How To Make A Monster (1958) [31 Days of American Horror Review]

Looking for more classic horror reviews from Jules?

Check out our “31 Days of Hammer”, “31 Days of British Horror”, and “31 Days of American Horror”, to hear his thoughts on some of the best (and worst) that the genre has to offer.

Director: Herbert L. Strock
Starring: Robert H. Harris, Gary Conway, Gary Clarke, Morris Ankrum, Paul Brinegar

Thirty-odd years before Wes Craven’s New Nightmare got all meta with movie monsters, Herbert L. Strock took the creatures both he and his studio had made before and brought them into the real world. Well, as real as Hollywood ever gets anyway.

Not quite a sequel to the Teenage Werewolf and Frankenstein films, How To Make A Monster takes the innovative step of telling the story of what happened after those films were made, not what happened to the monsters themselves.

What we end up with is a film that could easily be an episode of Columbo, where a wronged worker uses the tools of his trade to wreak his revenge on his employers, albeit with a bit of mind-control thrown in for good measure.

It’s only a revenge chiller on one level though. By its very nature, it’s a comment on horror films themselves and how they’ll never really go away, no matter what…

After 25 years as chief make-up artist for 25 years at American International Studios, Pete Dumond (Harris) is fired after the studio is purchased by new owners who want to focus on comedy and romance films.

He refuses to go quietly though and aided by his long-time assistant Rivero (Brinegar), he hatches a plan to murder the new studio heads using Larry Drake (Clarke) and Tony Mantell (Conway) the stars of his Teenage Werewolf and Frankenstein films, as unwitting assassins.

Dumont hypnotises the pair while recreating his horrific makeup on them before sending them out to eliminate his enemies, as well as anyone else who might suspect what he is up to…

After the very modern reimaginings of werewolves, vampires and Frankenstein’s Monster, Herbert L. Strock jumped the tracks somewhat with this one, but it works.

It’s pseudo-real world setting sets up a different kind of monster mash, one where the real monsters are the ghouls that populate Hollywood is whether they be soulless executives who just want to make money or talented artists who think nothing of murder if things don’t go their way.

As the bitter make-up maestro Dumont, Harris delivers a wonderfully slimy performance. On the surface he’s a fatherly presence on the lot, always ready to give out advice to the younger actors or look after the security guards, while his relationship with sidekick Rivero is a classic old-school double act.

Underneath it all though, Dumont is a psychopath who’s taken his obsession with horror and death to the extremes already, even before he decided to start bumping off studio executives. His “gallery” of previous makeup effects is more than a house of horrors and the reveal of skulls underneath the surface suggests that we haven’t been seeing the birth of a murderer here. Dumont has been busy over the years.

The world of Hollywood B-movies feels real too, which you would hope would be the case as there’s not much excuse for AIP to get that wrong. For once, the crowbarred-in musician number that usually blights these kind of films feels natural as it’s part of a film within the film. It’s still a chore to get through but at least makes a certain kind of narrative sense.

It’s a real joy to see the teenage werewolf and Frankenstein’s Monster together in one film too, even if they aren’t “real”. Both monsters are lovely designs and you can’t really go wrong with watching them set about an unfortunate victim. All that’s missing really is a final scene with the pair of them falling to their supposed deaths with their hands wrapped around each other’s throats.

What we get instead though, is more than satisfactory.

As the final reel begins, Dumont invites the not-too-bright actors/assassins to his gallery for what he describes as a party. He lights a candle and…the film erupts into colour. We’ve seen this trick often enough before but this time it really works, with the warm, rich colours enhancing the horror of the situation.

Dumont’s “children” (masks to anyone else) are recycled from previous real-world movies but definitely benefit from being seen in full, lurid colour, as does the climactic inferno that takes him down, while his final murder (a brutal knife to the gut) is graphically rendered and feels almost like a whole new chapter in horror being born in front of our eyes.

From here on in, on both sides of the Atlantic, horror films would be making full use of the new palates available to them and causing the censors even more sleepless nights.

Turns out old Pete was right after all. Horror will never die, it just evolves…

Rating: 2.5/5.


The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

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