I had previously complained in a recent review that the film I Was a Teenage Frankenstein had moved away so far from the original formula of its predecessor I Was a Teenage Werewolf that the two films had almost no reason to share a title at all (except, of course, for the former to make a quick dollar off the latter’s notoriety). I Was a Teenage Werewolf was a huge financial & cultural success largely due to its first-ever depiction of a teenager transforming into a murderous monster, a basic concept it’s near-impossible to imagine modern horror without. I Was a Teenage Frankenstein was then rushed out within five months of that film’s release and, although it boasted an impressively cruel villain & killer monster design, the film featured no actual teenagers to speak of, completely missing the point of its predecessor’s success. The bridge that actually connects these two disparate works wasn’t to come until a year later.
1958’s How to Make a Monster combines the monsters from I Was a Teenage Werewolf & I Was a Teenage Frankenstein into a single picture, but not in the way that you’d expect. Much like how the second film in the series moved away from the Teenage Werewolf original’s formula for success & originality, How to Make a Monster ventured even further out to sea and somehow found its own legs to stand on as a unique work of meta horror. Instead of staging a logical physical altercation of the Teenage Werewolf & Teenage Frankenstein from the previous pictures, How to Make a Monster instead depicts a movie production of that altercation. Set on the American International Pictures movie lot, the film centers on the make-up artist who created the look of the Teenage Werewolf & Teenage Frankenstein and his mental unraveling during the production of a film where the two monsters meet onscreen. It’s the exact kind of meta horror weirdness I was a huge sucker for in Wes Craven films like New Nightmare (except maybe a little cheaper & a little goofier) and it works like gangbusters.
Much like with the first two films, the only narrative through-line How to Make a Monster holds with its loosely-connected franchise is the idea of a mad scientist exploiting innocent teenagers in their experimental medicine. Instead of trying to save the world through treacherous experimentation like in the first two pictures, however, this mad scientist is a make-up artist trying to save the monster movie as a genre. Once he discovers that he’s been laid off by the studio due to the decline in monster movie popularity, our dastardly mastermind applies hypnosis through homemade experimental make-up to turn his two latest creations, Teenage Frankenstein & Teenage Werewolf, into literal monsters that “scare” studio heads into changing their minds . . . by murdering them. There’s a lot of industry talk in How to Make a Monster about the artistry of monster movie make-up, the cycles of genre films’ popularity, typecasting among horror actors, and the “therapeutic” qualities of horror films for audiences that all make the movie feel like a love letter to the industry. A lot of the movie works like a pretty standard monster movie genre piece, but the rest holds such a high reverence for cheap horror as a finely-crafted artistry that its reliance on the genre’s basic tropes actually serve the film well.
If you’re going to watch just one film in this franchise I highly recommend sticking with I Was a Teenage Werewolf. It’s a rare example of a cheap drive-in monster flick that actually finds high art in its genre trappings & taps into the subconscious fears that spring from puberty in an oddly authentic way. However, How to Make a Monster does a great job of molding that past success in horror filmmaking into an entirely new format. It’s a standard monster movie in terms of its monstrous thrills, but it repurposes those tropes into a meta, self-reflective work that genuinely surprised me in its genre innovation. The film functions nicely as a connector between the Teenage Werewolf & Teenage Frankenstein flicks that came before it, but it also stands firmly on its own as a unique work in the 50s drive-in horror genre, especially in the way it reflects on what that genre is & what it means to the American movie-going public.