Sunday, October 18, 2015

Monster Team-up Reflection #27: The Hilarious House of Frightenstein

Produced in Canada by Riff "Randy Dandy" Markowitz in '71 and nurtured by the talented Billy Van (noted for his varied roles on "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour"), "Hilarious House of Frightenstein" was (and still is) a dream come true for monster fans, young and old alike. It became a monster-rally staple of after-school viewing (premiering in U.S. syndication in '74), right along with "The Addams Family", "The Munsters", "Ultraman" and "Johnny Sokko".

In addition to Van, the show featured other splendid actors who figured into its various vignettes, including Fishka Rais as Igor; Julius Sumner Miller, the "Mickey Mouse Club" resident Professor; Mark Markowitz as Super Hippy (a trippy version of the Man of Steel); Guy Big as mini, fanged Van; and the great Vincent Price, hosting the opening/closing credits and offering fun, creepy commentary among the bits. 

The majority of the roles, however, were Van's (though abetted by Bob Laden's excellent make-ups), with the flamboyant, green-skinned, Lugosi-pitched Count Frightenstein leading the pack. Frightenstein was a Dracula offspring, temporary master of Castle Frightenstein and doomed to fumble in his attempts to bring Brucie, the Frankenstein Monster (a mannequin in a Don Post Karloff mask) to life. Like "Groovie Ghoulies", which used a rapid-fire "Laugh-In" format to entertain its audience, Van would take viewers though a series of swift scenarios, each containing his eclectic homages.

Van's characters included the Wolfman (a merging of Lon Chaney Jr.'s legendary lycanthrope and DJ personality, Wolfman Jack), who'd play (and dance, along with Igor) to hit tunes by Three Dog Night and Sly and the Family Stone, before a psychedelic backdrop; the giddy Grizelda, the Ghastly Gourmet, a cross between EC's eerie host and Aurora's Salem Witch model kit; the Librarian, a haggard, old gent who (in the Count Floyd vein) would try to scare viewers with nursery rhymes and offbeat fables; the Oracle, a clumsy fortune teller with Peter Lorre's intonation; the Maharishi, an equally questionable mystic/hippy guru, who was showered by flowers at the end of each skit; the knowledgeable Pet Vet, who along with adventurer Bwana Clyde Batty (host of "Zany Zoo"), would supply facts pertaining to visiting animals; and last but not least, the Gorilla, who'd leap from a fabricated jungle only to be struck down by ping-pong balls. 

Most of the interaction took place between Frightenstein and Igor, where Van and Reis let their comical timing take hold. Sometimes Igor would be the focus, engaging with the offscreen Grammar Slammer (Joe Torbay) and the onscreen Bammer, a large, purple puppet voiced by Van, who would intimidate Igor into correcting his syntax.

In this regard, "Frightenstein" wasn't shy about teaching kids valuable tidbits, but done in a way to make the process enjoyable. At other times, the antics were just fun for the sake of fun, offering an hour (or in the case of the U.S. re-edits, a half hour) of ecstatic escape. 

The series, which consisted of 130 installments in its original Canadian run, was one of the last children's shows to be hosted by live actors, even though unlike similar shows that came before it, "Frightenstein" didn't host a live audience. In fact, most of "Frightenstein" was taped over a nine-month period, with Price's footage captured during a summer sojourn. (For the record, Van and Price never met, though their vignettes smoothly mesh.)

For whatever odd reason, "Frightenstein" fell out favor by the late  '70s, but has since resurfaced on DVD, and reruns can still be found on current cable channels. 

The series, indeed, deserves another look, and for children jaded by the bland, "it's-good-for-you", mainstream fodder, this series will be a welcome, eye-opener. For parents (or any adult who simply grew up with the show), watching Van and the gang indulge in their shenanigans will prove a happy-go-lucky excursion: a macabre, '70s Vaudeville concoction that anyone into the imaginative-know will surely savor. 

(FYI: The popular, Canadian horror magazine, Rue Morgue, #62: November 2006, paid tribute to "Frightenstein" with a Van interview, conducted not long before his passing. Most insightful and well worth seeking.)

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