It’s Friday the 13th, when some people take superstitions especially seriously, and movie companies think, feels like a horror film oughta open today. (At least they do when it’s more than two weeks after the wellspring, Halloween.) But it’s a great day to think about scary stuff.
I was too young to understand exactly what Lew Wasserman and the guys at Universal Studios were doing in the late Fifties, but when I was a lad, they played me like a violin that made Walt Disney’s sound screechy. Wasserman was the legendary agent who built Music Corporation of America (MCA), refined the studio system, and invented movie packaging. As more and more viewers turned from movie palaces to television, Wasserman was one of the few executives who was unafraid; he welcomed tv not as an interloper, but another revenue stream. By the mid-fifties, MCA owned the Universal lot (it would buy the studio outright in 1962) and Wasserman was intimately involved in studio decisions.
Starting with the blockbuster success of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME in 1923 (Lon Chaney, who played the title role, was the biggest star in movies at the time), Universal’s Carl Laemmle and his namesake son introduced audiences to a roster of horror characters still iconic today: Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Jekyll and Hyde, and many more. Chaney’s silent films were temporarily useless, but the classic sound features and their innumerable sequels were molding in the Universal vault, unseen for years. Wasserman’s masterstroke was to assemble and syndicate a group of monster pictures for local television stations. Universal’s “Shock Theater” package debuted in the fall of 1957, when I was seven.
Many of these movies look cheesy today, and cheesy they were (though not quite so much to a pre-tween). And most local stations emphasized the fun aspect by employing horror hosts who went for laughs. Philadelphia’s John Zacherle was one of the first and best, sometimes even letting the film soundtrack run on while the “Cool Ghoul” clowned for the camera. (He had a smash-hit novelty record, “Dinner With Drac,” in 1958.) Soon there were local hosts all over the country, and all of a sudden, monsters were an American kid craze: goodbye coonskin caps, hello vampire capes. (To the consternation of moms everywhere, who had found Davy Crockett far more wholesome.) James Warren and Forrest J Ackerman published a lavishly illustrated one-shot magazine called FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND in 1958 and almost immediately needed a second printing – unheard of in the magazine business. FM became a periodical.
The Los Angeles-based Ackerman had long been a well-respected member of science fiction fandom, a “Big-Name Fan,” or “BNF.” The field of imaginative literature was his life, and he was a collector and pack rat. He also adored the classic horror movies, which had all been made before his readers were born; the pages of FM educated them about Chaney and the historic silent stars, the contemporary impact of such landmark films as KING KONG, and the great directors and makeup artists who brought the “famous monsters” to life. A prodigious punster, Ackerman also crammed FM with winceable wordplay: he himself was “4e” (that is, Forry), or “Dr. Acula” from “Horrorwood, Karloffornia.” It was he who coined the term “sci-fi,” which irritates a certain serious strand of fandom: to them, that term describes not the literature but a ludicrous type of film popularized by Ackerman in his magazines. A fannish parody of a sea shanty from the period illustrates the snobs’ attitude: Oh, Ackerman was a BNF, but couldn’t stand the wages / So now he pubs a monster zine for eight-year mental ages…
No matter, kids lapped this stuff up like pudding: kids like me, kids like Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, Stephen King, George Lucas, Gene Simmons, Peter Jackson, John Landis, Tim Burton – we all devoured FM and couldn’t wait for the next issue. At the 1987 World Science Fiction Convention in Brighton, England, I found myself standing near Forry and his wife Wendy. I walked up, introduced myself, and said, “I can’t describe how much you mean to me. You inspired a love for science fiction and fantasy that will last for the rest of my life. Thank you so much.” Forry was kind and gracious, and as he turned to talk to another admirer, Wendy leaned over and said, “You can’t imagine how many other people have told Forry that same thing.” “Mr. Science Fiction” passed away last year at 92.
The monster craze kept burning brightly enough to inspire two sitcoms: THE MUNSTERS and THE ADDAMS FAMILY. In 1961, the Aurora Plastics company released the first of thirteen Universal monster kits; they were the biggest sellers in the company’s history. The next year, Bobby “Boris” Pickett followed Zacherle’s lead with a monster (in both senses of the word) hit, “Monster Mash.” Shock Theaters were still standard late-night weekend fare (some of them, augmented with newer movies, continued through the dawn of home video). But by now, there was a new kid in town: two, in fact.
I don’t know why Universal didn’t seize the day and remake, or re-envision, their classic Thirties and Forties monsters as movies; God knows the studio hadn’t been shy about sequels at the time. Perhaps Wasserman and company were happy enough with the money flowing in from Shock Theaters and from THE MUNSTERS, which they produced. (That’s why Fred Gwynne could wear the emblematic Frankenstein neck-bolts; though most of these characters came from public domain novels and folklore, the classic makeup designs, many created by the masterful Jack Pierce, belonged to Universal.) But it didn’t take long for someone else to fill the void.
That was England’s Hammer Film Productions, which started churning out its own monsters just as the craze was cresting in America. The Hammer formula added three important items missing from the Universal mix: color, blood, and heaving cleavage. Not only were monsters more than welcome to kids (though they were considered scandalously graphic at the time, the Hammer films are actually rather tame to today’s eyes, and our schoolboy views of a never-ending parade of curvy British starlets straining against diaphanous nightgowns were never allowed anywhere near the pulchritudinous equator), they were growing up into teenagers, with cars, headed for drive-ins. The Hammer horror juggernaut was perfectly timed and perfectly executed. The wonderful period set designs and rep company of fine British actors just put the bow on the package. Perennial principals Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing became genre stars, and found themselves on FM’s cover.
Also feeding the drive-ins was a new company called American International Pictures, the greatest “exploitation” mini-studio ever. Founders James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff were showmen through and through, and to them it was simple: cars, girls, and ghouls. They used to brag that they’d begin with the poster – sometimes just the title – and then build a movie around it. I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF. IT CONQUERED THE WORLD. THE GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI. Great stuff! We should note that kids didn’t always go to the drive-in to watch movies; of this AIP was fully aware. The trading of money for a ticket was the only point. So many of these movies look ridiculous now, without the frame of nostalgia or eros, except that creeping along both sides of the camera would be the likes of, say, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda, Francis Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, and many others. AIP would give anybody a shot, as long as they worked fast and cheap. Yet they did have aspirations: it was AIP which took up the gauntlet thrown by Hammer horror with a beautiful series of films “inspired” by Edgar Allan Poe, directed by Roger Corman on healthier but still constricting budgets, and featuring such legends as Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff. And Corman didn’t forget to bring along the heaving cleavage.
Like everything else, the monster craze chewed itself to death. Too much lousy material and a changing zeitgeist, which now required grittier, more realistic fare and was riveted by real-life horrors, such as the young-man-sucking maw of the Vietnam war. AIP even parodied all this in a juicy little satire called WILD IN THE STREETS, in which the monsters were young people, who got the voting age lowered to 14 and sent everyone over 30 into LSD-fueled retirement camps. Regardless, the trend was over, and even Hammer was only limping along with tepid sequels to sequels, indistinguishable from one another.
Horror in the arts will never die, but it rises and falls in importance. Twenty years ago, Stephen King’s success engendered so many lousy horror novels that there was a section devoted to the genre, a sea of black and red, in every chain bookstore. No longer. Horror movies are a very good investment because they usually don’t require name actors or lavish sets; they’re cheap to make and have a built-in audience. But what I’ve been describing is a time when kids loved monsters, not chain saws.
I thought the original HALLOWEEN was brilliant, but beyond that I don’t go in for “slasher” movies. As John Carpenter once said, anybody can roll some black leader on the screen, then give you two frames of white with a sudden noise on the soundtrack, and you’ll jump. Startling people is easy. Heck, Quentin Tarantino did it when he appeared in WAIT UNTIL DARK on Broadway, and he was terrible, Jack! But scaring them is harder. As FRIDAY THE 13TH – hey, we’re back! – and its many startling brethren gradually raise the bloody ante until we arrive at “torture porn,” in David Edelstein’s memorable phrase describing SAW, etc., there’s not much left for the kind of monster fans we kids were. I miss those beasts — the monsters, and the kids too.
11/17/15: Finally, Universal plans to bring those monsters back.
10/29/16: But Zach won’t be joining them.