How to Make a Monster (1958)

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fourstar

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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.

-Brandon Ledet

I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957)

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three star

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If there’s any doubt of my contention that the 50s drive-in creature feature I Was a Teenage Werewolf was a zeitgeist shift in its first-ever depiction of a teenager-turned-monster as its central threat, just look to the fact that the film’s wild cultural success lead to an immediate onslaught of imitators. There are countless movies that have followed in the cult classic’s wake that all turned the horrors of puberty into literal monstrous transformations, far too many to list here. There are even enough teen werewolf movies that followed that the plot device can be considered its own genre: Teen Wolf, Ginger Snaps, Cursed, Twilight, and, from the very same year as the original, Teenage Monster all fit snugly under its umbrella.

More often than not, though, Hollywood producers will learn the exact wrong lessons from a film’s success. So, when Sam Arkoff & AIP decided to strike while the iron was hot with a follow-up to their surprise hit I Was a Teenage Werewolf, they ended making a film that was nothing like the wild idiosyncrasy of the original. I Was a Teenage Frankenstein completely missed the point of why I Was a Teenage Werewolf struck it big with drive-in audiences. In the werewolf picture teens watched their peers talk hip slang (or at least what adult screenwriters assumed was hip slang), rough house, make-out, and transform into hideous beasts at the cruel hands of puberty. I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, by contrast, shows almost no teens at all during its entire runtime. Even the titular teenage Frankenstein monster appears to be a man well into his 20s (not that you ever get a good enough look at the actor to really make a judgement call on that).

The one thing I Was a Teenage Frankenstein did keep from I Was a Teenage Werewolf‘s formula was the idea of a mad scientist experimenting on teen subjects. In the original a rogue scientist plots to “save” the world by bringing man back to a primitive state through hypnosis-aided de-evolution. In the Frankenstein version of this story, an equally ambitious man of science (and direct descendant of the more infamous Dr. Frankenstein, of course) wants to save the world by creating some kind of superbeing out of disposed body parts. His exact goals are a lot fuzzier than his werewolf-creating predecessor’s, but they have something to do with experimental eugenics & bodily reconstruction due to a belief that the world is in danger because morons keep breeding morons. He believes he can do a better job of constructing the human body than God & Nature. Gathering the pieces-parts of his teenage specimens from a head-on car crash, the doctor creates a modern Frankenstein monster in total secrecy, even keeping his lab assistant & nosy fiancee in the dark. Inevitably the experiment gets out of his control & the monster ends up killing a few unsuspecting victims, both by accident & through coercion, despite having a genuinely kind teenage heart resting in his undead body.

You pretty much can guess how this film winds up, which is largely what holds I Was a Teenage Frankenstein back from achieving the glorious heights of its predecessor. Rushed to theaters less than five months after the release of I Was a Teenage Werewolf, the film feels like it was made without any real knowledge of what even happened in its source material, let alone what made it popular. The only teens I can recall seeing in the picture arrive in the final third during a brief trip to a Lovers’ Lane parking lot in the monster’s search for a new face, which separates the film so far from its lycanthrope counterpart that it’s a wonder they even share a title the way they do. Still, as a standard drive-in era monster movie the film is a surprisingly decent watch. The teen Frankenstein’s monster make-up is downright grotesque in its hamburger meat visage, the doctor’s fiancee has a sincerely great gravitas to her performance, and the doctor’s disposal method for unused body parts is to feed them to a stock footage alligator, which is something of my schlock-loving dreams. I also really appreciated the doctor’s relentless cruelty, which was surprising in its viciousness even for a villain in a monster movie. For instance, when he first brings his creation to life, the teen freak immediately weeps at the crushing weight of its own existence & the doctor exclaims, “It appears even its tear ducts function!” That’s pretty cold. I Was a Teenage Frankenstein may have missed the point of its more teen-oriented predecessor’s success, but it stands well enough on its own as a straight-forward genre exercise with a heartless villain & a truly horrific monster design.

-Brandon Ledet