*Editor’s Note: B Harrison Smith is well known to horror fans as the writer/director of The Fields, Death House, and Camp Dread. He also directed The Special, released in 2020.
“What was your first horror movie and at what age did you see it?”
That’s a question that goes about my Twitter timeline pretty often.
I was four or five. That “horror” movie was most likely Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
It could’ve been something else but it’s the film that comes to mind the fastest, as I can still remember the images of Dracula and the Wolf Man fighting in the lab and Glenn Strange’s Monster throwing that doctor through the glass.
Is ACMF (That’s the trend right? Reducing titles to acronyms like F13th, FVJ, NOES, NOLD) a true horror movie? I have to argue yes because there are some genuine horror moments in it. The film is also a eulogy to a time that was just about dead in Hollywood.
A lot has been written on the comedy duo’s foray into the Abbott and Costello Meet series of films. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope had their “Road Pictures” Bud and Lou had their meetings with the likes of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Invisible Man, and the incorrectly named Frankenstein (they meet Frankenstein’s MONSTER, not the actual Dr. Frankenstein).
This leads me to veer off topic for a moment and ask, do you know who Bing Crosby and Bob Hope were?
Back to that later.
The film was not expected to be a hit and Lou Costello had issues with the script, which he found unfunny. Teaming up Lugosi and Chaney capitalized on the post-war nostalgia for pre-war monsters as the entire Universal Classic Monsters line was heading steadily toward parody while Hitler rose to power and world finally went to war against him.
Things changed after World War II and the real horrors of The Holocaust and atomic bombs diminished Hollywood’s monster horror and after a number of sequels, pair-ups and spin-offs, we got to ACMF. Old monsters would have aliens; big bugs and giant creatures replace them.
I will go a step further and state that ACMF is a love letter– a valentine to the old days of horror just as Tom Holland’s 1985 Fright Night will be. More on that later.
Joe Raffa, the director of my Six Degrees of Hell said it was Abbott and Costello that introduced him to horror. New York’s WPIX Channel 11 made Bud and Lou a staple of Sunday afternoon movie matinees. There were a lot of them, and while I appreciate their war comedies and musicals, like Joe Raffa, I awaited ACMF to appear on the screen and make my afternoon.
I spent time at my Nanny and Pappy’s cabin in the Pocono Mountains. This was a time when a seven-year-old could ride alone in the back of his grandfather’s open, green Toyota pickup truck from Easton to The Poconos (a 45 mile haul) and stay overnight in an unfinished cabin with no windows or doors, no electric or running water and a bucket for a toilet. Even after Pappy finished the cabin we still had to get our water from a hand pump outside until he got the plumbing done.
I watched these old movies on their small black and white TV that you see in the picture with me as I held my “Little Golden Book” of dinosaurs. I was going to be Sam Neill in Jurassic Park, not a horror filmmaker. Jaws would take care of that about two years after that picture was taken. Take note of the box on the floor next to me holding Aurora plastic model kits. I had every one of their prehistoric issues as well as Godzilla, King Kong and every classic Universal Monster.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and all of its incarnations helped to make the horror “spoof” popular. In many ways, it’s a sad coda to the careers of Chaney and Lugosi. Both men fell on hard times, and now we know they ended up doing films far beneath their iconic stature. Ed Wood and countless documentaries and behind the scenes have documented all of that, but perhaps the oddest fallout of Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein was the establishment of the “monster mash-up.”
Combining all of those classic names together had a sum worth far more than its parts.
I will touch on the downside of this with later thoughts on Freddy vs. Jason and fan expectation for my “Expendables of Horror” mash-up, Death House.
ACMF without doubt showed there was still money in those old classic monsters. Maybe they didn’t scare like they used to but they were good for a few laughs.
That’s where Rankin/Bass’s Mad Monster Party entered my life and changed its course.
Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass and their “have music will travel” composing sidekick, Maury Laws were hot off the success of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer for TV and the hit stop-motion (Then called Animagic) puppet feature, The Daydreamer. They entered into a multi-picture deal with Joseph E. Levine and MMP (see?) was one of them.
I am going to get out in front of this. I think it was the dress-ripping catfight between Gale Garnett’s red-headed Francesca and Phyllis Diller’s Monster’s Mate that hooked me. Diller’s character rips this shiny, gold evening gown from that hot, stacked red-headed Marilyn Monroe/Jane Mansfield clone and my pre-pubescent hormones kicked into overdrive.
Francesca might be the hottest stop-motion puppet ever and she pre-dated Jessica Rabbit by two decades.
Call me sexist. Call it toxic masculinity. I don’t care. I said it. I own it.
Mad Magazine’s Jack Davis designed the characters and Frank Frazetta did a poster for it (I lived in the same town as Frazetta’s kids and know them personally) and Boris Karloff headlined as the voice of Dr. Frankenstein.
The plot is simple: The old doctor is the head of the “Worldwide Organization of Monsters” and he’s retiring. He has one last big secret to present before handing it all over to his Jimmy Stewart-esque nephew, Felix Flanken. The world’s monsters convene on this Caribbean island for a huge convention and enter into a game of treachery and back-stabbing to inherit Frankenstein’s secrets.
I loved it. I got to see Francesca’s dress ripped off. I wanted to be Felix. I loved the crazy monster designs. We have a Peter Lorre-style zombie named Yetch, a Sydney Greenstreet inspired Invisible Man and a Dracula that still stands out as unique and his own thing.
I tried to build my own Francesca and bring it to life in my back yard. She was made of wood, cloth and a face I drew on cardboard—cut out and affixed to the body. Not creepy at all.
I watched the film whenever it was on—usually Halloween and Thanksgiving time. Every once in awhile you caught it on New Years Day.
I went as far as to tape record—audio record the movie by sitting in front of our 25-inch tube TV holding a cassette tape recorder, flipping tapes when they ran out to capture the whole thing. From there I started to draw and made my own comic book; illustrating the entire movie from start to finish.
It might’ve been the first storyboard of my future career.
I overplayed my hand in fourth grade, seeing in the TV Guide (some have no idea what I am talking about) that MMP would be airing the coming week but—it was during the school week. Not a weekend.
The problem was, I asked if I could stay home to see it. My mother shot that down fast. I kept talking about it and that doomed me. I went to school the morning the movie was to air. It would come on at 1PM. By 10AM I pretended I didn’t feel good and was sent to the nurse.
I knew enough that a fever was the exit pass and I couldn’t fake that. Earlier that morning I took a Cream of Wheat packet from the cabinet and stuck it in my pocket. In the nurse’s bathroom I pulled it out, opened it and dumped it into the toilet and made lots of retching and puke sounds.
When I came out, she looked in, saw the nastiness in the toilet I had left as evidence and called for my mom at work to come get me. My mother left me at home for the late morning, and I was clear to watch Mad Monster Party and believed I got away with it all.
My mother came home from work by five and had time to think about it all day. “You being sick would have nothing to do with that stupid monster movie being on, would it?”
I tried to play cool, I lied right to her face. She didn’t buy it. I was grounded for the entire Easter school break for lying. I had to write a letter to my teacher and the school nurse, apologizing for being a liar.
It was worth it.
I got to see Felix get the hot girl in the end. I got to see Francesca stripped for the twentieth time and I imagined I was the venerable Dr. “Boris” von Frankenstein and the entire world’s monsters feared me.
I would pretend a giant slate mountain far in the woods behind our house was my castle and the woods were the Isle of Evil.
I had a kid’s chemistry set and I mixed all kinds of shit together to make the explosive Frankenstein made in the film. All it did was fizz. I never got it to glow or kick off dry ice type smoke. What did I know? I was in fourth grade.
My imaginary friends were the monsters of Mad Monster Party.
The film stayed with me until I got the chance in middle school to remake it in a live version.
It was my eighth-grade year. Our middle school had a TV studio in its basement, directly under the gym floor. The progressive geniuses who designed the school didn’t understand film and TV production and at the very least…sound.
It was one teacher who changed the course of my life.
Donna Haddon, an Angela Lansbury-esque reading teacher with a background in radio production started a TV and film production class at the end of the day for extra-curricular courses called “exploratories.”
I gathered my friends and we were going to make a movie and it was going to be a remake of Mad Monster Party. I originally thought of it as a play, but it was Mrs. Haddon who saw the possibilities of making it into a film in our downstairs TV studio. I even looked her up in the phone book right after our eight grade year started and the teachers went on strike. I called her at home and pitched her to help me make Mad Monster Party.
We had a three-camera setup in the studio. The video cameras were connected to a booth where a reel to reel video recorder preserved it all. A long switchboard allowed sound and video fades and wipes and that was about it. I think your basic movie app can do all of that and more.
A close friend and classmate who lived down the road transcribed my old audio cassettes I made of the film into a shooting script. We planned to use my comic strips as storyboards.
The next step was casting. You need marquee value. You need names.
I would play Boris Karloff’s Dr. Frankenstein. My friend who slaved over the tape transcriptions would be Phyllis Diller’s Monster’s Mate, but I needed star power for Francesca. I went right to the top of the school food chain and her name was Toni.
We did have a girl who was an almost perfect real-life double of Francesca right down to the red hair and beauty mark, but she passed immediately, even before I could finish the pitch.
But Toni…she was Cher…she was our class’s icon of coolness and hotness in Jordache jeans.
When I was new to the school in sixth grade, I was told Toni was one of the coolest, one of the untouchables. In my mind, every girl loved or envied her, every guy wanted to date her. She was outspoken, brilliant and funny. A kid like me never had a chance. I adored her.
But…I could make girls laugh and I made Toni laugh. A lot. And in sixth grade I decided I would write Jaws 3 since my love affair with Jaws was only stronger after the recent Jaws 2.
I made Toni a central character in the book, which I handwrote in a Spiral Meade notebook with my trust Erasermate pen.
It worked. She loved it, checked in daily with how the book was coming, what came next for her character and it locked in a close friendship we would enjoy until the day she died. I still say my Jaws 3 was better at a sixth grade level than what we would get in 1983.
Two years later, in eighth grade, if Toni played Francesca, it would make me legit. All those who doubted me, all those who thought I was “the weird kid” would pick me up on their shoulders and parade me throughout the school as tickertape and confetti fell from the ceiling.
Toni passed on the role of Francesca.
It wasn’t asking her to get her dress ripped off (which I lit a hundred candles, slaughtered three goats and prayed to God she would do) but rather acting wasn’t her thing and she was proud of me and I should find someone better than her.
We held auditions. I cast my then-best friend as Felix Flanken as he had that “aww shucks” kinda goofiness and a friend as Francesca. I rounded out the cast with other friends and we went forth to make our movie.
We shot it on black and white, reel to reel video tape (I still have the reel) and Mrs. Haddon supervised in that “executive producer” title. She taught us blocking, camera angles and she guided me in directing. The impact this woman had on my life can’t be overstated.
At the end of each day I paraded through the middle school hallway to the gym stairs that led to the lockers and TV studio; in Mrs. Haddon’s white wig, a white lab coat and spectacles to the embarrassment of a girl I was dating at the time.
“Why are you doing this?” She asked once. “You are on the verge of popularity.”
She didn’t get it. Film was my life, and MMP was my long-time mistress.
It took all year to make a film with a less than 30-minute running time. Halfway through the year our original Francesca got sick and replaced with her understudy. Then the original Francesca got better, came back to school and we swapped out the understudy and kept right on filming. Literally halfway through the film Francesca is played by an all-new girl, THEN changes BACK in the last ten minutes to the original actress who went on sick leave.
No one noticed or cared. The teachers wheeled out these 25-inch Magnavox TVs on rolling carts into each eight grade learning area on the last day of school, June 1981 and my year-long project debuted.
It was a hit and my then-girlfriend said she sat astounded at the positive reaction. I wonder today if she’s seen any of my professional films. She’s still out there, somewhere.
My friends presented me with a homemade Academy Award which sits on my desk to this day. It followed me to college, then when I moved to Los Angeles after failing out of college and to where I am now.
One kid’s movie that I saw when I was four or five years old followed me all through school and stayed with me to this day. On my desktop sits a big budget, live-action remake of Mad Monster Party that updates everything and does not just feature the classic Universal Monsters, but also some more current and familiar faces.
The summers of 1979 and 1980 were banner years for horror. My next piece will look at that the quiet, fertile summer of 1979 and several horrors that pushed me on the journey upstream.