Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Note: Savant correspondent Bill Shaffer has interviewed actor James Karen on his part in this monster show.
Bad low-budget monster movies deserve a haven from the slings and arrows of outraged critics, and Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster is prime bait for derision. It's a grade triple-Z production with an infantile concept and a corny script, with twenty minutes of plot padded out by an eternity of military stock footage. We can picture the exploitation producers thumbing through a Forry Ackerman magazine and debating whether to make a Gothic horror movie with Frankenstein's Monster or one of those newfangled science fiction creatures from Outer Space. The final word must have been something like, "Stop! You're both right!"
Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster was just the kind of pabulum to fit into the pages of Famous Monsters magazine, where Savant remembers seeing photos of the two monsters. The space creature Mull looked like it was assembled after reading one of those Paul Blaisdell do-it-yourself articles in Fantastic Monsters of the Films. Even cooler was the movie's Frankenstein, a hot shot astronaut turned into a maniac killer when half his face is fried with a Martian ray gun. What could be better?
Martian Princess Marcuzan (Marilyn Hanold) wants to quietly land her spaceship on Earth, so her minions can kidnap nubile Earth girls to replenish Mars' radiation-depleted breeding stock. Her lackey Doctor Nadir (Lou Cutell) blows up a missile headed to intercept them. At Cape Kennedy, Doctor Adam Steele (James Karen) and Nurse Karen Grant (Nancy Marshall) prepare astronaut Frank Saunders (Robert Reilley) for flight, hiding his odd behavior from the visiting press. Frank is actually an android, a robot that looks and thinks like a man. When Frank's Mars rocket blasts off, Nadir and Marcuzan shoot it down, thinking it's another interceptor. Frank crashes in Puerto Rico, with the Martians close behind, aiming to blast him with their ray guns. They also initiate their nefarious kidnapping scheme, as Dr. Steele and the combined American armed forces converge on their spaceship!
Let's start with the good first. Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster has two decent low-budget monsters. Frank gets half his face blasted away, revealing a very RoboCop-ish charred skull beneath; he goes around choking people before his violent impulses are put to better use against the Martians. Noted actor Bruce Glover is said to be beneath the hairy costume of the monster named Mull; he mostly thrashes his claws around but looks good in Saul Midwall's wide-angle, hand held photography.
The movie can boast about ten minutes of lively action, mostly involving Frank stumbling about the Puerto Rican beaches and fighting with Mull inside the alien craft, the best darn spaceship one could build from plywood. The Martian foot soldiers run about in generic rented astronaut costumes, zapping people with ray guns adapted from king-sized Wham-O Air Blaster toys. Besides a couple of pre-launch dialogue scenes, we're given a series of laughable exchanges between the haughty Princess Marcuzan and the mincing Dr. Nadir. She's arrayed in a glitter-sprayed Queen of the Nile costume, and he's a nasty little bald albino with pointy Spock ears. The kidnapped girls are brought in for Nadir to ogle. Princess Marcuzan gloats over them too, perhaps making personal plans for them beyond repopulating the Martian nation. None of the bikini'd teens seem unduly alarmed at being abducted by perverts from outer space. One after another the girls are popped into the "electro-purifier" ... Nadir shakes his beady head at some of them, as if he thinks they're really dirty and need a good purifying.
The rest of the movie is padding, pure and simple. The first shot up is a long take of a radio telescope that just ... sits there. From then on we're treated to a leisurely car trip (nice to know there were good motels out by Cape Kennedy), stock footage of NASA launching pads, stock footage of a rocket blowing up, stock footage of jets taking Dr. Steele to Puerto Rico, and long passages of Steele and Grant toodling around San Juan on a motor scooter. They also take the scooter to pursue Frank and the monsters in the countryside ... a single motor scooter isn't very impressive as a getaway vehicle. We see a subdued pool party invaded by helmeted Martians, Frank wanders some more in the brush, jets and tanks and helicopter-borne troops move in -- you keep it up long enough, you got a movie.
Considering all that, Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster is actually fairly well made if one can discount some wretched post-synched dialogue. The camerawork isn't bad and the action cuts are pretty active. Just about all the director had to create space-age ray gun battles are some smoke pots and a few eager actors. For what it is, it's not bad.
Actors James ("Jim") Karen and Lou Cutell went on to long careers of mostly small parts in movies but larger presences in Television shows. Marilyn Hanold was a va-voom 50s pin-up model and appeared as statuesque women in films as varied as The Solid Gold Cadillac, The Garment Jungle, The Brain that Wouldn't Die and In Like Flint. Cameraman Saul Midwall was a big time camera operator on films like The Cardinal and The Hustler, and director Gaffney is credited with shooting the Monument Valley footage for Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. 1 The biggest name behind the camera is costume designer Anna Hill Johnstone, who had already done big pix for Elia Kazan and Sidney Lumet. Maybe she lost a bet or was doing a personal favor.
Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster went immediately to the bottom half of doomed Allied Artists double bills; Savant first caught up with it as a Ken Films 8mm silent short subject, which simply showed about two minutes of the final duel between Frank and the mutant Mull. That's all I ever saw of the picture, but I recognized every cut while watching the DVD. Of course, my video screen doesn't reproduce the feel of the old 8mm projector aimed at a refrigerator door.
Dark Sky / Monsters HD's DVD of Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster is enhanced and well transferred. The original negative has slightly more damage than their other releases, with a few scratches and a couple of breaks early on. Overall it looks fine, about five million percent better than those old gray-market VHS tapes. The soundtrack uses a number of bouncy rock tunes by groups with names like Distant Cousins and The Poets, but Bob Crewe's name appears as well. Crewe had an outfit called The Bob Crewe Generation that did the eclectic soundtrack for Roger Vadim's Barbarella a few years later. I doubt he used a print of Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster to audition.
The only extras are a campy trailer and a still gallery. A colorful insert booklet contains a number of confusingly compiled essays by writers R.H.W. Hilliard and George Garrett, with comments culled from the Psychotronic guru Michael Weldon and others. Some of the creatives were Charlottesville college writers who hoped to make a silly comedy (a concept eventually done, sort of, by Phillip Kaufman in Fearless Frank) and now are professors with years of teaching behind them. Even they wonder what became of the film's fly-by-night producers.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster rates:
Movie: Good if you know what you're getting into
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Still gallery, Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 16, 2006
1. Quite an interesting Robert Gaffney-related story from Steve Schechter, 4.25.06:
Some more info for you regarding FMTSM director Robert Gaffney. I
worked for Bob from 76 to 80 and he brought this movie out for every
party and any other possible excuse. He and his friends had a ball
making it, he knew it was crap, and he loved it.
At that time, Bob was a Clio winning director/cameraman with his own
production company, and had done photography for a couple of Academy
Award winning short subjects, but his relationship with Stanley
Kubrick was actually much more extensive than you realize.
He did some second unit photography for Lolita and the aerial footage
for Strangelove before doing some work on 2001.
Following 2001, Bob was the producer for Kubrick's Napoleon. When the
project was dropped, Bob was so frustrated by the whole experience
that he quit feature films. However, Kubrick would not let go of him.
Bob had a hand in designing the low light lenses used for Barry
Lyndon, and his office (myself included) did a large variety of odd
tasks for The Shining. We found the Steadicam and tested it out for
him and we did liaison work with the second unit crew shooting the
exteriors. And actually, before the start of production, Kubrick was
considering moving back to the U.S. to do the film and I was assisting
with the plans for the move, which of course never happened.
I got to speak to Kubrick (very briefly) almost every day for two
years. He was convinced that as a prominent American artist living in
the UK, his family was being targeted by the IRA. His response was to
have his phone number changed every other day. Why he thought that
would be an effective deterrent to kidnapping I never asked, but I
suppose one could say it worked .... Steve Schechter
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson