carroll Naish as a mad scientist obsessed with acromegaly. Obsessed to the point of keeping some in a bottle.
I always think of Naish as a sort of poor man’s Sam Jaffe, which would make him a very poor man indeed, but you have to say this, he gives it his all. He plays this dumb conception of a mad doctor with total conviction. This isn’t anything like as good a movie as DR RENAULT’S SECRET, another movie I discovered via the Gifford book, in which Naish played the experiment. Here, he’s in love with Morgan’s daughter, who resembles his dead wife. She won’t give him a tumble, so he doses Morgan with acromegaly, and then blackmails him for the cure: “You must tell your daughter to be very nice to me.”
Morgan refuses, kills Naish, gets the cure, and returns to his career with no legal consequences. Happy ending!
The fun stuff: Naish explaining to the daughter that her father’s career is at end, since not only have his fingers swollen to the size of Cumberland sausages, his appearance is no longer such that concertgoers would be happy looking at him; Morgan’s impersonation of the Elephant Man; and Morgan’s backstory — he’s not the real scientist at all. He took the guy’s place after killing him. This was revenge for the guy stealing his wife. His first reaction to that had been to acromegalize her so that no other man would want her, but she killed herself. Damn.
What’s frustrating, apart from the fact that the film isn’t any damn good, is the way it runs extremely mundane versions of familiar horror movie tropes — the woman with the uncanny resemblance to the dead wife isn’t a reincarnation, it’s just a wild coincidence.
Oh, and there’s a phony gorilla, but when it gets loose, it’s driven back into its cage by a handy German shepherd (a dog, not a Bavarian farmer). I found myself wondering why so many crappy horrors of the 40s feature obviously fake gorillas. Some kind of Gorilla Defamation League might be hypothesized: making great apes look bad. The one time a real gorilla turns up, in John Ford’s MOGAMBO, it is immediately shot (by second unit director Yakima Canutt).
Makeup is by Maurice Seiderman, “the best makeup artist in the world” according to Orson Welles. You can’t, using 1944 technology, successfully turn Ralph Morgan into Rondo Hatton, but he does his best. Director Sam Newfield assists by avoiding closeups for 99% of scenes. How do you think he got to be the most prolific director in Hollywood history? “Gotta get this scene in the bag FAST so I can hit the crap tables, baby! Despite the fact that I’m currently directing something called THE MONSTER MAKER, I feel lucky tonight!”