Tuesday, October 26, 2021

How to Make a Monster (1958)

... aka: Der Satan mit den tausend Masken (Satan with a Thousand Masks)
... aka: La batalla de los monstruos (Battle of the Monsters)

Directed by:
Herbert L. Strock

Veteran make-up artist Pete Dumond (Robert H. Harris) has spent decades fine-tuning his craft for American International Studios, whipping out one impressive monster design after another. And, unlike a lot of other people in show business, Pete still enjoys his job since he frequently gets to work with eager, energetic and far less jaded teenagers which in turn helps keeps his enthusiasm up. However, the studio has just been bought out by NBN Associates and they want to make some changes. New studio execs John Nixon (Eddie Marr) and Jeff Clayton (Paul Maxwell) come barging into Pete's workshop letting him know that they'll no longer be needing him or his faithful, slow-witted assistant Rivero (Paul Brinegar). After all, according to them, "Monsters are finished... the horror cycle is over!" Pete retorts that they said the same thing twenty-five years ago before his werewolf creation saved the studio from bankruptcy. Still, the new big brass want to revamp the entire studio's image. Instead of monster movies, they want to focus on upbeat musicals, comedies and flyweight "escapist" films. After Pete finishes up his work on AIP's latest Teenage Frankenstein vs. Teenage Werewolf opus, he's to clear out and find work somewhere else. They offer to give him a whopping week's worth of severance pay for compensation, but Pete basically tells them to stuff it.

The irate make-up man, who feels like he's now in a fight for not only his livelihood but also his life, devises a plan. Since he's skilled with various drugs and chemicals that he's experimented with over the year, he gets to work creating an all-new formula. His "foundation cream" will be infused with this chemical so that it goes directly into the pores of whoever has it applied to them. Just how does it work? Well, it "blocks the nerve synapses" to "paralyze the will" and thus will "have the same effect chemically as a surgical prefrontal lobotomy." Combined with hypnosis, whoever wears the make-up will be passive and obedient to Pete's will. In other words, they'll be perfect instruments for revenge!

Young, hungry and naïve (i.e. dumb) Larry Drake (Gary Clarke), who's been cast as the werewolf in the current film, stops in for his make-up, where Pete plants the seed in his mind that whenever they finish making this monster movie, he'll have an impossible time finding work himself. Larry then allows Pete to apply his concoction to his face. He sends him out to kill John and then return to the workshop, after which he releases him from his hypnotic trance and he remembers nothing. However, later on he doesn't quite feel himself. Pete even uses the cream on himself when a night watchman (Dennis Cross) gets a little too big in the britches and hopes to impress the new owners by helping find John's killer.

Tony Mantell (Gary Conway), a young, hunky and (recurring theme here) none-too-bright young actor who's been cast as Frankenstein, also inadvertently gets in on the action when Pete sends him after the other studio executive. That's three murders in no short time, all corresponding with the studio shake-up. The press have a field day with the murders while the owners try to decide whether or not to shut the studio down for awhile and the investigators on the case, led by Captain Hancock (Morris Ankrum) and detectives Thompson (Walter Reed) and Jones (John Phillips), try to piece all of the clues together. The fact Pete and Rivero have been keeping long hours at the studio automatically puts them on the suspect list and, with Rivero being kind of weak and flaky, Pete starts to fear he'll eventually crack and give them both away.

This has middling scores on both IMDb and Letterboxd, but I quite liked it. Though not without its flaws, I found this not only fun and entertaining but also rather praiseworthy as an influence on self-aware / post modern / meta horror, which became a more popular (and overused) angle much later on. This also offers some very good make-ups from Phillip Scheer (though he's basically recycling most of his designs from earlier films) and a fantastic central performance from Harris, who's able to inject some pathos into his otherwise villainous character to keep him from becoming too one-dimensional. Pete even has a shrine in his home decorated with replicas from such fine creature features as IT CONQUERED THE WORLD (1956) and INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN (1957), there's an amusing plug for the upcoming HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (1959) and it's also a pleasant surprise when the film suddenly switches to color in the last ten minutes.

Most interestingly, this is filled with analytical, surprisingly perceptive and sometimes humorous commentary on the the horror genre, its importance and how it is perceived (and quite often misunderstood) by the public at large. Studio heads look down on the genre, as if their brainless movies (which they insist be filled with "pretty girls" and "gorgeous gals") are any more reputable. Detectives wonder if horror films and Pete's monster creations could provoke violence from any "weirdies" in the audience. The young actors cast in the horror films take the roles for their big break but still fear being typecast. And Pete, crazy as he turns out to be, has all kinds of valid points to make, from monster creations being art like any other form of art (true), that a good actor should be able to emote and / or make an impression even from underneath his / her make-up (also true) and the psychological positives that horror films provide the audience (true yet again).

The cast also includes Malcolm Atterbury as the studio's veteran security guard, Thomas Browne Henry as a nice guy director, Robert Shayne as a pissed off talent agent and "guest star" John Ashley as himself, doing a horrible musical number called "You've Got to Have Ee-Ooo" with some female dancers to show us what kind of garbage the new executives plan on cranking out. Sound effects editor Verna Fields would go on to win a much-deserved Oscar for editing Jaws.

In 1992, Ed Wood's widow Kathy came forward with claims that "presenter" / executive producer Samuel Z. Arkoff stole the entire idea for this film from her husband; a claim that Arkoff denied. Both the story and the screenplay are credited to Herman Cohen (also the producer) and "Kenneth Langtry" (Aben Kandel). Arkoff returned to executive produce a cable TV "remake" in 2001 that bears little actual relation to this original film.

This was double-billed with Roger Corman's Teenage Caveman (1958) during its theatrical run. It has since been given numerous home video releases: MCA / Universal distributed it on VHS, Lions Gate released it on DVD (they paired it with Strock's The Blood of Dracula) and Scream Factory released a Blu-ray in 2020.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...