My Best Friends Have Always Been Monsters
Yes I Know it's been almost a year...Shut up...And onward...
I saw my first movie when I was 5. Most 5 year olds get taken to stuff meant for kids but that will inevitably scar them for life. Think of anything animated by Disney and you’ll see what I mean. Nasty horrible stuff. I escaped that fate. The first movie I ever saw was “Dracula, Prince of Darkness”.
I have a theory as to why I came away unscathed from this experience, and it goes like this: If you go to a Disney Cartoon, the Old Features anyway, you’re expecting light hearted kiddy fare, harmless, benign. They’re Fairy Tales, for the crying out loud. So when The Queen transforms into the Ugly Old Hag, or Bambi’s Mom takes a bullet, or Satan shows up on Bald Mountain, you aren’t expecting it and it’s doubly traumatic. When you walk into a horror film, you know bad things are going to happen and you’re on guard. You expect that when the virgin is left alone she’s going to be Vampire chow. You know Jack the Ripper will be jumping out of the darkened doorway to eviscerate the prostitute, and you’re damn sure that the monster you just killed isn’t really dead.
My dad, Larry, was babysitting me, and wanting to see the movie, the solution was obvious. Besides I was a pretty hip kid for 5. I was already into the Beatles, after all. I preferred old Popeyes to the newer ones. I was already reading. Besides, my presence wasn’t going to stop Larry from seeing that movie. My presence never stopped Larry from doing anything, which is how, at one time, I wound up at the Greenwood Racetrack at the age of four surrounded by drunks a year earlier, picking winners with an eerie accuracy, until someone actually bet on one of my selections. He didn’t talk to me on the way home.
I remember “Dracula, Prince of Darkness”, not only because I’ve seen it 10 or so times since then, but because they were having a glow in the dark fang promotion. I would have liked to have seen a picture taken from the screen’s POV. Rows of shadowy people with phosphorescent fangs, and eyes bugged out. I suspect that it would look like something from a George Romero movie though, as opposed to a Hammer Horror.
When I said I came away from the movie unscathed I didn’t mean to imply that I came away unaffected. I think my perspective may have been a tad warped by the experience. For instance, I was convinced that Dracula was the hero. After all, his name was in the title, and he was the most commanding presence on the screen. He wore a cape, so that automatically linked him to Superman in my mind. So I was confused when he sunk into the ice at the end. Living in Toronto, we dealt with snow and ice all the time. To me, ice was no big deal. This, of course, was before I began to self-educate in the minutiae of Vampire folklore and found out the thing about their aversion to running water.
Not long after that, and under similar circumstances, I was introduced to the Frankenstein Monster. This particular version was another Hammer technicolor bloodbath, “The Evil of Frankenstein”. Not the best interpretation of the creature, by a long shot. For one thing he is literally a blockhead. I don’t mean that he’s stupid (although, Lord knows, he’s not bright), I mean it literally looks like somebody strapped a cement block to his forehead. Apparently Hammer had recently acquired the rights from Universal to use their Frankenstein make up, but the evidence would tend to suggest that the Hammer make up artist never saw the Universal films and was simply going by the description “He’s got this square head, see...”
“The Evil of Frankenstein” was responsible for another one of my more vivid childhood memories. My Uncle Ronny was staying with us for a short while, having been kicked out by my grandfather. Ronny was about 6 years older than me, which would put him at about 13 at the time (It said something about my grandfather as well, since I also ended up with an Aunt that was 2 years younger). My mother decided she was going out and it would be okay to leave me with him, it being a Saturday night after all. NBC always ran a feature film back then and this particular night it happened to be the aforementioned Hammer Frankenstein Opus. I had already seen it via Larry, who had since headed for parts unknown (at least to me). But a monster movie trumped all else for me at the time, so I insisted that Ronny and I were going to watch it. Everything was fine as far as I was concerned, but I noticed Uncle Ronny growing increasingly anxious during the run of the film. Despite this, it ended without incident, but then at around 2 in the morning I awoke to the melodious sound of Uncle Ronny shrieking in Terror from the top bunk, that Frankenstein was going to get him. My mother came in trying to calm him, but it wasn’t happening. Ronny worked himself up into such a frenzy that he gave himself a nosebleed. I watched all this for a while with a sort of detached fascination, but finally I ended up saying to my Mom “I can’t handle this,” and went off to sleep in her bed. When he had finally quieted and Mom returned, I askedmy Mother if Uncle Ronny was Crazy.
“Yes...Yes he is”, she replied. The next day Uncle Ronny was unceremoniously shipped back to my grandfather’s. I don’t remember him ever coming back or, in fact, ever seeing him again. As it turned out he was crazy, but that’s another story...literally. Anyway we were talking about Frankenstein, weren’t we? At least I was.
Despite his appearance I loved the Frankenstein Monster, and it’s a love that’s lasted longer than any of my relationships. All kids love him, because they understand him. He is one of them. He has no concept of right and wrong, and when he tries to test his limits, he starts getting punished. Such is the child’s lot. So in the Frankenstein Monster they see a kindred spirit, at least I did. It wasn’t till a couple of years later that I managed to see the “Original” Man Child Monster in the person of Boris Karloff in James Whale’s “Frankenstein”, where he’s presented to you fully realized. He reaches for the light as any infant might do, and is confused when it is taken away. He has trouble walking, like any toddler, which is what he is, let’s face it. A Big Lumbering Ugly Toddler. When he kills the little girl, it’s not out of malice or psychosis (an Abby Normal Brain). He kills her accidentally because he doesn’t understand the game.
Chuck Jones, the great animation director, once said, “Bugs Bunny is who I wish I was...Daffy Duck is who I am”.Translated into Monster terms, I would argue, Dracula is who we wish to be, and Frankenstein’s Monster is who we really are.
Dracula is the power we all secretly desire. He is suave, elegant, and sexy, but most of all he is in control. In any given situation it is he who dominates, to the point where the only way his enemies can kill him is to sneak up on him when he’s asleep. Then there’s the sex thing. Dracula can have any woman he wants. And he’s insatiable. The one thing that carries over from the novel to virtually all of the movie translations is the moral that Sex is Bad, and Good Sex will Kill You. Every geek’s dream and many women’s fantasy. Dracula bites , and sucks and this is apparently a very good thing.
One of the benefits of being a “latch key kid”(and there were some despite what psychologists may say. There were negatives to be sure, but nobody ever discusses the positives) was that on Friday nights when My Mom was working afternoon shift. I could watch whatever I wanted on our 20-inch Black and White console..(Consoles need to make a comeback They were cool).I had no idea anything except movies were in color until the early 70's.
Friday Nights stick out because it had my favorite shows on. The Green Hornet, Time Tunnel, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Then there was a lull. Unlike many of my contemporaries, I was not an Original Series Star Trek Fan(Gasp! Sacrilege.) I thought it was dull and dumb.(Calm down!) I learned to appreciate it when I got older , but at the time I hated it. So I would read or draw or mime to Beatle or Monkee records for an hour until the WKBW Buffalo Eyewitness News which always began with “It’s Eleven O’ Clock.. Do you know where your children are?”.The first time I heard it, it scared the crap out of me. Subsequently I would raise my hand and yell “Here!!”.
After the news on Channel 7, I’d turn all the lights out and watch “Fright Night Fright Theatre” hosted by Adam Keefe who apparently did a circuit of stations doing wraparounds and interstitials for the show. Unfortunately the service on my memory is not good enough to remember what his character name was, but it was in the John Zacherle’s “Roland” mold.
So, while my Dad may have introduced me to the genre, my real education started with “Friday Night Frights”. That’s where I met my best friends. The Universal Monsters. Karloff’s Frankenstein...Lugosi as Dracula...Lon Chaney ( I didn’t know he was a Junior yet) as the Wolf Man, Claude Rains As The Invisible Man...Various People as The Mummy (it seemed to change with every movie)and The Creature from the Black Lagoon( Different Various People). In addition I made the acquaintance of King Kong, Mr. Sardonicus, The She Creature, The Puppet People, The Triffids and a Brain that wouldn’t die...among others.
I had a problem with the Wolf Man for a long time, and, to a degree, I still do. Larry Talbot’s incessant whining would annoy me. “Why me? It’s not fair!! I want to be dead,” and on and on and on... But then I figured a couple of things out, and it started to make sense in a dime store psychology kind of way. Larry goes through this...change...every month. It involves blood flow, and crankiness. It could be argued that Larry Talbot is having his period...or, from a different perspective, considering the body changes, the indiscriminate hair growth and complexion problems...Larry Talbot is going through Puberty...EVERY MONTH!!. Viewed in either of those two contexts, I don’t know about you but I’d be whining...Still You have to wonder about Larry Talbot. I’m of the opinion that he’s either passive aggressive, or extremely lazy. As previously mentioned, he spends a lot of time complaining that he doesn’t deserve his fate and that he wants to end his existence. Fine...but he’s always trying to get somebody else to do it for him! You want to say to him, “ Look, Larry, you’re only The Wolf Man 3 nights a month (6 days in a Blue Moon) but that leaves 30 days and 27 nights (24 in a Blue Moon) when you’re not the Wolf Man. Surely with all that time you could smelt some silver into a bullet, find a gun and put an end to your own suffering. What’s the problem?” But he does nothing pro-active. He does nothing but bitch and moan. I’m sure the other Monsters avoid him at parties, and who can blame them? The Wolf Man is a Wuss.
And while I’m doing the psychoanalysis thing lets take a look at Old Rag and Bones himself, The Mummy. The Mummy is all about repressed sexuality. Whether he’s Im Ho Tep, or Kharis he is still the same old horny pile of dust rags. Getting mummified alive is his punishment for wanting to get it on with the Princess Ananka, who inconveniently dies before he can pop her (she is a Vestal Virgin, after all) and, presumably, his cherry and then trying to bring her back to life in order complete the mutual deflowering. So they pull out his tongue, wrap him in bandages, and bury him alive....And even THAT doesn’t stop him. A couple of thousand years go by and, once having been resurrected, he’s after it again. Kharis is a shambling stiffy. (Tanna leaves must have some kind of Viagra like effect). The closest he comes to getting any is in the “The Mummy’s Ghost”, and just when he’s got the girl in his arms she starts decomposing. I’m not sure that would have stopped him, but they end up sinking into a swamp trying to avoid capture before we can find out.
For my money the most perverse of the Original Universal Monsters is the Invisible Man, no contest. Firstly he’s the ultimate voyeur. Ask yourself. “I’m a brilliant scientist and I can do whatever I want. What shall I do? I know I’ll make my self invisible. That’ll help mankind. Sure”. Baloney wit a capital Oscar Mayer. He does it because he likes to watch. He doesn’t give a red rat’s ass about your privacy. He hangs around , listening, watching, waiting and doing Lord knows..What’s was that you just put your hand in? Ewwww... Secondly, He’s NAKED! Everything he does when he can’t be seen is done in the nude. This is the thing that make the Invisible Man movies so inherently kinky. There’s this guy running around doing these horrible things with his dingle dangling. I find myself thinking things like “Gee, That car seat must be cold.”and “I wouldn’t be walking through the brush with all those low hanging branches” and “ Boy, those stones must hurt his feet”. Maybe that’s why he seems to be totally uninterested in sex. He’d rather rule the world. Brings a whole new interpretation to “The Emperor has no clothes” though, don’t it?
Although he does the standard schtick of kidnaping women, The Creature from the Black Lagoon is not about sex. In my opinion ( by the way, all of this is my opinion and probably has no basis in your reality or anybody else’s for that matter) The keyword in the title is Black. The Gill Man represents the plight of the African American in the United States(so does King Kong, but that’s another story, literally) ...Think about it. There he is swimming around in his own little world, not a care...and then a bunch of White People come barging in, literally. Okay, there are a couple of South Americans, but they’re not calling the shots. And do they think that studying the Creature in his Natural habitat would be a good idea? Uh uh, they want to catch him and take him back to Sea World and make him an attraction...and in the 2nd Movie (They think they’ve killed him in the first) the manage to pull it off. So there he is in chains, far from home, working for no money...I won’t go into the controversy of his going after white women as opposed to She-Creatures (whom we never see, but who, logically, must be around) And in the 3rd movie they pull a Michael Jackson on him by attempting to make him a “ Land Creature” through Plastic Surgery!! Huh? Huh?? Get it?...Okay, maybe this ones a bit of a stretch, but you see where I’m going, don’t you?... You don’t?
See, everybody tries to rationalize their obsessions, and I’m no different. You want people to see what you see. To worship what is essentially celluloid bubble gum, with a devotion normally reserved for the major deities. They’re not just Monster Movies. They’re actually about something...And they are... But you have to be careful of over-analyzing, which some of us fanatics tend to do. I guess I got carried away. But they’re my friends, and I wanted them to be appreciated... and I guess they are with or without my interpretations (better without)...Sorry...
And I didn’t even get to discuss the homoerotic relationship between Fritz and Dr. Frankenstein...Sigh...