Long before Scream, there was the smart and entertaining “How to Make a Monster” meta-horror film that tops Joe Dante’s list of favorites.
When we talk about meta-horror in this day and age, the mind usually goes to Scream and perhaps Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. But way back in ’58, there was How to Make a Monster.
This 1958 meta-horror, directed by Herbert L. Strock, is about a special FX make-up artist who, after losing his job, takes revenge on the studio that he devoted his life to.
It’s not hard to understand why Joe Dante picked this as one of his favorite classic horror movies that helped inspire his personal filmmaking style. There is a sense of fun to the film, with its meta premise, which I believe always shines through in the works of Dante. No matter what genre Dante is working in, there is always an overwhelming sense of fun in watching his films, and that gives them continued rewatchability, from The Howling to Small Soldiers and beyond.
The film is set in a reality where films like I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein are just movies. But the beastly threats contained within those films become all too real as chaos and murder ensue on the set of what is to be the studio’s last horror picture before they turn their attention to musicals.
How to Make a Monster opens with a mesmerizing showcase of the score, while a dressing room mirror surrounded by lights is written upon, scribing the title of the film. I always enjoy these old title sequences, as we don’t get a lot of them these days that really leave that kind of impression.
As is to be expected from this era of cinema, both the acting and the score match each other in melodramatic grandeur, which makes for an altogether engaging and thrilling ride.
Although the film is a popcorn drive-in movie, it does manage to poke some knowing fun at the inner workings of Hollywood and how ruthless show business can be.
The main villain of the piece is Pete Dumond, played in a nefarious fashion by Robert H. Harris. He is so enigmatic on screen that it is a joy to watch him unravel throughout the film until he becomes truly unhinged for the finale.
The film ends with a visually striking set piece when the film changes from black and white to vivid color for the last scene. This makes the end really pack a punch!
Something I found rather interesting about the film, which makes it still timely today, is how horror as a genre is viewed by the studio execs.
The studio wants to shut horror down, and genre films are ridiculed and sidelined. This is still true today. Horror is still seen as less than by many people.
For horror to receive any critical praise in the mainstream, it usually has to be tagged with the word thriller, or these days, elevated horror, just so that it is set apart from the rest of the genre. That’s quite a shame, and it’s depressing to think not much has changed in the 65 years since the excellent How to Make a Monster was released.