Posted by Richard Harland Smith on September 7, 2012
Trying to keep clear of politics in an election year is like trying to avoid horse flies at a pig roast. Usually, the preoccupations of the real world don’t dovetail quite so neatly with my particular variety of geekthink but with so many people nattering on about “restoring America” and heritage and anger I find myself thinking about I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (1957). My initial thoughts were mundane, with me remembering how much I loved that poster, with its vivid use of primary red. Then I remembered Michael Landon’s indelible, poignant performance as a tortured teen turned ravening manbeast and that brought me to I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN (1957), and HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER (1958)… all produced by Herbert Cohen and released by American International Pictures. And as I remembered moments from all of these movies, I began to think about what these movies were saying, and what they were showing me, in and around what they were supposed to be about… mindless fright flicks pointed at the teen audience as a focus grab away from television. And I began to see that these movies were (and isn’t it so often the case?) much more than the sum of their parts.
Directed by Gene Fowler, Jr., from a script by Cohen and Aben Kandel, I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF tells the tale of a motherless teen (Landon, in his third film role) being raised by a decent but ineffectual blue collar father, too distracted by the daily struggle to keep body and soul together (and put food on the table) to notice that his son is headed down a bad road. The boy’s natural inclination towards resentment and anger lands him in more than his share of fistfights, drawing the attention of school officials, local cops, and a psychologist (Whit Bissell) who agrees to take on the boy’s case pro bono. Using hypnotherapy, the psychologist gets the teen to tap into his innate atavism, the process transforming the boy into a full-blown werewolf. Concerned less with the resultant trail of savaged teenage bodies than he is with his seeming success at pointing mankind towards a new direction, the psychologist seals his doom and the boy’s when he demands to see the transformation for himself. The film ends in a welter of violence that — if you can get past the kitsch factor that some insist on grafting onto movies of this vintage — draws closed the curtain on a note of numbing tragedy. I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF is one of the first Hollywood movies in which the dead are for the most part children.
The manipulation of innocent souls by mad-minded men of science was nothing new in 1958. In WHITE ZOMBIE (1932), Bela Lugosi raised the dead to do his bidding while Claude Rains’ THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) wanted to draft an army of undetectable soldiers to do his bidding and Lionel Atwill cashiered poor, dumb Lon Chaney, Jr. into being his prototype MAN MADE MONSTER (1941), the first in a proposed shock wave of bioelectrical drones. Here, Whit Bissell does nothing more dastardly than George Zucco had done before him in THE MUMMY’S HAND (1942), THE MAD MONSTER (1942), THE MAD GHOUL (1943) and other movies I’m probably forgetting. The difference here is that Bissell’s character seems motivated less by vainglory and misplaced righteousness than a genuine interest in his fellow man, albeit an insane interest which compels him to try to help mankind by stripping it of its humanity. The casting of Bissell is dead on because the actor was not, for all his charms, Claude Rains or Lionel Atwill or George Zucco. He was not a daemonic, eyebrow-arching fiend but a rather unprepossessing regular sort of fellow, the kind of guy you might choose as your healthcare provider or elect to public office. His decency is palpable, which makes his betrayal of his teenage patient so much more heinous. And coming to that realization got me to thinking about the kinds of men who send boys to war, who exploit the native excitability of youth and ideals about honor and patriotism to achieve a political end that they consider defensible at any cost.
Am I just projecting my own liberal bias? Yeah, maybe. (For the record, I’m neither Republican nor Democrat. Since 1980, I’ve been a registered Independent voter and I have pulled the lever for both parties over the past thirty-odd years, while also throwing my vote away on the Libertarian ticket from time to time. I tend to vote Democrat nationally but have often voted Republican locally. Nonetheless, my views remain fairly liberal, at least from a social standpoint. I’ll cop to that.) And then again, maybe not. When I began thinking about these movies this week, I considered the architect of the trilogy to be producer and co-writer Herbert Cohen. After sufficient reflection, however, I’m prepared now to say that the hand on the wheel for these films was Aben Kandel’s. A veteran of World War I, Kandel was a well-known New York leftie who made the transition from Broadway to Hollywood in the immediate aftermath of the Great Depression. His writing published by the Marxist mag The New Masses, Kandel worked with such well-known Hollywood reds as Robert Rossen, Herbert Biberman, and Albert Bein, while also founding with Biberman, John Cromwell, and Fritz Lang the Hollywood branch of the labor-favoring (and, therefore, suspect) Film Audiences for Democracy. All this to say that, given his liberal bent, it would not have been uncharacteristic of Kandel (who, early in his career, labored on the screenplay for Universal’s WEREWOLF OF LONDON) to infuse his screenplay, however mullet-headed in its broad strokes, with some of that old-style activism.
If I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF can be said to have been about the corruption of the innocent by their acquisitive, ambitious elders and the manipulation of the powerless by the powers-that-be — more specifically, the militarization of the noncombative into a new world order of hypervigilance and hyperviolence — then Herbert Strock’s I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN hints at the exploitation of returning soldiers (even the dead ones) as a device of the Industrial Military Complex. No, the film’s villain (Whit Bissell again, albeit nastier this go-round) is not military-minded, per se, and his endgame isn’t an Atwillian army of hulking helpmeets… but it’s hard looking at the pathetic, shambling, piecemeal creature played by Gary Conway and not think of shattered war vets returning to a society that would rather not see them. These films were, of course, produced in a time of relative peace, more or less halfway between the end of the Korean War in 1953 and the start of the Vietnam War (for the majority of Americans) with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1965. But the Cold War was raging, in its own sort of passive-aggressive way, and people were scared. And, as David Byrne once sang, people who are scared do dangerous things.
If I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN was less an out-and-out anti-war movie than I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF — not being about the co-option of unrest so much as the scavenging of spare parts for the purpose of flag-weaving — it pointed the trilogy toward the ways that political power manipulates the populace. A discursive horror film made almost 40 years before Wes Craven’s SCREAM (1996), HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER is set within the American film industry, the dream factory. Kandel’s script finds a disgruntled make-up man (think Jack P. Pierce, but played by portly Robert H. Harris) laid off by way of a studio regime change and taking his revenge by making monsters out of impressionable young wannabe actors. There are no real monsters in the movie, just young men in make-up who have, through a cocktail of youthful enthusiasm, hunger, and socialized obedience to authority, allowed themselves to be mesmerized into a state of total obedience, to wear the masks that their elders have chosen for them, and to go into the field and do whatever is necessary. Widely considered the weak link in the trilogy, HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER (also directed by Herbert Strock) puts across its subversive notions more baldly then either of the two earlier films. Though Harris’ character is initially sympathetic, repeat viewings reveal him to be an old school fearmonger, blanching at the notion of his studio switching to life-affirming musicals, and wanting to keep alive our shared legacy of dread and terror. He’s not only the puppetmaster, pulling the strings that drive the plot, but he also holds the key to the fear factory, from which he had made his livelihood and from which he commands his creations, his army, to settle his debts. With his round belly stretching his cardigan to the busting point, Harris is the perfect portrait of a venal politician, mouthing platitudes about honor and tradition, while he connives and corrupts to have his way. In a deviation from standing operating procedure for this trilogy, Kandel allows HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER to end on a slightly more upbeat note, with Harris punished for his crimes and his unwitting underlings surviving with little to no remembrance of the terrible things they have been made to do for the sake of one man’s bankrupt definition of tradition.
Unlike many of his progressive pals, Aben Kandel seems to have escaped the HUAC microscope, though he did pen a number of screenplays under an assumed name. He also authored BLOOD OF DRACULA (1957), a sort of rewrite of I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF but involving a young girl who devolves, under the clammy supervision of a girls’ school matron, into a vampire, before relocating to the United Kingdom. In England, Kandel wrote (often in collaboration with Herbert Cohen) a number of films that spoke to our attraction to primitivism (KONGA, TROG) or to the tensions between the young and the old (BLACK ZOO, BERSERK!). Archly played, and often particularized by florid performances from such veteran scenery chewers as Michael Gough, Joan Crawford, and Jack Palance, Kandel’s films are easily dismissed, easily laughed at. Which is just what the Man wants you to do, because an amused populace is a docile one. Do yourself a favor and, if you think you know these movies (from MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATRE 3000 or just received wisdom), watch them again with an open mind. Feel free to come back here and disagree with me. This is a democracy, after all.
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