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The Cheapest Thrills: The Poverty Row Cinema of Sam Newfield Y

by Paul Corupe

ou know ’em, you love ’em, and you’ve probably even bought a few – those ubiquitous multi-pack horror titles clog- ging up the dump bins at discount re-

tailers. And why not? There’s no quicker way to build an instant home video library than by picking up a hefty set such as the latest release from public do- main specialists Mill Creek: 100 Greatest Horror Classics. As you might expect, 100 Greatest Horror Classics

is a wide-ranging collection that offers up everything from Alfred Hitchcock’s early works to those notori- ous poverty row films of the 1940s. Of course, the words “classic” or “great” don’t belong anywhere near most of these no-budget creature features from Hollywood bit-players Monogram, PRC and Republic, but delving into these films can be a horror education in itself, a chance to watch low-budget directors play around with the leftover ideas, actors and themes of their Universal forbearers in a (sorta) novel way. Take Sam Newfield, for example. Known as the

most prolific sound director of all time, Newfield’s brother was the head of PRC, for whom he cranked out often as many as twenty films a year. Though most of Newfield’s 300-odd films are westerns, he also handled five horror titles, three of which – The Mad Monster (1942), Dead Men Walk (1943) and The Monster Maker (1944) – are showcased on 100 Greatest Horror Classics. Newfield’s work is fairly typical poverty row prod- uct, but it occasionally rises above the usual fod- der by squeezing familiar monster tales into swirling, misty settings that, when the films are watched together, all seem to take place in the same, interconnected backwoods world. Released just a few months after Universal’s The

Wolf Man hit theatres, Newfield’s The Mad Monster adds a mad scientist twist to the familiar tale, as the reclusive Dr. Cameron (George Zucco) uses blood transfusions to transform his dim-witted handyman Petro (Glenn Strange) into a werewolf. He has plans for an entire army of Nazi-busting lycanthropes. But first? Deadly revenge on those who ridiculed his the- ories, of course! Zucco plays the part with manic


Glenn Strange in The Mad Monster

gusto, while Strange – just before a big-league pro- motion as the monster in Universal’s House of Frankenstein – stands out despite shabby makeup that would have had Jack Pierce howling in derision. Similarly threadbare sets, cast members and fog-

choked exteriors adorn Newfield’s Dead Men Walk, one of the few poverty row films to riff off of Dracula. Zucco delights again in a rare double role as both a Satanist who rises from the dead as a vampire and the twin brother who is trying to stop him. Aside from some fun and unique variations on vampire mythology, the film plays out virtually the same as the Lu- gosi classic. Co-star Dwight Frye channels his earlier role

of Renfield for the graveyard-stalking, hunchbacked assistant Zolarr, and Zucco relishes playing both hunter and hunted, appearing in a final-reel fight against himself. Unfortunately, Zucco must have been busy when

Newfield returned with The Monster Maker. Another horror cinema alumnus, J. Carrol Naish, takes over as the fiendish Dr. Markoff, a scientist who intends to marry a girl who resembles his dead wife. He in- fects her father (Ralph Morgan) with acromegaly –

the real-life disfiguring disease that afflicted fellow ’40s horror star Rondo Hatton – intending to hold back his newly discovered cure until their marriage vows are complete. Though condemned as espe- cially distasteful in the 1940s, time has been kind to The Monster Maker, a fascinating bit of body horror that relies less on the atmospheric touches that Newfield excelled at, creating a variation on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde stripped of all Victorian affectations. Though censorship wouldn’t even allow the film to show a needle in an arm, it doesn’t prevent The Monster Maker from basking in a bleak ugliness that feels far ahead of its time. While most of the poverty row productions that

make up 100 Greatest Horror Classics suffer from fast-paced production schedules and a lack of orig- inality, Newfield and his contemporaries never in- tended these films to be directly compared to Universal’s horror hits. Instead, like an improvised jazz solo or a DJ remix, they can be better appreci- ated as variations on a theme – a sandbox where the raw elements of horror’s past can be reconstructed into something that’s almost as entertaining (espe- cially in the case of The Monster Maker). And even though many of these “classics” are anything but, poverty row’s unique approach to horror makes it a vital, if neglected, branch of the genre’s twisted fam- ily tree.

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