After being remarkably impressed by the ahead-of-its-time meta horror of 1958’s How to Make a Monster I was curious to know if there were any previous films that similarly depicted movie set horror mayhem. Turning to the very similarly titled 1940’s work The Monster Maker turned out to be a complete dead end in that regard. Despite what you might assume given their near-identical monikers, The Monster Maker is less of a precursor to How to Make a Monster than it is a distant echo of the Bela Lugosi classic The Raven. Both The Monster Maker & The Raven feature mad scientist types with Eastern European accents lusting after young women they meet at concerts who happen to closely resemble their long-deceased wives. If there were any doubt that this connection were a mere coincidence, consider that the wicked Dr. Makoff (aka The Monster Maker) is indicated through close-up shots of his eyes to have hypnotic powers (a Lugosi trademark from the horror legend’s Dracula days) & that his deceased wife’s name was Lenore, the same as Lugosi’s in The Raven & the narrator’s in its Poe-penned source material. I went into The Monster Maker expecting a groundbreaking work of meta horror & ended up watching a photocopy of a far superior work I had already seen.
Derivative or not, The Monster Maker gets by just fine as an old school creepshow. The dastardly Dr. Makoff, inevitably spurned by the woman who resembles his wife, hatches a wicked plan to steal her hand in marriage by any means necessary. Namely, he injects the poor girl’s concert pianist father with “Formula x54” (or some such nonsense) that rapidly debilitates him with a glandular disease with horrific disfigurement of the head & hands among its chief symptoms. As Makoff is the sole expert in the field of this particular disease, all medical roads lead the girl’s now visibly-deformed father back to the wicked doctor’s “care” so he can negotiate for her hand in marriage in exchange for an experimental cure. Makoff does his best to accelerate the severity of the situation, explaining “For a professional pianist, it’s fatal . . . that is, for his career I mean,” and only his morally adept assistant has the power to set the record straight and limit his villainous power. It all amounts to a kind of non-starter of a climactic confrontation, but the film’s “monster” make-up & villainous cruelty make for a suitably entertaining example of classic horror spookiness.
I can’t laud The Monster Maker as a “lost classic” or any other kind of hyperbolic praise, but I will way that the film’s 3% score on the Tomatometer is vastly unjust. The film has its campier flourishes, like when a vicious “gorilla” (read: actor in a gorilla suit) attack materializes out of nowhere in the third act or when Makoff is experimenting with very sciency science equipment in his sciency science lab, but for the most part it works as a grim, small cast horror. Critics at the time of its release complained that the film lacked action in its monster mayhem, but I think what’s much more interesting is the abhorrent behavior of the film’s villain rather than the violence of his “creation”. Makoff has a fascinating, horrifically bleak backstory similar to a Don Draper scenario that wonderfully complicates & darkens his quest to reclaim his connection with his deceased wife that really elevates the film above its campier tendencies in certain moments. If The Monster Maker were released today it would undoubtedly face claims of being “problematic” for the way it treats physical deformity & disability as a source of terror, but given the time of its release I believe those sins can be reasonably forgiven. I went into the film expecting an entirely different kind of monster than what the evil Makoff delivered, but I still enjoyed the inhumane cruelty of its central conflict for what it was as a derivative work of genre cinema.