March 2, 2008

Frankenstein, 1958

1958 was a good year for monsters, with Frankenstein front and center.

TV stations across North America were cashing in on the popularity of the Shock Theater package of Universal horrors, bringing the classic monsters to a new generation of fans. Philadelphia-based publisher, James Warren, picked up on the monster buzz and launched a monster movie magazine. That's him posing on the first issue’s cover in a rubber Frankenstein mask.

Edited by Forrest Ackerman, Famous Monster of Filmland hit the streets 50 years ago, on February 27, to be exact, even as blizzards hammered the East Coast. Success was instantaneous. FM was the right magazine at the right time, and it became the keystone of the Monster Kid era.

Anyone who ever read an issue back then is bound to wax nostalgic, and nobody does it better than VideoWatchdog editor and blogger Tim Lucas in this recent post, an homage to Famous Monsters that is both loving and level-headed. A great read.

Simultaneous with Famous Monsters being released in North America, Hammer Films of England was busy wrapping up the immediate sequel to their 1957 worldwide blockbuster, The Curse of Frankenstein. Reuniting writer Jimmy Sangster, director Terence Fisher and star Peter Cushing, The Revenge of Frankenstein would come to be recognized by many as the best of a series that would eventually stretch to seven films. In this perverse tale, Cushing’s cruel Baron runs a charity hospital, culling body parts from his unlucky patients. Michael Gwynn plays Frankenstein’s brain-switched experiment who develops a taste for human flesh.

Hammer was also involved in a second Frankenstein project, an ill-fated television series, produced in partnership with Columbia Pictures’ TV arm, Screen Gems. The pilot for Tales of Frankenstein was entirely shot in America, co-written and directed by Curt Siodmak, screenwriter for Universal’s monster-mix pictures Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman (1943), and House of Frankenstein (1944). Don Megowan played a classic, old school Frankenstein Monster to Anton Diffring’s Cushing-like, upturned collar Baron. The two styles mixed uneasily and Hammer producer Michael Carreras was not pleased. Work on the project continued through the year, inevitably to sputter out. Some of the concepts developed by Hammer writers would find their way into the company’s subsequent Frankenstein films.

American-International Pictures, in Hollywood, also rushed to sequelize their own Frankenstein, with Gary Conway returning as the busted-headed Teenage Frankenstein in How To Make a Monster. The story deals with a crazed makeup man (Robert H. Harris) who, when he gets canned by the studio, mixes drugs and greasepaint, turning his monster movie actors into zombies to do his murderous bidding. Gary Clarke played a snaggletooth Teenage Werewolf, a part originated by Michael Landon. In typical AIP hyperbole, the film was advertised as being in “flaming color!”, but it was really in black and white up to the last reel, when it switched to color for the fiery climax.

Also in 1958, Boris Karloff, the actor most identified with Frankenstein, then as now, returned to the fold in a low-budget shocker called Frankenstein 1970. Karloff gamely plays a scar-faced Baron Frankenstein cooking up a new atomic-powered Monster in the castle’s basement. Six-foot eight wrestler Mike Lane played the Gumby-like, mummy-wrapped Monster.

An even cheaper and unabashedly schlocky production was Richard Cunha’s Frankenstein’s Daughter. Actually, the scientist was Frankenstein’s grandson — the Frankenstein film family is large and complex — who produces a singularly homely creature played by acromegalic character actor Harry Wilson. Legend is that makeup man Harry Thomas did not know the Monster’s head was supposed to be female, so he applied lipstick to the creature he had designed, and that did the trick. Wilson’s robot walk is hilarious and the whole film is kooky enough to be weirdly entertaining.

The final Frankenstein of 1958 stalked South of the border. The influence of Universal’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein echoed, ten years on, in El Castillo de los monstruos, in which comic Clavillazo encounters the Frankenstein Monster, a Gillman, a Werewolf, a Mummy, and the great German Robles in a cameo as Dracula. I blogged previously about this and other Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein Knockoffs. That post includes a link to a YouTube excerpt from the film.

A couple of Frankenstein-themed films rounded out the year. Colossus of New York is a minor but fascinating science-fiction thriller in which a towering robot is fitted with the brain of a Nobel Peace Prize winner. The experiment fritzes the donor’s humanitarian impulses and culminates in a showdown at the United Nations. Real-life giant Ed Wolff works the bulky, expressionless robot suit. He had previously played the big, clumsy, totem-headed robot in the 1939 Bela Lugosi serial, The Phantom Creeps.

And, finally, Alraune, aka Unnatural, was a German film made in 1952 and released in America in the Frankenstein year of 1958. The story of a soulless, artificially created woman had been filmed a number of times before, notably with Metropolis robot star Brigitte Helm playing the part twice, first in a silent version and then a talking remake. This version featured the striking Hildegard Knef as Alraune to Erich von Stroheim’s Frankensteinian scientist, Ted Brinken.

And so it was, fifty years ago, when the all-purpose Frankenstein Monster launched a legendary magazine… Drove Hammer Films’ sudden, steep, upward curve of success that would establish it as the premier studio of cinema horrors… Tail-ended AIP’s drive-in, teen-monster era, soon to evolve into the Corman-Price-Poe gothic sixties… Provided the venerable Boris Karloff with yet another mad scientist credit… And distinguished a handful of B-movies.

1958 was a good year for Frankenstein.


Anonymous said...

Hmmm. I was conceived in 1958. Analysts can make of that what they will...

Pierre Fournier said...

Looks like 1958 was a good year for Frankenstein, and you!

Alina Florence said...

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