Horrors: How George Garrett met his Space Monster
Renowned author and educator George Garrett has helped put Charlottesville on the literary map. Over his 50-year career, this esteemed UVA professor has published 30 books and launched countless young careers. But unlike the kudos his many accomplishments have garnered, a project he launched on celluloid earned him catcalls, bad reviews, and perhaps even a few rotten vegetables.
Of his malformed cinematic brainchild, Garrett is not afraid to reminisce. Unashamedly.
At his home just off Rugby Road near the University, Garrett reads a review of the opus in question, Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster.
The high-handed reviewer dissects the film as if it had been made for thinking adults and not for its intended audience: the teen drive-in crowd of the '60s. As Garrett reads the critic's stolid synopsis of his creation, he laughs in relief that someone could make heads or tails of the plot. He sure can't.
Speaking of critics, FMSM's abysmal reputation has only grown sourer with age. Actor Bruce Glover, one of the film's pointy-eared aliens, claimed that FMSM was "much worse" than Plan 9 From Outer Space, Edward D. Wood's 1959 yardstick for all lousy cinema that followed.
Virginia Film Festival chief Richard Herskowitz admits, "I'm ashamed to say it, but my film experience contains several embarrassing gaps, such as never having seen D. W. Griffith's Intolerance or Garrett's Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster." Perhaps screenwriter Ed Naha summed FMSM up most eloquently in his Horrors: From Screen to Scream, when he simply called it "the pits."
"The big gross-out"
Directed by Robert Gaffney, FMSM tells the touching story of Martians, clad in what resemble souped-up beekeepers' outfits, on a mission to kidnap beach bunnies for procreative purposes. Led by the nefarious Princess Marcuzan and her aptly named dwarf assistant Nadir, the invaders deploy the terrifying Mull Monster, a gigantic, mangy, obese sort of buzzard with antennae. Earth's only hope is android astronaut Frank Saunders, scarred by Martian space rays, who is pitted in stirring galactic combat against the monster. Or something.
FMSM's camp status was assured by the time Dan Aykroyd heckled clips from it in the 1982 documentary/comedy It Came From Hollywood. And from the moment he became involved, Garrett swears he was aware of FMSM 's inherent absurdity.
"There's a big scene," begins Garrett. "Written, it sounded pretty good. They're having a press conference, and he loses [his scalp], the fake astronaut. They back him out of the room, he's 'not feeling very well,' they get the press away, and they peel off the top of his head– the big gross-out– and it's full of old-fashioned radio tubes, those big glass ones!"
Other FMSM props included plastic Wham-O air pistols as Martian ray guns, the roof of a hot dog stand doing duty as the Martian ship, and a radio tuning knob visible within the robotic astronaut's damaged face.
How did the upstanding Garrett– now Virginia's Poet Laureate– get swept into this sinkhole of cinematic depravity?
Friend o' Sam
It all began during Garrett's brief tenure in early 1960s Hollywood, writing scripts for producer and UVA graduate Sam Goldwyn Jr. Although one of these, The Young Lovers (1960), starring Peter Fonda, actually got produced, Garrett concedes that his Hollywood career wasn't exactly peaking on the scale of a Fitzgerald or Faulkner. He found another patron.
"I ran into a guy I had known in college, who had gotten into the film business and was a cameraman... and a very good one," deadpans Garrett. That friend, Richard Hilliard, had made some short films– a rarity in those blissful, pre-film-school days– and was ready to progress to features. Together, Hilliard and Garrett crafted the full-length, black and white The Playground (1965), an odd meditation on death that's now virtually forgotten.
"When we put The Playground together," says Garrett, "Hilliard said, 'If you'd ever like to work on a Frankenstein picture or a horror picture of any kind, I know some guys that you'd be really interested in working for.' The more I thought about it, the funnier I thought the idea was."
Enter Tenney and Iselin
Still out in L.A., Garrett got in touch with the duo who would pave the way for FMSM: Del Tenney, a third-rate horror film director, and Alan V. Iselin. Tenney operated a string of upstate New York drive-in theaters. The two had been partners for nearly a decade and had developed a cyclical system of making two drive-in movies each year on miniscule budgets.
"I took a guy from Goldwyn Studios, who got to be a friend," says Garrett. "Everyone said he could look at a movie and, in the first two minutes, tell you exactly what it cost to within a nickel." Garrett's friend pegged a Tenney and Iselin flick at $400,000 minimum. "It had been made," chuckles Garrett, "for $25,000."
Garrett reveals the secrets of the low-budget filmmakers: "It was full of stock footage and the families of these guys were drafted to play parts."
Their cheapjack corner-cutting, necessary in the unsavory low-budget film world, gave Garrett the impression that the creditors were lining up to collect. Tenney couldn't be reached for comment.
Whatever their reasons, Garrett notes that the pair relied on their unusual communication system with artistic collaborators: audio tapes, mailed to a New York post office box.
Even as unpopular as they were, 1964 was a banner year for the two drive-in hucksters and for Garrett's chum.
"My friend, as cameraman, had just finished doing two pictures for them," said Garrett. "It was a package: The Curse of the Living Corpse and The Horror of Party Beach. The Horror of Party Beach has no story at all, but my friend talked them into going ahead and shooting it so he could get paid. And it's very nicely shot, splendidly photographed."
When shooting of their chintzy films was finished, the producers sold them to a distributor as a package for drive-ins– or "passion pits" as they were often called. The double feature became a huge success, the films' lackluster mise en scene notwithstanding.
"They were reliable people who produced adequate product for the drive-in trade," explains Garrett. "Nobody watched the pictures anyhow. It was all teenagers eating popcorn or each other or whatever."
In fact, Garrett claims, it was a novelty that FMSM was scripted at all. For most Tenney and Iselin productions, "They would just talk about it over dinner and then shoot."
However, they did initially hire Garrett and some friends to script it. Sadly, Tenney and Iselin soon split up and sold their various script properties. The FMSM project hung in jeopardy. Egads!
One of the FMSM script buyers was Charles Schulz, producer of the then-popular Omnibus TV series. Schulz cast his wife, actress Nancy Marshall, as FMSM's leading lady, a move Garrett says was "intended to advance her acting career, which was a disaster. I guess they blamed me for the fact that she didn't have one," he laughs, "but she went on to do good social work, as I understand."
Mary Shelley in the 20th Century
Writing FMSM, as Garrett describes it, was a kind of freewheeling, "stag" reenactment of the 1816 weekend during which Mary Shelley conjured up her own Frankenstein, with Charlottesville standing in for Switzerland.
Gathered around Garrett's kitchen table to compose the script were Garrett, then teaching at UVA; Richard H. W. Dillard, who received his Master's from UVA in that summer of '64; and John Rodenbeck, a recent retiree from the American University in Cairo.
Rodenbeck had quite an effect on the literary world, Garrett says. "He sort of discovered and arranged to have translated into English the Arabic writer [Naguib] Mahfouz, who subsequently got the Nobel Prize when someone could read something he had written."
Furthermore, poet Henry Taylor, now director of the MFA program at American University in Washington, would drop by occasionally. "He'd have a drink and watch us type and make a suggestion," Garrett says. Richard Dillard later married Annie Doak, who won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize as Annie Dillard.
Quite an undertaking for three dignified men of letters. But they were hardly the only people honing their craft for the drive-in crowd around that time. It's common knowledge that director Martin Scorsese's first widely seen film was American International Pictures' Boxcar Bertha (1972), and Jack Nicholson's first leading role was as The Cry-Baby Killer (1958). Francis Ford Coppola's directorial bow was with Dementia 13 (1963).
And Del Tenney's Curse of the Living Corpse, which Garrett mentioned earlier? It featured an early appearance by a young actor named Roy Scheider.
While almost everyone in the movie industry has his or her own personal Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, history almost lost the real thing. When the three writers submitted their initial FMSM script, it was politely, but promptly, rejected.
"We got carried away with comedy," Garrett says. "So the first version of the script was just a slapstick comedy. Immediately, back came a tape from Alan and Del saying, 'This is very funny. Me and Alan laughed our asses off. It's a wonderful script, but we can't use this. We're in the horror business, not the humor business! You got it? You gotta go back and make it a horror picture.'
"So we said, 'Okay, we can turn it easily into a horror film.' Which we did, but we were still in a comic mode, sort of. The world wasn't quite ready for a comic Frankenstein. Young Frankenstein hadn't been done yet," he explains.
A full decade before Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, the three had written a scene presaging Brooks' famous "Puttin' on the Ritz" sequence. In the script, their "Frankenstein Monster" is sewn together from the parts of various donors, including the legs of a tap dancer. After he comes to life, their creature does a soft-shoe to "Sweet Georgia Brown."
The trio began their rewrites with more instructions: Their 'Frankenstein' had to deal with the Space Program. Lucky for them, working as they were with a $25,000 budget, they'd won some key permissions and footage from NASA.
And although the producers hoped to wrangle some Florida locations, the closest they came was Puerto Rico, where they managed a "product placement" deal of sorts with the government. By including a lengthy motorcycle travelogue through Puerto Rico, the producers were allowed extensive use of Puerto Rican locations. "We were hustling the whole nation of Puerto Rico," laughs Garrett.
As they wrote, Garrett, Dillard, and Rodenbeck saturated their script with in-jokes relating to UVA and Charlottesville.
"There was a girl here," Garrett says, "a graduate student named Marcus Ann Morrison: 'Princess Marcuzan.'" They also knew an assistant professor in the English department named Donald Mull, "a very elegant guy who wrote a book about Henry James. And he also loved movies, so we decided to make him the monster. So the monster is called 'Mull' with no explanation of where he got this name! The commander of the American military forces is named 'General Fred Bowers' after the chairman of the English department here, whose name was Fredson Bowers."
The screenwriters tipped their hats to the literati in the audience when naming their lead female character, a nurse, Karen Blixen. That's the real name of Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa. "But nobody noticed that when they showed it at UVA," dryly observes Garrett.
The producers approved of the second version. "They paid us whatever we got, which was about $100 apiece, and that's the last we saw of it until it hit theaters," he says. The entire scriptwriting process took "two weekends!" Garrett remembers. "We actually did it in one, but we took the wrong approach, so we went back and took another weekend. On the other hand, that was one of the very few scripts that they had ever had. They were delighted to have this script and sold it."
Up on the roof
After the film was finished, Garrett insisted on meeting Tenney and Iselin. As he was soon to discover, reaching his former employers was an intricate operation. The search eventually led him to "The Deuce," Manhattan's 42nd Street, then the scuzzy hub of America's exploitation film industry.
"They gave you the name of a theater," Garrett recalls. "You went and you bought a ticket. When you handed your ticket to the usher, you were told to ask for Joseph the janitor. He will point you to a stairway, which was a ladder, actually, like a fire escape."
Garrett says he climbed the ladder and found a series of offices "like a set from a movie" with frosted-glass windows bearing bogus names.
"Theirs had some kind of cement company, like 'New York Cement.' So I go in there, and they're peeping around to see that it's not a creditor or something," he says.
The big double-bill
According to actor James Karen in a Fangoria magazine interview, FMSM was shot in black and white by director Robert Gaffney over two weeks in November 1964 at a Long Island studio and in Puerto Rico. It clocked in at a typical low-budget running time of 82 minutes.
During its theatrical run, audience members were supplied with "space shield eye protectors" as defense against the allegedly deadly "alien radiation" emanating from the screen. The eye protectors were basically 3-D glasses, without the benefit of 3-D.
"It does f*** up your vision," cracks Garrett. "People think they've been drinking something. Half the stuff looks purple through those things."
The distributor, Allied Artists, originally put FMSM on a double-bill with the now forgotten Curse of the Voodoo, but it soon found higher-end company when the multi-million dollar Natalie Wood vehicle Inside Daisy Clover (1965) began bombing. Warner Brothers madly dashed to flush it away by pairing it with some other movie: any other movie. The lucky candidate plucked from drive-in obscurity was FMSM.
Some reviewers have left-handed praise for FMSM. In his Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, Mike Weldon enthuses in his finest telegrammatical prose, "Don't miss. It's the worst." Fangoria magazine's video critic opines that FMSM "has as much to do with Mary Shelley as the Pillsbury Doughboy does," but notes that it "remains a minor legend in the annals of bad moviemaking."
FMSM played as Duel of the Space Monsters in England, and as Mars Invades Puerto Rico in Spanish-speaking countries. For those curious to actually witness FMSM, it was released on tape by Prism Video in the '80s.
Nearly four decades after the production of FMSM, Del Tenney is still at it, faithfully churning out B-grade horror filler. Of FMSM's cast, Bruce Glover and James Karen have had successful careers as character actors in movies like Chinatown (1974) and Poltergeist (1982) respectively. Richard Dillard became the chair of Hollins College's creative writing program.
George Garrett, as previously mentioned, graduated to a much grander calling. His brief drive-in screenwriting career faded softly away long before even the drive-ins themselves have almost become extinct. For that particular career move, he, UVA, and moviegoers everywhere can be eternally grateful.
Justin Humphreys has been published in several film magazines including Filmfax and Psychotronic Video, and he has a contract to write a biography of the late animator George Pal.