A friend recently gifted me a double-feature DVD of the 1957 exploitation hits, “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” with Michael Landon and “I Was a Teenage Frankenstein” with Gary Conway. Mind you, neither has been officially released on disc (for whatever outrageous, absurdly overdue reason), so yes, it’s actually pirate transfers I possess, but mum should be the world on that.
In the past, I have religiously revisited these movies via VHS and various televised and YouTube offerings. Re-watching the films recently reminded me how, as a kid, I thought it would be cool if the two, young monsters teamed in a “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man” type outing. You can imagine how thrilled I was to discover that in 1958, AIP had fulfilled that very wish, but in a different fashion than expected.
The sequel to “Teen Wolf”/”Teen Frank” is Herbert L. Strock's “How to Make a Monster” (which incidentally is officially available under Lions Gate’s “Cult Classics” label, with “Blood of Dracula’: aka, “Blood Is My Heritage”, which may otherwise have been termed “I Was a Teenage Vampire”, but that’s another story for another time). Film buffs certainly understand why this entry is special, but the less experienced may find it surprising to discover that “How to Make a Monster” is, in truth, about the making of a team-up monster film. (The movie-making concept has been used since, of course, in “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare”, "Shadow of the Vampire" and Full Moon’s “Gingerdead Man 2”, but “How to Make a Monster” indisputably set the standard and would prove a most engaging effort even if erroneously perceived as a stand-alone.)
Although Gary Conway is back, Gary Clarke assumes the role that Landon would have otherwise played. (According to legend, Landon did not appear in “How to Make a Monster” due to the crass chiding his received from peers over “Teen Wolf”.) In actuality, though, the characters that Conway and Clarke play aren’t teen monsters per se, but rather the young actors, Larry and Tony, who are portraying them in an upcoming horror film. The antagonist (or should I say, protagonist, for the sake of this counter-culture sampling) is a Jack Pierce-styled make-up artist named Pete Dumond, sympathetically portrayed by Robert H. Harris (who in a fairer, more open-minded scheme of things, would have been Oscar nominated). Like Whit Bissell’s mad doctors in “Teen Wolf” and “Teen Frank”, Dumond has an assistant, simply known as Rivero (and played with comparable sympathy by Paul Brinegar), who faithfully and tremulously assists the monster-maker even when things turn murderously weird.
Trouble starts when, while working on the upcoming “Werewolf Meets Frankenstein”, Dumond and Rivero are informed their services will no longer be needed, that the studio will abandon monster pictures all together and cater exclusively to fun-filled musicals. Dumond is deeply hurt by this disrespectful and snobbish verdict, and in his zeal to get even, concocts a cosmetic formula that, once applied to the skin, allows one to assume (via the enhancement of hypnosis) any lethal persona, along with all the related unscrupulous qualities. At one point, Dumond even uses the substance on himself, amping himself up psychologically via a caveman design (insinuated as being based on one of his earlier, cinematic jobs) to kill an overly persistent studio guard (portrayed with just the right pomous assurity by Dennis Cross). Dumond also applies the concoction to Larry and Tony, completing their full monster make-ups while entrancing them to go forth and slay those directly involved in the termination decision.
Character-actor Malcom Atterbury (who touchingly plays Landon’s father in the original “Teen Wolf” and who many “Twlight Zone” fans will readily recall as the magical elixir peddler in Rod Serling’s “Mr. Denton on Doomsday”) has a supporting role as a congenial, older security guard here. John Ashley, who would later gain monster fame with the Filipino “Blood Island” films, performs a rock 'n’ roll tune with an alluring blonde wearing nylons, a leather jacket and motorcycle helmet (who quickly strips her attire and is then joined by a processoin of additional scantily clad beauties) in a test-run moment for an evidently intended, Elvis-esqe musical.
Structurally, “How To Make a Monster” is patterned after “Teen Wolf”, “Teen Frank”, “Blood of Drac” and even to some extent, “Invasion of the Saucer Men”, featuring pathos, tension, levity and hip music. However, while the likes of “Teen Wolf”, “Teen Frank” and “Blood of Drac” are monsterized versions of “Rebel Without a Cause”. “How to Make a Monster” taps into middle-age/senior-citizen angst, while still offering a subtle nod the younger, anti-authority crowd. It shows that wrong can be done to any person who has his heart in the right place, has paid his evident dues, only to have snobbery slash his convictions. On this basis, when Dumond triggers his murderous scheme, we end up rooting for him, even though he’s clearly overstepped the line.
The finale of “How to Make a Monster” is a genuine treat, phasing into color (just as the ending of “Teen Frank” does, but in this instance, the footage being considerably longer) and presenting a few of Paul Blaisdell’s beloved AIP specimens--“Beulah, the Cucumber Monster” from “It Conquered the World”, a Saucerman and the She Creature--all proudly displayed within Dumond’s lovely living room. In essence, we’re granted access to a veritable, stationary famous-monsters rally, which though brief, more than supplies the required lurid eyeful.
“How To Make a Monster” is unquestionably worth-while viewing, whether for the first time or a nostalgic revisitation: indeed, much different than what it could have been, but extremely memorable for its daring thematic angle. Check it out and add on “Teen Wolf” and “Teen Frank” as lead-ins. Pretend you’re watching ‘em at a drive-in theater. You’ll really dig the experience, daddio!(PS: The film was quasi-remade under the same title in 2001, as part of Stan Winston’s revisionist AIP “Creature Features” cable-movie series, with a cameo from action-movie star and Penthouse Pet of the Year, Julie Strain. However, instead of focusing on a hallucinogenic cosmetic to propel the suspense, the “remake” caters to the construction of a dangerous, video-game spawned entity. Though not as unique as the original, this offbeat redo is still a swell way to pass the time.)