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VHS Grindhouse: How to Make a Monster (1958) by Andy Lalino
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Source: AMC screening hosted by Stan Winston
For fans of AIP's I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and I Was a Teenage Werewolf, 1958's How to Make a Monster is a real valentine! It's an unusual, ahead-of-its-time feature and a study in cinematic practicality. In '57 AIP dealt a one-two punch with the aforementioned back-to-back hits (with Teenage Werewolf opening first), striking a chord while teens were still in the wake of James Dean's untimely death. It only made sense to join forces and have the two teen angst monsters appear in the same film, however the approach is quite unconventional. And if having the Teenage Monsters weren't enough, fans were treated to a reunion (kind of) of Paul Blaisdell's unforgettable AIP creatures! More to come!
Warning! Spoilers contained in the following synopsis!
In Horrorwood, Karloffornia circa 1958, American International Studios is under new management. Despite their huge, monster movie hits that made the studio what it was, the new, cigar-chomping honchos want to nix horror movies in favor of...God forbid...musicals. Pete Dumond, the talented make-up artist who created the AIP creatures (played by Robert H. Harris), has been given notice to clear out - he's out of a job, along with his assistant Rivero (familiar character actor Paul Brinegar, later in High Plains Drifter). Rather than give up his digs at the AIP creature shop, Dumond plans a scheme that will bring down the new studio magistrates.
Dumond recalls a certain ingredient that when rubbed into the skin, leaves one open to "suggestion". His plot involves using teenage actors who portray the studio's biggest monsters (Teenage Werewolf & Frankenstein) to kill the boss men while under his control. And kill they do. It's a real treat to see the Teenage Werewolf in the process of getting made up in the chair (same with Frank) and then attack. In the first slaughter, a studio exec is viewing the dailies of the Teen Werewolf film in a lonely viewing room - when he's suddenly mauled from behind by the Werewolf! Fangs and claws rip his neck as the Werewolf drools out a sizable amount of spittle!
After the first murder the studio's on edge, but the cops are stumped. A nosy, upwardly mobile security guard comes snooping around Dumond's shop, claiming that he suspects him of the horrific murder and has notes jotted in his "little black book". Well, that's all Dumond needed to hear. In an interesting turn, he applies the eerie make-up blend to himself (as a memorable "caveman" character), and stalks the rent-a-cop, eventually bludgeoning him to death in the commissary kitchen.
The cops begin to piece the crimes together, which causes Rivero to worry. Dumond reassures him that they won't get caught if he keeps his mouth shut and sticks to the plan. Just one more head honcho to go, and this time, Teenage Frankenstein is set loose. The fugly , eye-jutting creature stalks the night, and grips his fingers around the neck of the surviving CEO, snapping his neck behind the wheel of his convertible.
It should be noted that in-between murders is a hoppin' (but ultimately pointless) musical number with...John Ashley! See Ashley burn up the stage with some very festishy-garbed Bettie Page lookalikes (singing a song called "You Gotta Have Ee-Ooo")! This is Ashley's sole appearance in the film.
Now the cops are really close, with poor Rivero nearly spilling the beans at a heated interrogation. When Dumond and Rivero return to the studio, they find an empty creature shop - seems that the nature of the murders collapsed the new studio! Wanting to pin the murders on someone else beside himself, Dumond invites the two teen stars who portrayed the monsters to dinner at his home.
When Dumond, Rivero, and the guests reach the house, the movie is then tinted in full color! Losing his sanity, Dumond locks the teens in a bizarre, HGL-esque red curtained room (with church candles) adorned with his "children" - prized creature masks from old AIP hits! A couple are generic (but very cool), but look for Blaisdell's The She Creature, the carrot monster from It Conquered the World, and one of the bulbous aliens from Invasion of the Saucermen!!! Sadly, in an attempt to escape, an actor knocks over a candle, setting the gallery on fire. Before the cops burst in (they figure out from forensics that there was greasepaint and latex involved in the murders), poor Rivero's killed by the evil Dumond in a last-ditch effort to keep their gruesome secret. The day is saved when Dumond burns up in the fire and the cops rescue the teens.
In what could have been a teenage monster clash, the creators instead opted to feature the monsters in a wholly different way, similar to a movie-within-a-movie approach. I suppose they felt they sensationalized each monster with their original efforts and took a different angle to unite them, with Dumond being the connection. It's not of the ranks of Frankenstein and Dracula, but the film is great fun to watch and a treat for audience members who longed to see both creatures on screen again.
Robert H. Harris is very good as Dumond, however he lacks the physical attributes typically associated with a horror villain (he's stocky, bald and hardly intimidating). Sci-Fi and vintage TV fans will note that Harris has a proud history of appearing in early shows such as Tales of Tomorrow, Science-Fiction Theater, and Inner Sanctum. Brinegar emotes convincing sympathy as the loyal Rivero, common in an "Ygor"-style role. The characters simply aren't strong enough to shimmer a Dracula/Renfield or Dr. Frankenstein/Ygor panache, however they're suited well-enough for drive-in 1950's fare.
The teens have decent characterizations, but ultimately don't have much to do until Dumond orders the kills. With Gary Conway reprising his role as Teenage Frankenstein from the original film. Conway would later go on to star in Irwin Allen's Land of the Giants (in which one episode starred Harris!). Subbing for Michael Landon as the Teenage Werewolf is the capable Gary Clarke, also in Missile to the Moon and Dragstrip Riot (1958 was a busy year for Clarke).
Character actor fans will love the performance of Malcolm Atterbury as a surviving security guard. A veteran of countless vintage TV shows (including TZ), Atterbury is a familiar face to baby boomers and generation X'ers who grew up digesting '50s/'60s television. Also aboard is genre fave Morris Ankrum, from Kronos, The Giant Claw, Half-Human, The Beginning of the End, Zombies of Mora Tau, Rocketship XM, Flight to Mars, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, and Science-Fiction Theater (all from the '50s).
Herbert L. Strock, director of I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, is ably at the helm. No stranger to horror and science-fiction (and since a well-known figure in the B-movie universe), Strock additionally directed Gog (1954), episodes of Science-Fiction Theater, The Magnetic Monster (1953), and Blood of Dracula (1957). Horror characters were beginning to make a comeback in the late '50s thanks in large part to TV(!) with packages of horror films being sold to stations around the country. How to Make a Monster's success would soon be, however, overshadowed by full-color horror features by Hammer Films - also featuring classic horror characters.
Interesting to note that there's no central female character in the film. The closest thing we come to sex appeal is Ashley's dance with the leatherettes. A possible reaction to the plot device of "modern audiences just wanting to see girls dance".
I recorded How to Make a Monster most likely (I didn't write a date down) in 2001, with Stan Winston intro/outro-ing the movie. Winston was likely promoting his remake of the film which debuted the same year. A bit of sad information that he relayed was that unfortunately Blaisdell's creations (mentioned above) were either heavily damaged or destroyed by the film's fiery climax and regrettably select, original key masks/props are now lost forever. I know Winston's death is fresh in many a fanboy's mind and it is a staggering loss, so let me just tenderly state that it is the original How to Make a Monster that I personally will love and cherish as an immensely enjoyable '50s creature feature, and whose innate charm no modern effort can ever hope to duplicate.
"Oddservations" is ©2008 by Andy Lalino. The Oddservations banner is a creation of Andy Lalino. All other graphics, except where otherwise noted, are creations of Nolan B. Canova. All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2008 by Nolan B. Canova.