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"A Hollywood murder is okay on the screen, but not in the studio!"
How to Make a Monster
1958. A.I.P. Directed by Herbert L. Strock. With Robert H. Harris, John Ashley, Gary Conway, Gary Clarke, Paul Brinegar
1957 was a great year for horror at American International Pictures, with I Was a Teenage Werewolf, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, and Invasion of the Saucer Men. By 1958, time already seemed ripe for a horror movie about the horror movie phenomenon. But How to Make a Monster is no franchise-building piece of AIP self-promotion. Quite the contrary: the movie shows the studio taken over by horror-hating philistines who scoff at the monster-movie fad and intend to refocus AIP toward rock-and-roll pictures. As though monsters can be decommissioned by front-office directives!
Under the opening credits, a man's hand sketches a monster (views of the sketch artist and his soon-to-live creation go way back; see Winsor McCay, Dave Fleischer, Walt Lantz, et. al.). This shot confirms the title's promise that this movie is about monsters as constructions, creatures brought into being not by a full moon or a jolt of electricity but by make-up artists and costume designers. And in fact, the sketcher is AIP's resident monster-makeup genius, Pete Drummond (Robert H. Harris). Drummond has apparently been with AIP for 25 years (interesting, since AIP was only 5 years old at the time the movie was made), and is responsible for the artistry behind the I Was a Teenage movies. Then comes the bad news from the new management team: his current project, Teenage Frankenstein vs. the Teenage Werewolf , will be AIP's last monster movie. Drummond is upset losing his job, but beyond that he's a real believer in monster movies as "not just entertainment, but therapy!" An unusually analytical make-up man, he points out (in a soliloquy addressed to the Frankenstein poster on his wall) that such films "let us live out our hidden fears."
But the bosses are adamant (they've got market research). When they force Drummond to watch the filming of an Elvis-influenced musical number for the new sorts of movies AIP will be making, the poor man snaps. He vows that "I'll use the very monsters they mocked to bring them to an end!"
This involves spiking makeup base with a chemical agent that "enters through the pores and saps the will." When Drummond applies this makeup to his Teenage Frankenstein vs. the Teenage Werewolf stars Tony and Larry (Tony is played by Gary Conway, the actual star of I Was a Teenage Frankenstein), they become actual homicidal maniacs, ready to follow Drummond's every command. The very process of making a kid look like a monster actually turns him into one. Expressionism at its finest!
In a terrific scene, Drummond's werewolf attacks the studio boss in the screening room while the boss is watching (and disapproving of) the rushes from the latest monster picture. It's all so far-fetched and ridiculous, he mutters. Then the very werewolf he has been scoffing at onscreen creeps up and strangles him.
There are a number of other murders; the AIP lot dissolves into mayhem; and eventually Drummond is identified when the police find "professional-quality makeup" under the fingernails of a victim. He perishes in a fire at the gallery of monsters he has set up at his home, dying idealistically among the creations he calls his children.
The final minutes of How to Make a Monster are in color, a popular gimmick at that time. As one fan site points out, this provides an opportunity to see what the AIP monsters, previously seen only in black-and-white movies, really look like (as if there is any really about these rubber masks!)
AIP's willingness to present itself undisguised (there's the American
International Pictures studio gate for all to see) as the site of gruesome
murders perpetrated by insane makeup men on obtuse studio bosses can only
be admired. When you're in the exploitation business, it makes sense to
exploit what's closest at hand. And if you can leaven your footage of
grappling monsters with the Romantic clash between tormented artist and
commercial sellouts, and play some self-referential jokes in the process,
I say all the better!
copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein