Our contribution to the Trashy Movie Celebration Blogathon hosted by The Bleeding Tree:
When I told a friend that not only was Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster coming to DVD, but that I’d already been sent an advanced copy, he replied, “If there was anybody on this planet who I believe should be getting a review copy of this movie, it is you hands down.”
And he went on: “I hope you haven’t forgotten your inherent and absolute love for this little wet fart of a movie…make this review your final love letter to this tiny, insignificant, delightful (and even remarkable) chestnut, cracked shell and all, for the world to see!” And then, as if possessed by the spirit of Criswell, “Fear not the scorn of cinema snobs who might scoff!”
You see, there’s a history between Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster and myself, so objectivity (if not caution) is hereby thrown to the wind. If you’re wondering about the quality of the film—well, you do realize it’s called Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, right?
It wasn’t the first new release I’d seen in the movies (that honor goes to Steve Reeves in The Thief of Baghdad), but it was the first one that I had, for lack of a better term, studied. It was 1965, I was seven-years-old and a rabid horror fan, and Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster—which we’ll now refer to as FMTSM to save space—had just been released. Or, sort of. At that time, adults had their movies and kids had matinees. Whether or not FMTSM ever played anywhere in the evenings to an older crowd is beyond me; in my neighborhood, you could only see it at the fifty-cent Saturday matinee…always a double feature with cartoons and trailers.
Before DVD, before VHS, we satisfied ourselves with home movies. Most of us could only afford 50ft or 200ft 8mm and Super-8 silent ‘highlight’ versions. My copy of Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (from Ken Films of Ft. Lee, N.J.) went through my rickety projector more times than I can count. I found that it synchronized marvelously with most of side 2 of the Goldfinger soundtrack lp.
It played often. Very often. I began to believe that the local theatre had their own copy to show whenever they pleased. I saw it on double features, playing with World Without End, Attack of the Giant Leeches, The Blob and Horrors of the Black Museum over a period of months. The original poster shows it teamed with Curse of the Voodoo, but I never saw that one in the theatre. (I eventually bought a copy of that kitschy one-sheet in 1979 for $9.00 and proudly stapled it to my wall; thanks to my ensuing marriage and opposing tastes in home décor, however, it has resided neatly folded somewhere in my office closet for twenty years.)
I knew FMTSM inside and out: every line of dialogue, every actor’s glance, every cut, every note of its snappy soundtrack. The background music was anonymous public domain stuff, and I’d give just about anything for an mp3 of it today. Plus, there were a couple of pop tunes: “To Have and to Hold” by a group called The Distant Cousins, and “That’s the Way It’s Got to Be” by The Poets. Those two numbers circled around in my head for years…especially the Peter & Gordon-style “To Have and to Hold”…We’ll walk in the rain, like lovers do, two by two, oh, oh, oh… (cue trumpet solo).
My friend would probably like to see me recount the plot of a robot astronaut sent up by NASA only to be shot down minutes later by invading aliens. Here to abduct earth women for breeding stock (their home planet has been wiped out by atomic war), their leader is a rather imposing dyke named Princess Marcuzan, who feeds instructions to her butterball lieutenant, aptly named Nadir. He, in turn, presides over an ‘army’ of six or seven bored extras clad in painter’s coveralls and motorcycle helmets, toting an arsenal of Wham-O Air Blasters. (Did I mention that the budget on this hovered in the vicinity of thirty-nine cents?)
We should mull over the cast for a minute. There is, in fact, a character named Mull. Some sources claim that it’s played by Bruce Glover, unrecognizable inside a gorilla suit topped by a bizarre skeletal mask. (Mull is the Space Monster.) Whether this is true or not, I’ll leave to the Pupkins to squabble over; but Glover is visible as one of Nadir’s soldiers, the only one with dialogue. For those who don’t know, Bruce Glover had sizeable roles in the James Bond movie, Diamonds Are Forever (as a gay assassin), and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (as one of Gittes’s operatives), and is the father of noted eccentric Crispin Glover.
Bruce Glover, space cadet The goodguy of the picture, James Karen went on to become one of the busiest character actors in movies and television. In the ‘70s and ‘80s he had a steady gig as the pitchman for Pathmark supermarkets in the New York tri-state area. More recently he played the casting director in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. In 1965 he was just starting out and did FMTSM shortly after appearing in Samuel Beckett’s Film. (Karen was close friends with its star, Buster Keaton, and would later received The Buster Keaton Society’s coveted Buster Award in 2001.) Part of the enticement for making FMTSM may have been its San Juan locations. (Interiors were shot at Seneca Studios in Hempstead, Long Island, less than ten miles from the theatre I first saw it in.) In one scene, Karen’s character, stuck in the wilds of Puerto Rico, stops by a snack shack nestled in the middle of nowhere to ask the Spanish-speaking attendant if he could use his telephone:
Karen: “Do you have a telephone?”
Karen: “Telephone! Telephone!”
Karen: “No! No! Telephone…telephone…El telephono!”
Attendant: “Ah, sí!”
Yes, that’s right: it’s a comedy. Or at least it started out to be one. A booklet supplied with the DVD offers some revelatory interview excerpts with one of the screenwriters, George Garrett (Virginia’s poet laureate in 2002) on the construction of the script: “There were three of us, myself and two University of Virginia graduate students in English: R.H.W. Dillard and John von B. Rodenbeck. I need to add, though, that the poet Henry Taylor dropped in a couple of times while the script writing was actually in progress and may or may not have added a word or two, a line of dialogue, or even an idea for a scene. He probably did. Who knows?…The first version [of the script] was intended to be funny. At least we thought so. So did the producers, but that didn’t make them happy…‘Please understand,’ one of them said…‘This is a fine script, guys, very funny. Me and my partner laughed our collective asses off. Ha ha ha! Only, you see, we are in the horror film business. You got your horror and you got your humor and you are not supposed to mix them up.’”
Nonetheless, Garrett and his cohorts tinged it with a hefty dose of satire. Unlike the movies of Ed Wood where laughter comes at the expense of purple prose and stilted acting, FMTSM makes no effort to conceal its deficiencies. Indeed, it works from them. The combination of the chintzy space invasion, nighttime pool parties, girls in bikinis, garage band rock ‘n roll, and a robot with half of his face disintegrated by one of those Wham-O Air Blasters is amusing in itself. But credit the hands-off approach of director Robert Gaffney, who allows a wide range of overacting and decadent innuendo, and pads with an inordinate amount of stock footage that takes up nearly a quarter of the movie. The film becomes a parody of itself.
Nadir (Lou Cutell) and Princess Marcuzan (Marilyn Hanold) There are so many other points that my friend would want me to cover, things that really should be seen first and discussed afterward. But to placate his passions while not revealing too much of this “chestnut, cracked shell and all” (how fitting!), we could single out actors Lou Cutell (Nadir) and Marilyn Hanold (the Princess).
She started out in walk-ons, from the major studio gloss of The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956) to the dire Joe Besser-era Three Stooges short, Space Ship Sappy (1957). Posing for Playboy—then regarded as outright pornography by the mainstream—was surely an act of desperation that failed to attract any substantial work. (To check out her June 1959 centerfold, click here.) As Princess Marcuzan, she’s impressively haughty and commanding, especially when purring the death sentence, “Bring him to Mull.” Unfortunately, all it led to was an appearance on TV’s Batman, the part of “Amazon #8” in In Like Flint (1967), and early retirement.
Eyes bulging, lips smacking, Lou Cutell’s Nadir is done up in a Johnson-Smith bald skin wig and pointy ears pinched out of putty, the camera making no effort to hide the shoddy makeup. His signature line, “And now: maximum energy!” is capped off by a penetrating close-up in a pregnant pause as if to emphasize the absurdity. Like James Karen, Cutell has had a lengthy career in character parts, his recent work for television including guest appearances on Seinfeld, Will and Grace and Spin City.
With several of its stars and creators still active either professionally or on the interview circuit, it was disappointing that this new DVD hasn’t an audio commentary or a short ‘making of’ feature. While I may be looking at all this through rose-colored space shield eye protectors, the thought of a reunion—Karen, Glover, Cutell, Hanold, Garrett, R.H.W. Dillard, maybe even the enigmatic Robert Gaffney—boggles the mind. It was a welcome, even jarring surprise to see Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster on DVD at all (it does come with the original trailer and a gallery of stills), but the print that they used, although miraculously widescreen, is marred by several visible splices, lines (see photo above, over Cutell’s ear) and occasional pops in the sound.
It’s been ages since I’ve seen such cosmetic imperfections, and for a moment I felt as if I were back watching that overworked 35mm print rattling through the projectors in 1965...Back in the day when I’d smear paste over half of my face, letting it set and crack, and stalk imaginary adversaries with my Wham-O Air Blaster. I’d also experimented on G.I. Joe dolls (the 12” variety, thank you), lighting matches and melting off half of their heads. I’m sure there are Freudian implications to spare in these playtime endeavors, the duality of man and all that. What can I say? The local five-and-dime didn’t carry baldy wigs, and I wasn’t about to buy a gorilla suit.