Tuesday, April 2, 2013

I Was a Teenage Frankenstein / Werewolf (1957)

Directors: Herbert Strock, Gene Fowler                 Writers: Herman Cohen & Aben Kandel
Film Score: Paul Dunlap                     Cinematography: Lothrop Worth & Joseph LaShelle
Starring: Whit Bissell, Gary Conway, Michael Landon and Yvonne Fedderson

Herman Cohen’s low-budget, drive-in double feature is actually quite entertaining once, of course, you adjust your expectations accordingly. Of course the scripts are ridiculous, the acting pedestrian at best, the production design minimal, and the end results pure exploitation. And yet . . . there’s something appealing about the whole thing. Cohen wrote both screenplays himself, and cast Whit Bissell as the mad doctor in both, giving the duo a kind of symmetry that made them perfect for a double bill at the drive-in. Pandering to teenagers didn’t hurt at the box office either, but then that was really the whole point.

In the mid fifties, with the advent of rock and roll and youth rebellion--okay, more overt youth rebellion than in the past--independent producers found that kids with disposable income were more inclined to spend that money on product that was geared toward them. It was the beginning of the youth culture in marketing. Bissell’s line in I Was a Teenage Frankenstein might cause a wince today, but it is exactly where advertising has gone in the last sixty years: “Only in youth is there any hope for the salvation of mankind.” Conveniently, as soon as he intones those words a fatal car crash happens outside his laboratory and he steals a body to create his monster, with predictable results. As a British Dr. Frankenstein he coerces not only another doctor to assist him, but a nurse who is infatuated with him to help him in unleashing his teen monster on the world. What makes it so fun is that Bissell becomes exactly the sort of domineering adult figure that his teenage monster would rebel against.

The companion piece, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, is the more popular of the two today because of the presence of Michael Landon as the title character. But it’s also the more polished of the two pictures. The production values are better and there’s less unintended humor. Bissell plays a psychiatrist this time, who attempts to help Landon with his out-of-control anger problem. Unbeknownst to Landon, however, he is secretly using drugs and hypnosis to revert the teen to a more primitive human state, the ultimate result being the transformation into a werewolf. The only part of the film that doesn’t track well today are the kids, with their beat-generation lingo and attitude. The rest of the film has a realism that is decidedly lacking in the phony laboratory of the first. There are a lot more exterior shots that help, and the acting is better overall.

Whit Bissell began his film career auspiciously in the 1940s, his first appearance coming in Errol Flynn’s The Sea Hawk. By the mid-fifties he was playing small roles in major films like Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Caine Mutiny. Starring roles, even in Cohen’s low-budget films, must have seemed like a step up. Instead, he sort of became typecast as doctors and psychiatrists for the remainder of his career in films and guest spots on television series. There’s a big difference between a bad film and one that is simply low-budget. Cohen’s Teenage Frankenstein and Werewolf films are certainly low-budget, corny, and at times humorous, but they’re certainly not bad for one very important reason: they’re both very entertaining.

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