How to Make a Monster
Release Date: Nov. 10, 2020 | $22.99 | Region Coding: A
1958 | US | 73 mins | 1.85:1 | English language | B&W
Writer: Kenneth Langtry and Herman Cohen
Director: Herbert L. Strock
Starring: Robert H. Harris, Gary Conway, Gary Clarke
What I find interesting about movies, and more specifically the horror genre, is that there are seasons within the business where movies of a certain type all seem to come out around the same time. The early 80s saw the dawn of slasher movies. And then in the late 90s, Wes Craven's Scream led a slasher movie renaissance. The Walking Dead seemed to spawn a spate of zombie movies in the 2010s. Studios like Universal and American International were cranking out monster movies like the bevy of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and The Wolf Man pictures we got in the 40s and 50s. But just as it had back then and just as it does in 2020, national and international mindsets shift and the public starts craving something different. The 2000s brought us “torture porn” after America declared war on terrorism. By 2008 the world was sick of the war on terror, though, and we shifted to zombies. The taste of the people is an ever-fluid beast that never seems to be sated.
The beauty of Herbert L. Strock's How to Make a Monster is that it shows us exactly what this cultural shift felt by movie studios was like in real time. The movie came out in 1958, just as AIP was moving away from monster movies. It follows Pete Dumond (Robert H. Harris), a master makeup effects artist for American International Studios a la Jack Pierce, whose work on the teenage monster movies made him a celebrity on the lot. But times, they are a-changin' and the kids are done with monsters and want rock n roll now. That means Pete's talents are no longer needed. Because of this, Pete creates a new makeup foundation that essentially hypnotizes his young actors, giving him control over their minds and bodies. Pete exacts his revenge on studio execs, security guards, and colleagues who he blames for his firing. The movie ends in a direct rip of the opening scene of Andre de Toth's House of Wax where Pete and his wax masks go down in a blaze of glory.
Thanks to the commentaries on this disc I learned that, aside from the murder, this was exactly what was happening in these movie studios at the time. Geniuses like Jack Pierce were now out of work because the monster movie craze was over. In a scene that seems out of place at first but upon another watch seems perfectly at home in this story, John Ashely performs a rock n roll song in a movie being shot on the American International Studios lot. The song comes right after men in suits explain that kids want singing and dancing and beach parties now. Around the same time Monster was filmed, Ashley was making movies like Dragstrip Girl, Motorcycle Gang, and Hod Rod Gang – movies about rebellious teens and loud motors. Monsters movies were on their way out during this time, and How to Make a Monster is sort of a eulogy of the time.
The film explores several different topics, intentionally or not. On the surface its mourning the death of sub-genre producer and writer Herman Cohen was passionate about. Cohen began his producing career like so many with westerns. And then in 1957 he wrote two scripts that set the course for the rest of his producing days. I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein were hits, but just as they hit their mark the culture shifted away from monsters. The following year brought Cohen's lamentation with How to Make a Monster, and from that point on it was the horror genre for Cohen, whether the kids wanted to watch his movies or not. So Monster is Herman Cohen's heat-on-sleeve picture, if you will.
The movie also examines the toxic relationship between older men and younger men. Whether Cohen meant for this to be such a prominent storyline or not, it's very obvious and stands out in today's culture. Pete, an older man who these young actors look up to, wields that power and uses these boys to do his bidding. The movie's climax sees Pete inviting these young men to his house for drinks. In the #MeToo era this plot point hits hard. Pete's ultimate demise isn't because of cultural shifts or studio executives. It's because Pete – an middle-aged white man who was on top of the world for a little bit – got a taste of a little bit of power and now doesn't want to let it go. He knows exactly what he's doing and shows zero remorse for doing it. It's an all too common story, and it just goes to show you it's been happening forever.
Scream Factory has put out another gorgeous release of a movie I never would have heard of otherwise. The film gets a brand new 2K film scan of a fine grain print. The black and white photography is beautiful, but when the movie shifts to color during the final scene it's stunningly jarring. There is a brand new featurette called How to Make a Monster Movie Maker: Herman Cohen at AIP that tells the story of the producer and his love of the medium. There is a filmed Q&A with actors Gary Clarke and Gary Conway from Monster Bash a few years ago that is really fun and shows the charisma of these two actors. And we get two brand new commentaries of the film. The first is by author/screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner and film historian David Del Valle. Bring a pen and paper when you listen to this track because the sheer number of titles these two drop is astounding. There is zero downtime on this commentary, with Del Valle and Joyner just sharing stories of their experiences in the film business. The second commentary is by Tom Weaver, possibly my favorite name to show up on a disc nowadays. Like I mentioned in my Curse of the Undead review, Weaver has the tone of voice that I could listen to for hours. He could read the phone book and I would still be mesmerized. As in Curse (and I'm assuming on other commentaries he's done), Weaver brings along a small voice cast to reenact interviews he's done with the different players involved in the film.
Take it from me, if you're a fan of Svengoolie and the movies he typically shows on Saturday nights, you're going to love How to Make a Monster. It shows the winding down of the hey-day of monster movies, but it's also an inside look at the world. It shows an aspect of the horror genre that drew most of us in in the first place, and the horrors that occur when you remove that aspect.