More or less a video autobiography of one man's passion for making (and remaking) the genre films of his youth, I Was a Teenage Movie Maker (2006) is a sometimes crude but mostly beguiling and sometimes quite charming documentary not necessarily limited to like-minded amateur filmmakers and monster movie fans. Cinema Epoch's lavish two-disc collector's edition - who'd ever thought there would ever be stuff like this available on video? - includes not only a feature-length documentary, but a whopping 41 amateur films, commentary tracks, and a feast of other extras, some eight hours worth of 16mm movie madness.
Donald F. Glut's amateur movies, shot between 1953 and 1969, acquired a kind of legendary status over the years partly because the films, with titles like Son of Tor and Spy Smasher vs. the Purple Monster, were frequently mentioned in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland and Fantastic Monsters, the kind of publications crammed with photos printed on that wonderfully cheap, pulpy paper that a generation of kids weaned on the "Shock Theater" TV syndication packages of the late-1950s poured over with knee-knocking enthusiasm.
Moreover, some of these films featured honest-to-goodness Hollywood actors like Kenne Duncan and Glenn Strange, or original sci-fi movie props and costumes, like the Metaluna Mutant head from This Island Earth or one of the bug-eyed aliens from Invasion of the Saucer-Men. Around this time, Glut attended USC where his classmates included people like George Lucas and John Carpenter. Randal Kleiser (later the director of Grease) was even recruited to play Captain America in one of Don's movies.*
Though I Was a Teenage Movie Maker includes interviews with people like Kleiser, Bob Burns, Bill Warren, and (a sadly frail) Forry Ackerman, about 95% of the show consists of Don himself looking straight into the camera talking about those formative years, intercut with lots of clips from the movies themselves. It's too long, the sound and lighting aren't so hot, and even Don's shirt has what looks like a big coffee stain on it, and yet, somehow, once you start watching you can't turn it off.
That's because instead of coming off as insufferably egocentric, Don's kind of in an insulated world all his own. His enthusiasm, single-mindedness and childlike (though not childish) affection for movie monsters, serials and superheroes are genuine. Though he's honest with himself about his movies' many shortcomings, Glut agreeably accentuates the positive. The stop-motion may be lousy but, gee whiz, that explosion there was sure kinda neat.
The 62-year-old Don talking straight into the camera and the 17-year-old star of all those Teenage Werewolf movies don't much resemble one another anymore, but listening to Don today one is convinced that, at the core, they're definitely one and the same.
The film has a peculiar charm that almost (if not quite) transcends what would seem to be the DVD's very limited audience. Perhaps unintentionally, a running gag gradually emerges as Don proudly shows off one memento after another. It soon becomes apparent that Don has saved absolutely everything from his youth: every costume, every toy. One teenage pal recalls, "We had one leather jacket between the four of us." Cut to Don, holding the treasured item, "I actually have the original which I got about 1958 or so....And yes, it still fits." After a while this becomes funny, with each 45-year-old clip followed by a cut to Don showing off some carefully-preserved original costume or prop like a proud father, like the miniature volcano resting on top of washing machine in somebody's (his mother's?) basement.
The story has an odd sort of poignancy, too. Glut basically kept refining the same kind of amateur movie over-and-over. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but when Don was accepted into USC's famous film school none of his teachers or classmates would take him seriously. Where other students emulated Kurosawa or Godard, Glut was still looking to Ford Beebe and Erle C. Kenton for inspiration. At a time when classmate George Lucas was directing the experimental Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB, Glut was making stuff like Wrath of the Sun Demon and Superman vs. the Gorilla Gang - which got a C-minus.
As student films go, Superman vs. the Gorilla Gang exhibited a thorough knowledge of the basics of narrative storytelling and technical ingenuity. "Yeah," his instructor concurred, "but it was a Superman movie." Don was crestfallen.
He never reached the heights of his many famous classmates, but Glut still managed a career pretty much doing what he had wanted to do all along: writing comic books and histories of the genre (including several well-thumbed volumes on this reviewer's bookshelf), scripts for cartoon shows and, eventually, he even directed a few retro features like Dinosaur Valley Girls (1996).
Video & Audio
I Was a Teenage Movie Maker is presented full-frame and with new documentary footage shot on video in the usual manner. Because Glut shot everything on 16mm negative or reversal stock, the film clips all look great, and are surprisingly sharp for what they are. No subtitle options are included.
Besides the documentary, All 41 of Don Glut's Amateur Movies are included. Disc One divides the shorts into two sub-sections, "Dinosaurs" and "Classic Monsters," while on Disc Two one can find "Teenage Monsters," "Superheroes," and "Miscellaneous." The shorts, almost all of which are silent, feature new music tracks; even those with contemporary soundtracks have newly-added music. (However, a few shorts crib stock music from serials, etc.) The amateur films all have Audio Commentary tracks with Glut.
More Stuff to Check Out has everything from Deleted- and Behind-the-Scenes footage of the amateur movies along with home movies Glut took on his 1962 visit to Hollywood (at Forry Ackerman's house, at Disneyland, the La Brea Tar Pits, etc.). Among the more interesting clips is Count Gore DeVol Interviews Don: Glut looks bemused by the horror movie host, who seems so interested in what Don has to say that he goes in and out of character, losing his phony Hungarian accent. The segment also has footage of Don and some friends restoring a real-life Frankenstein tombstone in Chicago to its proper place. (The marker had been stolen then abandoned in another part of the cemetery.) A Still Gallery rounds out the extensive supplements.
The indefatigable Don Glut is like hundreds, perhaps thousands of youngsters who, inspired by monster movies and old movie serials begged, borrowed or stole 8mm and 16mm movie cameras during the 1950s-1970s trying to recapture some of that magic that had so captivated them. If there can be such a thing, Glut took this obsession to its apex. Highly Recommended.
* Besides Captain America and Superman, there are amateur movies featuring Spiderman, Batman and Robin, King Kong, etc. The discs include a disclaimer arguing that the films are presented here for historical record purposes only and aren't intended to infringe upon trademarked characters. This certainly makes sense, but you might want to consider picking up this DVD sooner than later, just in case.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.