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July 2006 : Essay:

Monsters That Missed Out

Probably because I started putting marks on paper and the occasional wall almost as soon as I could hold a pencil, I arrived early at an understanding that books and pictures - and by extension movies, television shows, and other media - were manmade rather than spontaneously generated. And probably as soon as I connected the Superman George Reeves portrayed on TV with his facsimile in comic books, I became fascinated by the process of adaptation from medium to medium.

I learned in due course that such adaptations might bear only passing resemblance to the source material. Although I certainly never used them for this purpose, I can tell you that Classics Illustrated's versions of, say, Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Time Machine were reliable enough to use for book reports; not so the "Dell Movie Classic" comic books bearing the same titles - they were at least a couple of removes too many from Jules Verne and H. G. Wells to be trustworthy. One thing comics and, particularly, movies engendered in me was a desire to get the straight poop, the authentic fiction, if you will; I had read at least one of Verne's novels, a clutch of Edgar Allan Poe's short stories, and Frankenstein before I started high school.

Another thing they engendered in me was a vast, consuming, abiding love of monsters.

Unquestionably, the most durable monsters in fiction inhabit the pages of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Bram Stoker's Dracula, but their real fame, celebrity, notoriety, iconic status - take your pick - derives from movie careers that have ranged between the sublime (films directed by James Whale and F. W. Murnau) and the ridiculous (I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, Billy the Kid Vs. Dracula) – every great once in a while arriving at the sublimely ridiculous: Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein.

Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde probably places third, or third and fourth if you want to be pedantic. Neck and neck and misshapen neck in the rear of the pack are H. G. Wells' Invisible Man (not a monster, strictly speaking, but certainly one of your more outré menaces), Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera, and Victor Hugo's Quasimodo (from The Hunchback of Notre Dame)- though the Phantom and Quasimodo are edging forward now that the former is a star on Broadway and the latter has become a Disney cartoon character. The oldest member of this pantheon made his print debut in 1818, the youngest, the Phantom, in 1910—the same year Thomas Edison produced the first Frankenstein movie, and already two years after the first film adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Another six cinematic adaptations of Stevenson's novella appeared between 1912 and 1920; now, after a century, it may well be the most-often-filmed piece of writing in English literature, and this is without counting the obligatory sequels, Son of..., Daughter of..., Abbott and Costello Meet...

Either because they knew a good story when they saw it or else because they were strapped for good stories of their own, early filmmakers such as George Méliès were quick to adapt or simply steal from fantastic literature; later ones have upheld the tradition. Three interesting anthologies showcasing the acknowledged sources of some of their efforts are The Ghouls, They Came From Outer Space, and Reel Future1. There is, inevitably, overlap among these compendia, particularly between the last two (which bear the respective subtitles "12 Classic Science Fiction Tales That Became Major Motion Pictures" and "The Stories That Inspired 16 Classic Science Fiction Movies"): you can't get around the fact that certain of the film genre's enduring entries — The Thing From Another World, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, The Fly – were derived directly from certain of the print genre's, stories written by John W. Campbell, Jr., Harry Bates, Ray Bradbury, and George Langelaan.

Nor can it be denied that certain other well-known works of science fiction have (let us call it) "inspired" certain other movies – any resemblance between H. G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) and Terror Is a Man (1959), or between Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters (1951) and The Brain Eaters (1958), or between A. E. van Vogt's short story "Black Destroyer" (originally published in the July 1939 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction) and It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958), is not purely coincidental.

To be sure, some slightly less enduring magazine stories, such as two by Paul W. Fairman, "Deadly City" (which he signed "Ivar Jorgenson" when it ran in the March 1953 issue of If) and "The Cosmic Frame" (Amazing Stories, May 1955), also inspired some slightly less enduring films – such as Target Earth (1954) and Invasion of the Saucermen (1957). My inner connoisseur of crap, however, chiefly regrets that Hollywood's quick-buck producers did not fashion more, less enduring films from more, less enduring stories about creeps and creatures. Heaven knows, during the decades encompassing the world wars, pulp magazines swarmed with unspeakable horrors, each trying to outdo the rest for unspeakable horribleness and thereby (I'm sure) attract the attention of some bottom-feeding Hollywood talent scout.

Let me tell you about a few who never got their shot at the big time – or even the small.

In "The Monster Men," originally published in the November 1913 All-Story Magazine and issued in book form in 1929, Edgar Rice Burroughs mixed together elements of Frankenstein, H. G. Wells' Island of Dr. Moreau (neither of which he is known to have read), and his own Tarzan stories in a yarn having to do with the creation of, not one, not two, but a dozen grotesque humanoids on a remote island in the Indian Ocean. In the course of a 1948 interview, one of the last Burroughs granted, Forry Ackerman suggested The Monster Men as a likely movie and the author mentioned that "it had been considered on and off for years."

Why such a project failed of fruition – why it or, at least, something like it wasn't filmed from scratch, circa 1957, '58, and released under the aegis of Allied Artists or American-International Pictures, specialists in cheaply and quickly made product for consumption by teenagers (perceived as an uncritical market) – is difficult to imagine, because The Monster Men has it all: Brilliant-But-Bananas Scientist, His Beautiful-But-Bemused Daughter, Treacherous Assistant, Valiant Hero, Messy Lab Work, Shambling Horrors, Jungle Action, Moral Quandaries, and, for good measure, Burroughs tossed in marauding headhunters and a complement of pirates.

Otis Adelbert Kline set loose "The Malignant Entity" (Weird Tales, May-June-July 1924), a vat-spawned product of another scientist's attempts to create life, and not too unlike the hungry, ever-growing protoplasm featured 32 years later in The Blob. After peeling the flesh from its creator's bones, the entity slithers around through the late savant's house, terrorizing investigators and leaving the occasional clean-picked skeleton in its path; unlike the Blob, it never gets to rampage at large, never even gets out of the house, in fact – its pursuers contrive to pluck out its all-important nucleus and seal that bit of gunk in a jar, which they toss into a fireplace.

Well, if you ask me, "The Malignant Entity" was made to order for the gimmick-minded entrepreneur William Castle, who gave the world "Emergo" – an inflatable skeleton wired to float down into the audience at a key moment in House on Haunted Hill; "Percepto" – theatre seats rigged to give patrons mild shocks, thereby enlivening screenings of The Tingler; and the "Fright Break" in Homicidal, described by the film historian Richard von Busack as

a 60-second interlude that allowed those who couldn't stand the terror to depart in peace.

If this wasn't enough, "patrons" could also retrieve their price of admission if they were too frightened to go on watching the movie – that is, after they'd followed the "Yellow Streak" down the theater's aisle to the "Coward's Corner" in the lobby, where they were supposed to sit like chimps in a cage, as a recorded announcement bellowed, "Look at the coward! See him quiver in the Coward's Corner." Refunds tended to drop off after that.

Ralph Milne Farley's "We, the Mist" (Amazing Stories, August 1940), tells of another amorphous monster that specializes in stripping flesh from its victims' bones. It also assimilates their minds. Confined at first to a deep sinkhole in a wild stretch of countryside near a prison, the mist hasn't the sense to move itself so long as it only eats rabbits and mice, but simply waits for dinner to blunder in. When, however, a crafty escaped convict stumbles into the tenuous monster, the mist decides it's time to get rowdy and runs amok on a grand scale, going so far as to envelop a battleship. Filming such a climax would scarcely have challenged the ingenuity (to say nothing of the budget) of Bert I. Gordon, master of the half-assed special-effects extravaganza, e.g., Earth Vs. The Spider and Beginning of the End or, if you prefer, "Earth Vs. The Grasshoppers." All Gordon probably would have required was a smoke machine (or a lighted cigar) and a toy boat in a bathtub.

Amazing Stories' March 1949 issue offered "The Chemical Vampire," by Lee Francis (a pen name of Leroy Yerxa) – still another variation on the theme of Things Man Was Not Intended To Grow. In this instance, what Francis' scientist protagonist synthesizes is no mere amoebic horror, like Kline's, nor even Burroughs' malformed quasi-men; it has shape: specifically, a beautiful woman's shape. What it does not have, however, is a single internal organ, and thus, being potato-solid through and through, it exasperates its maker by refusing to show the faintest flicker of life. But then, wouldn't you know it, and don't you hate it when this happens, the wandering essence of a vampire invades the homegrown body, and animates it by sheer force of will! Now Francis' hero faces a new problem. He knows, of course, how to settle a vampire's hash - one simply drives a wooden stake through its heart; he just can't figure out what to do with a vampire that has no heart.

Even now, it fairly astonishes me that Herman Cohen, whose résumé included I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, didn't go for this like a duck on a June bug.

In a more nearly perfectly imperfect world, it would have happened.

It could, in fact, still happen on our own plane of being, but it wouldn't be the same. Movie-makers paw as feverishly as ever through written works for properties to buy or otherwise appropriate, but production costs have become so inflated that "low budget" doesn't mean what it once did. And my inner connoisseur of crap is considerably less forgiving of bad movies made on multi-million-dollar budgets than of those made on shoestrings. He knows that the difference between (say) the 1957 She Devil, based on Stanley G. Weinbaum's "The Adaptive Ultimate," and (say) the 1997 Mimic, from Donald A. Wollheim's story, is a whole magnitude of cheesiness.

Footnotes

  1. The Ghouls, edited by Peter Haining (New York: Stein and Day, 1971); They Came From Outer Space, edited by Jim Wynorsk (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co. Inc., 1980); Reel Future, edited by Forrest J Ackerman and Jean Stine (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1994).back

Copyright © 2006, Steven Utley. All Rights Reserved.

About Steven Utley

Steven Utley is the author of the story collections Ghost Seas (1997), The Beasts of Love (2005), and Where or When (2006), and co-editor (with Michael Bishop) of the anthology Passing for Human, forthcoming from PS Publishing in 2008.

COMMENTS!

Jul 10, 23:09 by IROSF
A thread to discuss Steven Utley's take on second tier monsters.

The article can be found here

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