Saturday, 16 November 2013

How to Make a Monster

Director: Herbert L Strock
Writers: Herman Cohen, Kenneth Langtry
Producer: Herman Cohen
Cast: Robert H Harris, Gary Conway, Gary Clarke
Year of release: 1958
Country: USA
Reviewed from: UK (Region 0) DVD (Direct Video Distribution)

This is one of my favourite 1950s B-movies for several reasons. It’s a bizarre semi-sequel to two bona fide classics - I was a Teenage Werewolf and I was a Teenage Frankenstein - and it features props from several other AIP productions. But mostly it’s just a stark raving wacky storyline played deliciously straight.

Teenage Werewolf was probably the single most influential horror movie of the 1950s - even more so than the almost contemporaneous Curse of Frankenstein. It opened up the previously untapped teenage market, coinciding with a boom in car ownership among young people that made drive-ins a major distribution sector, and with the release of the old Universal monster movies to TV for the first time. The launch of Famous Monsters of Filmland didn’t hurt things either!

Werewolf was followed by Teenage Frankenstein, then Blood of Dracula - which was I was a Teenage Vampire in all but name. Herman Cohen couldn’t get enough of the title: even Konga was originally pitched as I was a Teenage Gorilla!

How to... isn’t a direct sequel to Werewolf or Frankenstein, it’s a movie about the making of a sequel to Werewolf and Frankenstein! It’s set on the lot of American International Pictures (producer/writer Cohen makes a cameo appearance in a screening room scene and there are AIP posters on various walls) where Teenage Werewolf Meets Teenage Frankenstein is in production. The make-up is by Philip Scheer who had worked on both the original films as well as Attack of the Puppet People and Invisible Invaders. But the actors underneath it are different: the Teenage Frankenstein is played by ‘Tony Mantell’ who is played by Gary Conway (Land of the Giants) while the Teenage Werewolf is played by ‘Larry Drake’ who is played by Gary Clarke (Missile to the Moon) making his feature debut. I hope you’re following this because there will be a test later.

Robert H Harris (The Invisible Boy) stars as make-up artist Pete Dumond. Short, balding and starey-eyed, he’s a sort of TK Maxx Donald Pleasance and consequently makes a great villain by looking oddball but harmless. Paul Brinegar (Wishbone in Rawhide, later seen in the godawful 1980s SF comedy Spaceship) is his oddball assistant Riviero.

Dumond may be loosely based on Jack Pierce, a master craftsman of make-up unappreciated by the new owners of the studio. They have decreed that monster movies are a passing fad and that once TWMTF wraps they will concentrate on rock’n’roll movies, so Dumond and Riviero can pack their bags. But Dumond has discovered a formula which, when added to make-up, makes the wearer totally subservient to suggestion. He mixes this in with the make-up for the two teen stars and sends them out to kill the movie execs. He also - and this makes no sense at all - slaps the make-up hurriedly on himself at one point to commit murder.

Just over an hour into the 73-minute feature the lovely, crisp print quality - showcasing the excellent work of cinematographer Maury Gertzman (She-Wolf of London, The Brute Man, The Creature Walks Among Us) - shifts down a noticeable grade. This is because the final reel is shot on Technicolor stock and bursts into glorious colour a minute or so in. Dumond has creepily lured the two teenagers back to his home where the wall are adorned with his ‘children’ - horror masks. Most of them are generic, possibly early home-produced efforts by Paul Blaisdell. But prominent among them are an alien from Invasion of the Saucer-Men, Beulah from It Conquered the World and the She-Creature. Fantastic!

The great Morris Ankrum (Earth Vs the Flying Saucers, The Giant Claw etc) and Walter Reed (Missile Monsters) are policemen, while John Ashley (who made another Frankenfilm in 1958 - the completely loopy Frankenstein’s Daughter - and later became a staple of Philippines-shot exploitation fare) plays himself in a rehearsal for a rock’n’roll flick. The lovely gals dancing around him are choreographed by Lee Scott who had the same unlikely credit on Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla!

Co-writer Langtry is actually Aben Kandel whose horror CV goes back to uncredited work on 1935’s Werewolf of London. He wrote this and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein as Langtry, and I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Blood of Dracula as Ralph Thornton. Credits under his own name include Berserk, Craze, Konga and Trog. Cinematographer Maury Gertsman also photograaphed the final two Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes pictures, Terror by Night and Dressed to Kill.

Extras include a 50-minute audio interview with Samuel Z Arkoff recorded at the NFT, plus nice poster-reproduction postcards and tatty trailers for nine AIP films: Voodoo Woman, Blood of Dracula, Day the World Ended, The Brain Eaters, War of the Clossal Beast, The She-Creature, The Undead, Earth Vs The Spider and this one. This is a great presentation of a glorious film. DVD Ltd slipped up slightly by calling the main character ‘Paul Drummond’ on the sleeve, but I won’t penalise them a grade for that.

MJS rating: A-
review originally posted 8th May 2005

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