Oct 31, 2007

In 1926 at the age of 10, Forrest J Ackerman bought his first science fiction magazine and it altered his life. At 13, he started a science fiction club and as a teenager he was getting letters published in most of the pulp magazines of the day. He attended the world's first Science Fiction Convention wearing a costume (putting him in the running for the world's first hard core fanboy), published the first science fiction fanzine and coined the phrase "sci-fi". (A phrase I happen to love and still use, showing hard SF readers that I am truly a hack.)

In 1957, Ackerman who was working as a literary agent for many science fiction writers had a meeting with publisher James Warren in New York. While this meeting is the stuff of legends, it started as a simple business lunch. Two guys figuring out how to best use one another and make a few bucks in the process.

Ackerman had with him a French film magazine that paid tribute to the old black & white horror films. The magazine interested Warren and the two talked about a one-shot American version of the mag. "Forrey" (Ackerman's nickname) mentioned he had collected somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 thousand movie stills which would come in handy for just such a project. (How's that for understatement?)

The next meeting was in Forrey's 18 room mansion in Southern California which was filled ceiling to floor with unbelievable movie treasures. Convinced they were on to something, Warren stayed in LA as he and Ackerman created the magazine's content in a couple of weeks.

The 2 man team team aimed the writing squarely at kids. They filled the project with the same puns and goofy humor you heard from local horror hosts. Warren chose the pictures and Ackerman wrote the articles filled with the tidbits, he had acquired from 30 years sci-fi & horror collecting. The magazine couldn't have been more authentic. or come at a better time.

Famous Monsters of Filmland was released in January of 1958. For the cover, Warren dressed in a smoking jacket and a Frankenstein Mask in a sort of twisted homage to the "Playboy" lifestyle and two hundred thousand copies were printed. The magazine was so popular it went to press a second time and a magazine legend was born.

There's no way to overstate the impact of Famous Monsters. The magazine became a flashpoint for an undiscovered fandom. Kids who thought they were the only ones who loved monsters found they weren't alone. In their enthusiasm, they wrote stories, made home movies, started clubs, illustrated their own comics and found world wide pen pals. For the monster consumer, ads in the back of the mag offered posters, books, makeup, masks and hundreds more monster products no respectable monster kid wanted to live without. The atomic age of monsters had arrived.

Oct 29, 2007

Birth of the Monster Kid

Television was hungry for content. with 168 hours of possibility in a week, TV couldn't make shows fast enough. Networks and stations were asking studios for movies from the very beginning but studios were having none of that.

At first they believed that TV was a passing fad and then they began to see it as the enemy. Movie studios believed it was televisions fault that movie ticket sales were down. Studios circled their wagons and refused to budge.

But TV found films in public domain and then a few far sighted cowboys who owned their old films, leased them to television and made a bundle. Movie studios realized their vaults were filled with silver to be mined and they began to make TV deals.

In Los Angeles, television producer Hunt Stromburg Jr. spots a Finnish actress at a Hollywood masquerade ball. Maila Nurmi wins first prize at the ball dressed as the spooky & stately character with an hourglass figure from Charles Addams New Yorker Cartoons. The unnamed character eventually evolves into Morticia Addams of the Addams Family, but first she spawns an undead army of late night ghouls with a twisted sense of what's funny.

Stromburg hires Nurmi and the two transform Addams nameless femme fatale into Vampira, a sexy vampire with a macabre sense of humor. Vampira is created to host ABC's late night movies in Los Angeles. Her show airs May 1, 1954 on KABC in Los Angeles and the world's first horror host(ess) is born.

Just three weeks into the new show, Newsweek runs an article on Vampira and a less than a month later, she has a 2 page spread in Life magazine. Independent Stations all over the country recognize the potential and an undead army of horror hosts rises from the late night television landscape.

Television's midnight matinees attract quite a following. Using old movies, cheap sets, bad makeup, amateur skits, and lame puns, horror hosts create a counter culture. The ghoulish humor attracts a loyal teen audience always looking for something to mock and because young kids want to be doing what the older kids are doing, it also attracts a younger crowd.

Kids who would be scared spitless in a theater, curl up on the couch and watch the scary parts between their fingers with regular commercial breaks where strange hosts like Zacherley (new York) & Ghoulardi (Cleveland) remind them not to take any of it too seriously.

In 1958 Screen Gems packaged 52 of Universal's horror movies into a bundle called "Shock Theater" and sold it to independent stations all across the United States. Included in that Package was Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Wolf Man. Kids saw Universal's grand slam of horror for the first time and it was love at first fright.

America's monster kid is about to rise from the slab.

Oct 26, 2007

Universal Monsters Part Last

In the early 50's, ticket sales were down in theaters and studios were looking for gimmicks. Cinerama movies opened in NY and 20th Century Fox was playing with Cinemascope. A 3-D process was shopped around to the studios but no one was interested except producer Arch Obeler. He released his 3-D Bwana Devil in March 1953 and the fad swept the country. Studios took a second look and put their own 3-D pics into production. Universals first choice was Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).

Of Universal's monster stable, I always liked the Creature the best and I don't really know why. I didn't see the movie when I was a kid. (I was a big wuss and even the barely spooky movies scared the crap out of me) and I don't remember the first time I saw it on TV. It seems to be a design thing. The creature just looks ... cool. Part fish, sort of froggie with an eye for the ladies. Not your typical leading man but he has his own kind of manimal magnetism.

Although uncredited at the movie's release, there were actually two different guys in the creature suit. Six foot five Ben Chapman played the creature in all his above water lumbering while Ben's underwater double was Ricoh Browning, a five foot ten swimmer from Florida. The foam & latex monster suits were custom cast to fit each of the two men and since they weren't in scenes together, the height difference wasn't noticeable. Neither suit was equipped with an air tank so some scenes required serious breath control.

The Creature spawned 2 sequels; Revenge of the Creature (1955) & The Creature Walks Among Us (1956). In the third film, doctors operate on the Gillman, in an attempt to make him more human. They also put him in pants and a goofy padded jacket which killed the series and even though there have been 3 or 4 serious attempts to bring him back, the creature has been floating in cinematic limbo for 5 decades.

For Universal, ol' gill face is end of the line. He is the last of Universal's classic monsters and you would think the story ends here but it doesn't. America's fascination with old black & white monster movies actually increases in the 60's. Dracula and friends had one last bash before they crawled back to the crypt and what a long strange crawl it was.

NEXT: Monster kids of the 50's & 60's owe their souls to an illustrator for the New Yorker, a beautiful Finnish model, the world's first sci-fi geek and that blue glowing cyclops with rabbit ears.

Oct 24, 2007

Universal Monsters Part 4

By the end of the 1940's Universal had defanged and declawed it's monster mill. Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney Jr. played in an infinite combination of horror films with rambling names like the Ghostly Son of Frankenstein in the Mummy's Castle Risen From the Grave. And when Universal had plucked every feather and squeezed every egg from their ghastly golden goose, they chopped it up and served it as comic pate in Abbott & Costello Films.

Movie monsters from the 1950's took on a new look. Mother Nature took her revenge on those who nuked her and unleashed giant ants, spiders and Gila monsters hell bent on eating isolated desert communities. UFOs also patrolled the skies.

The new movie monsters were bigger and meaner than they had ever been before. Monsters didn't come into your room like a mist and drain the life of one person at a time, these guys stomped on your house or unleashed a death ray on the whole neighborhood. This isn't your fathers Frankenstein baby, these are nuclear giants and alien thugs, sent here to eat you or beat you.

And teenagers loved it.

Kids with cars became it's own kind of hungry social monster and businesses scrambled to feed the beast. Two of the big winners were drive in restaurants and drive in movies. It seemed if kids weren't at one, they were at the other. Both were inexpensive and kept you out of the house for hours. To keep costs down, drive-in restaurants went to simple menus with cheap food and Drive-in theaters did the same. First run movies were expensive so outdoor theaters ran two cheap flicks for the price of one.

This market for cheap film also gave young wannabee producers and directors a new market with a new formula. Make a film in under 30 days. Add a menacing monster, give it a cool name and a cooler poster and cash in. The formula worked surprisingly well and insect wranglers and monster makers found steady work in Hollywood.

Oct 23, 2007

Universal Monsters Part 3 The Chaney Dynasty

Over the years, there's been a persistent rumor that when Universal first bought the movie rights to Dracula, they wanted Lon Chaney Sr. as their "Count". Considering Universal's track record with Chaney, the choice made sense. He had made big money for the studio in his roles as Quasimodo in " The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923) and Erik the Phantom in "Phantom of the Opera".(1927).

In his time, Lon Chaney was known as "The Man of a Thousand Faces". He used his talents as both actor and makeup artist to become one of Hollywood's top stars of the silent era. Chaney would use every bit of stage craft and technology at his disposal to create a role from the outside in. Audiences were fascinated with his ability to transform himself into characters with hideous deformities. As an actor, Chaney had found a way to make these characters physically scary and yet emotionally vulnerable. This knack for making monsters likable, scared thousands of people into the theaters of the 20's. It was a prime reason for the box office success of both Phantom & Hunchback and created the foundation of good cinema horror.

If the rumor of Chaney as Dracula is at all true, Universal had a few big problems to solve before Chaney could have donned the fangs. For one thing, he was now under contract with MGM. I don't know enough of Lon's personal history to say why he decided to move to another studio, but I'll bet it would have taken a lot of money and massage to get him back. I don't think Universal Studios had enough of either.

Sadly, the rumor became a moot point when Lon Chaney died from throat cancer in 1930. At the time of his death Lon Chaney was only 47 years old, but in his short time on the screen, he had shown movie audiences what great special effects makeup can do and he gave Universal it's first taste of big box office horror.

While the popularity of Dracula with Chaney in the lead can be debated, I can say with certainty that if he had taken the role, modern trick or treaters would need more than white face, plastic fangs and a cape to look like the "King of the Vampires."Basil Gogos illustration of Lon Chaney in his role as a vampire in "London After Midnight" (1927) Famous Monsters Magazine

Universal Monsters 3.1 Lon Chaney Jr. (The Sequal)

After the death of his father in 1930, Creighton Chaney decided to take acting seriously. The big shy 24 year old son of Lon Chaney was always drawn to his fathers profession but, he had only worked on the fringes of the business. More than one studio agreed to sign him to a contract if he would change his name to Lon Chaney Junior. Creighton refused and learned his craft doing bit parts and stunt work.

Finally after a few years in the trenches, Creighton agreed to change his name. The upside was a lot more parts, the downside was Hollywood assumed he knew as much about the business as his dad. Chaney's big break came when he played Lennie in John Steinbeck's "play-novelette" turned movie "Of Mice & Men" (1939). The favorable reviews got him a contract with Universal.

In 1941 "Junior "continued the Chaney monster dynasty by playing Lawrence Talbot, a young man who becomes a werewolf after trying to stop a vicious wolf attack. The Wolf Man (1941) was a success (yes, I could have said howling success, but sometimes it's just too easy) and Chaney played "Hairy" Larry for 5 or 6 more films in the 40's. In the endless parade of monster sequels he also played the Mummy, Dracula and Frankenstein's monster.

At the time of Creighton's death in 1973, he was especially proud of the fact he had played Talbot's every role on the big or small screen, a record that will stand until 2009 when Benicio Del Toro plays Larry Talbot in a modern remake of the original film.

It's not often two generations manage to leave a mark in the movie business, but both Lon and Creighton Chaney were good at finding and defining imaginative roles and the Chaney monster dynasty will be be part of movie history for a very long time. It helps that they managed to create a few memorable characters for a movie genre exceptionally good at remembering their dead.

Oct 17, 2007

Universal Monsters Part 1

His day job was managing the Lyceum Theater in England. To supplement his income, Bram Stoker wrote fiction novels. His best known novel is Dracula but did you know it wasn't very popular at the time it was released?

When Dracula was published in 1897 sales were brisk for a time, but tapered off soon after. To make matters worse, the release in the U.S. was mismanaged and the book was instantly in public domain which meant no American profits.

It's funny to think the worlds greatest vampire may have rotted away in his inky leather bound coffin if it hadn't been for a little cinematic grave robbing.

By 1922 when German director F. W. Merneau decided to adapt Dracula to silent film, the book was dead on the shelves. (lame vampire humor) To keep it on the cheap, Merneau didn't bother with rights to the book, he simply changed Dracula's name to Count Orlock and fudged a few details. Hey, it's not a bestseller or anything, who's going to know or care, right? Merneau's Expressionist film became successful and it came to the attention of Florence Stoker.

Florence was Bram Stokers wife and the executor of his estate since his death in 1912. She sued Merneau and since her husband had spent many years in the theater, Flo's case was supported in the public arena by many popular English stage actors of the time. Well, nothing like a little celebrity to spotlight a cause. The book began to sell again.

Hamilton Deane was a stage performer with his own British Touring Company. He had been touring with a stage adaptation of Frankenstein and was looking for something new. Because of Dracula's current publicity, Deane approached Flo Stoker. Having been a stage manager himself, Bram Stoker had always imagined Dracula as a play. It probably didn't take too long to get a yes from Stoker's wife.

Dracula opened in the Grand Theatre in Derby, England in 1925 and it was so successful, Deane created a second touring company. During it's run the play was seen by American entrepreneur Horace Liveright who bought the American rights. The New York version of the play opened in 1927 with Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi as Dracula.

When Universal bought movie rights, Lugosi lobbied hard for the part. The original plan had been to make Dracula a big budget movie with a big budget star but the late 20's were depression times and Universal was close to bankruptcy. To save money, the script became a basic rewrite of the play and Lugosi was finally hired because he agreed to work cheap.

Dracula was released Valentines Day 1931 and created a sensation. Lines for the movie circled the block and Dracula saved Universal's neck. (pun intended) The golden age of horror films had begun.