How to Make a Monster/Blood of Dracula
Any fan of older horror movies knows there are certain names in the industry that are synonymous with schlock. Roger Corman falls into this category. So does William Castle. And two more who certainly fit the bill are Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson, heads of American International Pictures. AIP put out scores of horror cheapies that contained a certain aesthetic value which made them perfect for teenagers who wanted to make out during a double feature. Though never intended to be high art, these pictures were generally fun, in a dumbed down sort of way. The other night I sat down to watch two of these, a double bill of How to Make a Monster and Blood of Dracula. Though my teenage years are long gone and my best girl wasn’t around, I had a good time with each.
How to Make a Monster starts rather creatively. A hand writes the movie’s title on an actor’s mirror surrounded by lights. As the credits appear in the same style, the hand then draws the iconic image of a teenage werewolf. The movie then takes its audience to the back lot of American International Studios, where veteran makeup artist Pete Dumond and his dimwitted assistant Rivero are putting the final touches on the Werewolf. After Dumond crosses a studio full of pirates and deep sea divers, he returns to meet two studio heads from the new regime. The two have arrived to tell him that monster flicks are no long in vogue, and that he will be let go after this last film finishes production. Dumond decides to take some extreme measures to keep his job at the studio.
At first I had sympathy for Dumond. To the studio heads, firing him is strictly business, in a town where the bottom line is more important than the people who bust their backs to fulfill it. But to Dumond,, this is the equivalent of death. After 25 years creating make up effects for the studio, his entire way of life is suddenly gone, through no fault of his own, and he’s devastated. The longer the movie goes, though, the less sympathetic he becomes. At first a pathetic victim, Dumond becomes an unhinged sociopath, and decides to turn the tables in murderous fashion. With the help of a hypnotizing reagent he manipulates his young actors to do his evil biddings, and gets blood on his own hands as well. Long involved in creating monsters, Pete Dumond has become one.
As the film nears its end, it becomes obvious that this is not just about his job. There’s an eerie scene at his house when he invites the two actors and Rivero for a celebration. As he lights a series of candles, they illuminate all the masks he’s created over his quarter century career. When one of the actors asks him, “What are these?” he answers, “My family. My children.” Dumond lives in a fantasy world, where he must protect his children from the people who would harm them, where a human life has less worth than a rubber creature mask. Here is a man so far into the illusion of Hollywood, that he has lost any sense of reality.
Despite its dubious origins as a cheapie programmer, How to Make a Monster is actually a really well made horror flick. Sure, it asks the audience to take a ridiculous leap of faith regarding the hypnotizing reagent. But it’s a leap worth taking. There’s a change from black and white to color for the final two reels at Dumond’s house that’s not only a nice technical achievement, but makes for a sort of reverse Wizard of Oz effect, as there’s no place quite as creepy as Dumond’s home. I also enjoyed the dark irony that the killings bring bad press to the studio, which is soon to shut down; all that murderous effort, and Dumond is still going to lose his job. What most interested me about the film was how it employed the actual back lot of AIP studios, and their monsters from the I Was a Teenage monster series. This overlapping of reality and fiction reminded me of The New Nightmare and the Scream movies.. I wonder if Wes Craven had this movie in mind when he made those films 40 years later. Regardless, it’s pretty “high concept” for an AIP movie.
Blood of Dracula is not quite as ambitious a movie, but offers up decent entertainment and an intriguing moral quandary. It starts off in a car, as Nancy’s father and stepmother are taking her to a prep school. When she tries to crash the car as her father drives, it’s obvious this is a troubled family. Mom has died, and Dad has married a new woman just six weeks later. When the parents dump her off, they’re thrilled to be rid of her and the problems she represents; Nancy, however, is full of rage at the world. When the cool clique of girls challenges her, she passes the test. They initiate her into their secret club, but even the acceptance of new friends doesn’t quell her anger. The movie takes a turn when Nancy goes to Miss Branding’s science class. The teacher has been conducting work on rage and anger, but she says no one will take it seriously because she’s a woman. To prove her hypothesis, she must find a girl who’s full of anger, and use some ancient amulet to draw out the beast within. Now who would make a great candidate…
Blood of Dracula is a much better example of a typical, cheaply made programmer than How to Make a Monster. The acting is about what you’d expect, the plot meanders for a while before anything really horrific happens, and hypnotizing someone with an amulet is more supernatural, than scientific. But the film does tackle one important issue: a teacher’s abuse of power. Nancy all too clearly seeks a mother figure, and Branding is all too willing to provide her with one, for her own nefarious ends. Branding uses Nancy as a lab rat, putting her in harm’s way and forcing her to murder. She claims it’s in the name of science, but it’s unethical both on scientific and educational grounds. Her abuse of the student-teacher relationship is appalling, and a disgrace to the profession, no matter what she claims it will do for the betterment of man. This theme of abuse of power links the film to How to Make a Monster, as Dumond does the same thing with his trusting young actors.
Another link is the dreadful musical number in each film. Apparently, AIP figured having an attractive young male sing a song such as “You Gotta Have Ee-Ooo” was worth stopping the entire movie for. God bless Arkoff and Nicholson for trying to get the Elvis crowd to see their horror films, even if the songs have no place in them.
It’s nice to see that Lionsgate has taken these two flicks and presented them just as they would have been seen in theatres 50 years ago: as a double bill. Both films are on one side of a disc, with a simple menu that allows one to choose between the two. I’m torn, however, on the issue of extras., as there are none. Lion’s Gate offers nothing other than scene selection for each film. It’d be great to have some extras on here, like a few featurettes or a commentary on each. But I also perversely enjoy that there are no frills. Because if AIP were still around and putting its catalogue on DVD’s, I have no doubt they would have saved a buck and put this disc out exactly like this.
I did find an extra for How to Make a Monster on Joe Dante’s Trailers from Hell website, though. Dante has rallied together a bunch of his Hollywood friends at www.trailersfromhell.com to provide commentary for their favorite movie trailers. On the site, Rick Baker talks about the movie. As Baker’s a makeup artist himself, it’s great to hear his insight on a movie about a fellow special makeup guy gone mad. Baker also relates the compelling true story of Jack Pierce, Universal’s ace who was one of the people responsible for putting the studio’s classic monsters on the map. I highly recommend checking out the site; it’s got a ton of old trailers, presented by a group of people who really love movies.
Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson are part of a tradition of schlock, where low budget cheapies made on the sly would hit the theatres just in time for a guy to take his best girl for a make out session. How to Create a Monster and parts of Blood of Dracula prove that sometimes these films could transcend their dubious origins and offer something to think about. Give How to Create a Monster the shot it’s worth, and if you dig, stay for the second bill. Worse comes to worst, there’s always a make out session waiting to happen.
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