When master monster make-up man Pete is sacked by the new bosses of American International studios he uses his creations to exact revenge.
Robert H. Harris ... Pete Dumond
Paul Brinegar ... Rivero
Gary Conway ... Tony Mantell (Teenage Frankenstein)
Gary Clarke ... Larry Drake (Teenage Werewolf)
Malcolm Atterbury ... Security Guard Richards
Dennis Cross ... Security Guard Monahan
Morris Ankrum ... Police Capt. Hancock
Walter Reed ... Detective Thompson
Paul Maxwell ... Jeffrey Clayton
Eddie Marr ... John Nixon
Heather Ames ... Arlene Dow
Robert Shayne ... Gary Droz (Larry's agent)
Rod Dana ... Lab Technician
How to Make a Monster is an American International Pictures film about and set on the lot of American International Pictures. The premise is that the studio has been sold, and the new owners are going to make some major changes, including canning in-house employee Pete Dumond (Robert H. Harris), a noted master of horror make-up. It then becomes a relatively simple revenge flick, with a nice, slightly sci-fi twist in the method of revenge.
The idea behind this film is very clever. It also provided an effective means of saving money on the production, since not many sets had to be built or dressed, and even when that was necessary, AIP was able to use materials on hand from other films, such as the gallery of masks, in a way that makes this a self-referential treat for horror fans. The idea is good enough that especially in our modern era of film industry cannibalization, it's surprising that it hasn't been used far more often.
Aside from the admirable tightness of the script and the evergreen attraction of revenge films, How to Make a Monster works as well as it does because of the performances. Harris is a fairly subtle psycho, and extremely effective as an anti-hero. Especially in contemporary times, his situation--getting laid off after a company takeover--will find him many sympathizers, but it's also that he plays the role with such a mellow, likable, grandfatherly charm, and a self-righteousness rooted in his expertise and pride in a job well done. As others have noted, there are subtexts in the film of (homo)sexual predation, which give an added air of creepiness to Harris. His unwitting targets on that end, Tony Mantell (Gary Conway) and Larry Drake (Gary Clarke), are played with an appropriate wide-eyed and willing innocence.
If there's a flaw in How to Make a Monster it's that nothing about it--except maybe the very final scene--is particularly atmospheric or suspenseful, but oddly, it really doesn't matter, because it's a good story told well enough that it keeps you engaged for its length. I still haven't quite figured out why a few American International Pictures, including this one, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957) and War of the Colossal Beast (1958), have the final scenes in color (I know it was a gimmick, but I don't really get the attraction of it as a gimmick), but it doesn't disrupt the flow of the film and it's nice seeing the gallery of masks in color.
It could be argued that American International Pictures revived the werewolf in the late 50's with "I Was A Teenage Werewolf". It was released at a time when television was becoming common in the home, which meant that fewer people went out to the movie theatres. Those that did were largely of a teenage audience, something that AIP clearly understood, and the success of their movie ensured a revival of the whole genre.
In this clever, self-referential sequel (of sorts), American International Studios are closing down production of horror movies in order to make more musicals, which sounds fairly true to life in what may have been happening in some studios at the time. Anyway, this means that famed makeup artist Pete Dumond, possibly based on Jack Pierce, will be out of a job because he specialises only in monsters. He isn't too happy about all this, so he decides to take revenge on the new owners of the studio by turning his "Teenage Werewolf" and "Teenage Frankenstein" actors into real monsters using a mind control makeup paste thingy. It all takes place during the filming of a "Teenage Werewolf meets the Teenage Frankenstein" movie.
This is a pretty neat idea, and the script explores it very well. There's some great cheesy dialogue, a wonderful lead performance from Robert H. Harris as the makeup artist, and from Paul Brinegar as his nervous assistant. The two 'teenage' stars, who were actually in their early twenties when this film was made, play their roles with that all-American wide-eyed innocence that actually works pretty well in parts such as this.
AIP were famed for producing their horror movies on low budgets, often less than a hundred thousand while at the time major studios generally set their budgets in the millions. This movie doesn't really look that cheap, the sets look perfectly fine especially the final set in the makeup artist's house where the big finale takes place. This also features a dramatic shift into color so that you can appreciate his mask collection even more, which is pretty neat.
"How To Make A Monster" is a very entertaining film, which I'd recommend to anyone who likes these cheesy old horror movies. You won't be disappointed.
Movie audiences attracted by the sensationalistic advertising proclaiming, "See the ghastly ghouls in flaming colour!", doubtlessly expected that the film HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER was actually a colour movie and were surprised and disappointed to discover that the film was essentially a black and white feature with the final 8 minutes shot in colour (Leonard Maltin in his movie guide review states it is the final 18 minutes but this is probably a typographic error).
By the late 1950's, Britain's Hammer Films was producing, to great critical acclaim and financial success, a series of well-crafted horror movies which boasted that they were filmed in colour. These pioneering efforts marked the beginning of the end for the relatively inexpensive black and white programmers which had been the mainstay for the success of film companies like American International Pictures. Probably in an effort to tap into this ready-made market for colour movies, it was determined that small portions of a film would be economically shot in colour so it could be extensively promoted in the film's publicity (another consideration was to also utilize colour sequences for effect). With his next project, HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM, producer Herman Cohen would present his own answer to the Hammer movies by filming it in England and in colour.
For those interested, the colour footage begins after Pete Dummond and his captive guests, Tony and Larry, along with Pete's accomplice, Rivero, enter his house and Dummond lights some candles in his living-room/macabre shrine. Unfortunately the prints made available to television and home video omit the colour and are struck in black and white and there has been no real outcry from horror fandom or any of the genre magazines to effect a restoration of the colour footage. Perhaps someday soon this longstanding negligence on the part of the film's distributors will be rectified.
The script for HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER is credited to Herman Cohen and Kenneth Langtry. Kenneth Langtry is a pseudonym for a writer actually named Aben Kandel (he also employed the pen-name Ralph Thornton), who collaborated with producer Herman Cohen on a number of film projects including I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF, BLOOD OF DRACULA, I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN, HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM, THE HEADLESS GHOST, KONGA and THE BLACK ZOO.
Kandel's script for HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER is a reworking of much of the same plot elements found in his TEENAGE WEREWOLF and FRANKENSTEIN films, but the villain of this piece not only employs those under his control to commit murder, he also participates in some of the mayhem himself. Perhaps sensing that the late 1950's audiences were becoming too sophisticated for outright monsters in horror films, author Kandel decided to weave a story utilizing this theme and present the movie audience with a much more realistic menace, the psychotic mastermind/killer (Cohen and Kandel would carry this concept to its logical extreme the following year in HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM, a horror film without a monster in sight).
The efforts behind HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER would be much diminished without the presence of character actor Robert H. Harris. His skilled interpretation of the deranged makeup artist Pete Dummond is a multi-faceted one eliciting a wide-range of qualities which at one moment engenders our respect as he encourages a young actor to give his utmost to his film role, our sympathy in the wake of the overbearing new studio executives and their pragmatism and crassness toward horror films and his art, and our dread as he tells his two guests in his monster museum that he wants to include their "heads" in his collection. His scenes where he brow-beats his weak-willed assistant, Rivero, over his incompetency and cowardice are an absolute delight. Harris portrays his villain in a quietly menacing fashion making his characterization all the more sinister and his subtle and controlled performance is a memorable one.
One wishes that Michael Landon could have been recruited to reprise his teenage werewolf role, his participation would have certainly added more stature and authenticity to the proceedings. Since the story supposedly occurs at American International studios, instead of utilizing an actor to portray the director of "Frankenstein Meets Werewolf," it's a pity AIP standby Roger Corman wasn't approached to fill the role and it seems only fitting that James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff (the actual founders of American International) should have somehow been worked into the storyline. All these additions would have given HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER a more auto-biographical and self-parody tone.
HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER is an engaging and fascinating oddity from American International Pictures of the 1950's and marks an interesting phase in the chronology of Herman Cohen productions for this movie company.
* This was advertised with the tagline "See the Ghastly Ghouls in Flaming Color!" However, most of the movie was in black and white with only the final two reels in color.
* Samuel Z. Arkoff wanted Bela Lugosi for the lead in this film. Lugosi was an influence to Arkoff years before. Unfortunately, Lugosi had died in 1956.
* Edward D. Wood Jr. claimed that the idea for this film was originally his.
* In one scene the visitors to the studio are told that they are going to be taken to the set of Horrors of the Black Museum (1959). This was an advanced plug for what would be the next film to be produced and written by Herman Cohen.