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Fantasia Obscura: ‘How To Make a Monster’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, if you’re in on the in jokes, you know what the in jokes know…

How to Make a Monster (1958)
Distributed by: American International Pictures
Directed by: Herbert L. Strock

No one loves themselves more than Hollywood.

Narcissism in the industry is both a necessity and byproduct of doing business there. For every interesting film that we get to see, there’s a story behind it that’s dying to get told, no matter how hard they try to deny it. Sometimes, we hear about the really big ones, like the “Scarlet O’Hara Wars” that went on as MGM tried to cast their female lead for Gone with the Wind, or all the machinations behind the making of The Godfather that became the recent miniseries, The Offer. For that matter, we have Robert Evans, whose exploits in Hollywood became a book The Kid Stays in the Picture, which led to an animated film of the same name, that then begot the TV series Kid Notorious.

No one was above such self-affirming love, not even Sam Arkoff:

The film’s opening credits help set the tale, with the title of the film written on a makeup station window:

While the rest of the credits show up, the hand that wrote the title works on a sketch of one of our monsters, who fans of such films might recognize as the creature from I Was a Teenage Werewolf. We dissolve from there to see the actor Larry Drake (Gary Clarke), made up as the creature admiring his transformation at the hands of make-up wizard Pete Dumond (Robert H. Harris, in one of his few acting roles that was not for television) and his assistant Rivero (Paul Binegar).

After a little banter, Dumond accompanies our made-up Larry to the set, walking through the studio lot while getting a lot of stares in admiration of the craftsmanship. They’re on their way to the set, ready for a scene to be shot with the monster from I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, played by actor Tony Manetll (Gerry Conway).

(Interestingly, the original star of Teenage Frankenstein is under the same makeup here, but they went with a different actor under the other makeup job, possibly because original teen werewolf Michael Landon was overbooked doing westerns for TV…)

While Dumond is in a self-congratulatory mood, he’s visited by two reps from the company that just bought the studio, Jeff Clayton (Paul Maxwell) and John Nixon (Eddie Marr). The two have shown up personally to let Dumond know that he’s being terminated, as the new owners want to move away from doing monster films in favor of musicals and comedies.

This doesn’t sit well with the makeup maestro, who in his anger and sorry gets the inspiration as to how to deal with the crisis:

His plan’s simple: Rework the foundation makeup by adding an extra ingredient that would act like Novocaine (which unlike the powder we see on screen comes in a liquid form), thereby putting the leads of the picture under his control. Their wills sapped, these saps are made (up) to take hypnotic suggestions from Dumond to kill Clayton and Nixon, then forget they committed murder.

And at first the plan looks to be working well. The LAPD investigation headed by Captain Hancock (Morris Ankrum) is spinning its wheels, not even considering the makeup men as suspects in the beginning. The only person who might be on the verge of breaking the case is ambitious studio security guard Monahan (Dennis Cross), who makes the unfortunate mistake of sharing his suspicions with Dumond, who decides to kill him himself after he dons his own makeup…

One mystery that comes up is: Why? Why does Dumond go through the effort to don makeup to kill someone, if it means an unnecessary waste of time and resources? If he’s successful, it’s not like Monahan’s going to tell anyone, is he…?

For that matter, there’s the whole premise itself, that a makeup artist who works on monsters would be washed up when the studio closes up shop. In real life, famous monster makeup artists Jack P. Pierce and William Tuttle found their services in demand on more conventional projects long after their most famous creations wrapped their time on the set. Maybe there is some psychological issue here we need to be made aware of, one that we don’t see just by watching Harris, who barely varies his delivery between his emotional states.

There’s a lot else that doesn’t work here. About the only interesting thing Strock does as a director is to have the film transition from black-and-white to color in an innovative way for its last ten minutes, though by that point, the script doesn’t give him much to work with when the change comes. Every other actor feels like they’re trying harder than Harris to wrestle something out of their lines, but the script by Aben Kandel and Herman Cohen (who has a small role as the screening room projectionist that can’t offer much to the cops) doesn’t serve them well wither.

It feels like the worst part of the project, the one to blame above all the other failings, is the screenplay, which feels pedantic and flat. It feels as you watch the film, more of a police procedural than a horror film, that there’s just nothing interesting being told in this story.

Or is there…?

Note that there never was a physical A-I studio; this is actually Ziv Studios, a TV production company that was just stood in for A-I for this picture…

There are a few scenes where the characters of Clayton and Nixon are talking about the business of Hollywood, to each other and anyone else in the frame. In between inane murders and sloppy deductions, they both note how the business is changing, in particular how companies from back east are coming in to buy studios and run them as they see fit, with little in loyalty to anyone working for the studios. As far as they’re concerned, though, anyone shown the door should be able to start working for television productions popping up in town.

At the same time the film was produced and released, two of the bigger players in town were going through that themselves. Over at MGM, Dory Schary was fired by the east coast investors after the studio lost money. To staunch the bleeding, they released their contract players, many of whom transitioned into television. Meanwhile, out-of-towners the Music Company of America acquired Universal Pictures, bringing major changes to the way they do business.

From (l-r) Mobster and film producer John Rosselli and Frank DeSimone, who ultimately becomes capo of the LA mob in 1958.

At one point, Nixon notes in passing the parallels between mobsters coming to Los Angeles and corporate executives. He mentions how in both cases, the conflict is between east coast and west coast interests, the big difference being that the mob’s more likely to murder rivals. This is noted on a few years after the east coast mob’s on-the-spot person, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, was hit in his girlfriend’s Beverly Hills home, and the film came out just as Frank DeSimone wrestled control over LA’s organized crime outfit from John Rosselli, who left town when the family decided who would be the new head.

Kandel and Cohen, who were also producers for the film, were likely to have been aware of all of this as they came up with the script. As executives, they most likely followed the trades and possibly knew some of the players at the bigger studios. They’re also might have known about Roselli, who in addition to his mob activities, was also a fellow producer, best known for his film Canon City, who set up his shingle at the time at Monogram Studios.

They probably decided that the only way they could dish on all of this was to put it in a horror movie, which is often how sensitive subjects are initially brought up with the public at large if anyone felt there were problems with giving folks the actual story.

Mind you, a few decades later, we could have had the unvarnished story of LA’s old studios and mobsters having to fight off the forces from back east, but at the time we could only get a fantasy with a few gems of truth woven into a tale where the details don’t really click the harder you look into it.

Kind of like the kind of stories usually told by narcissists…


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