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.