[Grown-up Monster Kid Paul Counelis checks in with a Q&A with Frankenstein & Me director Robert Tinnell.]
Many of us Monster Kids cut our fangs on the Universal Monster classics; my own first horror movie was 1941’s The Wolf Man. There’s just something about the imagery of those wonderful black-and-white, atmospheric flicks with the classic Jack Pierce makeup and the underrated but extremely memorable performances of horror icons like Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney Jr., and the rest of the gang that make even today’s modern Monster Kids take pause.
Ever since, there have been a host of films and TV shows that have paid homage to those beloved monsters. They vary in quality, with some failing to capture the charm and atmosphere that made the originals so much fun while others, such as 1987’s Monster Squad, work on quite a few different levels. Robert Tinnell’s Frankenstein & Me (1997) falls into the latter category, serving as both a successful bridge for younger horror fans and a throwback romp that can sweep adults away.
Frankenstein & Me stars screen legend Burt Reynolds, soulful-eyed teenager Jamieson Boulanger (later drafted by the Montreal Expos in 2001), genre vet Ricky Mabe (Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Goon) and a young Ryan Gosling in an early role that demonstrated some of his screen presence. The film tells the story of Earl Williams (Boulanger), a teenager who finds Frankenstein’s Monster and tries to bring him back to life (scroll down to watch the trailer). It’s a story of hope, faith and redemption…with monsters. Because, as we already know, most movies are better with monsters.
The film hasn’t been released to DVD yet (argh), but we recently caught up with director Robert Tinnell, who gave us the lowdown on Frankenstein & Me and some of his other horror-related projects, including his highly anticipated forthcoming documentary, the brilliantly titled That $#!% Will Rot Your Brain: How the Monster Kids Transformed Popular Culture. (You can help Tinnell finish his documentary by contributing to its Kickstarter fund, which ends on Friday, May 25th. So far, backers have pledged more than $3,000 of the project’s $10,000 goal.)
Rue Morgue: Frankenstein and Me explores some themes culled from the Universal and Hammer classics. What is your favorite film from each studio?
Robert Tinnell: The funny thing is, my favorites tend to shift around over the years. For sure, as a little kid, the original Dracula (1931) obsessed me; regardless of its flaws, between Lugosi and that first twenty minutes or so, I still find it captivating. I really enjoy Dracula’s Daughter quite a bit as well. I think it’s a pretty sophisticated little film, and I liked the way it hinted at a more complicated past for Dracula. You were already seeing the groundwork being laid for an expanded “universe,” as it were – one that would ultimately spill over and allow the classic monsters to cross paths. This is just too tough for me. I’m a fan of most all of them – even a weird little one that’s effectively disappeared: Murder in the Blue Room.
I run into the same problem with Hammer – my passions for individual films tend to shift a bit. But I’d have to say it’s a tie between Horror of Dracula and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. Brides of Dracula is a close runner-up. The odd thing is, I think my love of Frankenstein is actually more rooted in the Hammer films since I loved Peter Cushing so much. The way he played the character – the way he played all his characters as Renaissance men appealed to me. He was a super smart guy not afraid to knock heads. I started recognizing him very early on as a kid – didn’t even know a film was a Hammer film – but I figured out who he was pretty quickly.
RM: What was it like working with Burt Reynolds, and did he appear to be a horror fan at all?
RT: Burt just plain likes movies. I wish he’d directed more of them because he clearly knows how to direct. I don’t recall him professing any great love for horror, although he understood what we were doing and could relate to the films that inspired me. I really appreciated the fact that he took the film seriously. His son was young at the time – near the age of the kids in the film – and I think Burt wanted to draw on that. We talked a lot about his character’s back story and in spite of his success, Burt understood what it meant to have dreams die and how you have to struggle against giving up. There’s an image of him in the film that I’m still really proud of – when the kids try and build a Hollywood sign for him up in the backyard – and if you look closely you see tears in his eyes. I think it struck him deeply, actually.
RM: Was Ryan Gosling’s talent readily apparent?
RT: Ryan was a very charismatic kid – and a very, very nice kid. They all were. He was so charismatic that I couldn’t entertain the notion of him as the lead because I didn’t think people would buy him as having the troubles that character endured. What I liked about his character, Kenny, was his loyalty. The way he bought into Earl’s dreams and supported them. I had friends like that as a kid – they wanted me to succeed as a filmmaker. They were invested in it, you know? My first film, Kids of the Round Table, taps into that as well. I think the friends we make around ten to fourteen often end up being the closest friends we ever have. Kids are all going through so much at that time, physically and emotionally. Anyway, Ryan threw himself into it. He was a little older than the others in the cast and emerged as a leader. Those kids just loved each other. And they loved learning about classic horror and things like Dark Shadows – stuff they had to know if they were going to accurately get into the passion the characters had for stuff like Famous Monsters and comics and the movies and so on.
RM: I love your movie and I think it’s one of the most underrated horror-related films of the ’90s. It captures the spirit of the era that inspired it and has such a charm. How meticulous were you with the homage sequences? Which of those is your favorite?
RT: Thank you. It’s tough because the film was marketed to kids and yet there’s an adult sensibility about it and it somewhat fell through the cracks, I think. As far as the homages, we tried very hard to capture the essence of the films Earl was fantasizing about. My favorite, I suppose, is the one that is inspired by Brides of Dracula. We literally recreated a section of the windmill set from the film. It just looks super cool and the kids look great in the wardrobe, trying to imitate Cushing and Thorley Walters, guys like that. Both Jamie and Ricky are so great in the scene. I loved doing the Night of the Living Dead and Wolf Man sequences as well. It allowed me to enter the narrative, so-to-speak, by recreating the visuals that both inspired and obsessed me. I remember shooting the miniature windmill exterior for the Brides of Dracula sequence and watching it on video assist and knowing we’d just nailed it.
RM: What film would you consider to be the one that set you on your way to being a Monster Kid? Subsequently, what is your all-time favorite horror movie?
RT: If I’m being really honest I’d have to say Dark Shadows probably set me up. I saw it before seeing any of the films because it was on in the afternoon and my mom didn’t notice we were watching this horror stuff until it was too late. And I was very young then – maybe six? But I remember clearly a couple events – seeing Horror of Dracula one stormy afternoon and just freaking out. And then I remember seeing The Wolf Man followed by, of all things, the Poverty Row Lugosi flick The Invisible Ghost right after the same night. And it actually scared me, and made me want to see more. There’s a killer kind of POV shot in that film when Lugosi looks down and sees his mad wife outside. She looks so ghostly and eerie, and it just really affected me.
I’ve had so many transformative moments in my life from watching films. It’s funny how that works out…you might not believe this, but the film that had the biggest impact on Frankenstein & Me was George Romero’s Martin. That film utterly changed me. Made me into a deconstructionist, I think. As for my favorite? That’s tough. If I could only pick one it would probably be Horror of Dracula.
RM: Can you tell us anything about the Monster Kid documentary that you’ve been working on?
RT: Originally I just wanted to do a documentary on horror movie fanzines because the whole phenomenon of the fanzine fascinates me. But as I was working on the idea I was talking to my buddy Tim Lucas (editor of Video Watchdog and one of the executive producers on the Monster Kid doc), and he pushed me to expand my scope and to make it more of an essay film. And I realized he was right, because the impact on popular culture as a result of the release of the classic horror films on TV was enormous. They affected everything and are still affecting everything. So with the documentary I try to put all of that into some sort of perspective, from the release of the films and the rise of the horror hosts and monster magazines through kids making their own ’zines and films and special effects.
We look at how manufacturers and advertisers tapped into the passion these kids had for monsters, and we try to analyze the why of it all. It’s a massive undertaking and something you definitely have to do as a labor of love, because I refuse to dumb this down – turn it into one of those bad cable docs on a subject that uses a ton of graphics and stupid humor to mask their shoddy research and, in this instance, most likely their contempt. We have a lot of smart people talking in very intelligent fashion in this film and I suspect that will put some people off. But I don’t really care, because my main goal is to not only document the phenomenon but explore it analytically as well.
The best part has been traveling around the country interviewing really cool, diverse people. We’ve talked with everyone from David J. Skal to Billy Bob Thornton to Zacherle to David Selby to Bob Burns. And we’re not just doing the usual suspects gushing on Karloff or whatever. We get qualified people to offer some serious analysis and perspective.
RT: I have so much going on I don’t know where to begin. I also work in comics and I’m having the time of my life doing a series of graphic novels called Flesh and Blood, through Monsterverse. Neil Vokes is drawing and we’re creating an entire universe devoted to monster rallies of the sort you might have seen from a company like Hammer, had they been so inclined. The book is doing really well and getting great reviews. And I have a huge werewolf book I did with Bo Hampton, called Riven, that’s coming out from Dark Horse in August, I think.
On the movie front, I produced a low-budget Poe anthology called Edgar Allan Poe’s Requiem for the Damned, which came out in March of 2012. A film I wrote for the producers of The Collector is slated to shoot this summer and the screenplay Todd Livingston and I wrote from our graphic novel, The Living and the Dead, is nearing production, although it’s always in fits and starts. Peter George and I are also developing a reboot of a little film we made when we were fresh out of film school called Surf Nazis Must Die. And I’m still in post on the Monster Kid doc as well as running The Factory Digital Filmmaking Program at Douglas, which is the greatest job ever. I came to teach for four months and have stayed four years. It’s a film school that functions as a movie studio, and I love it. I sure couldn’t do something like the Monster Kid doc without the facilities and students; in fact, it was the students who pushed me to make the film in the first place as part of something called the Final Product – a kind of artist-in-residence deal the school has in place – which enables the students to crew for professionals. It’s a really smart opportunity that has resulted in some great work. All in all, I’m keeping busy.
RM: Do you know of any plans for a DVD release of Frankenstein & Me?
RT: I can’t get a straight answer as to why it hasn’t happened. I do know we would need to do a new transfer, as they really screwed up the old one. And I’d love to do some special features. And you’d think the way Ryan has blown up – and of course Ricky Mabe has also done pretty well – that someone would want to get behind it. But so far, nothing.
Paul Counelis is the author of Kendall Kingsley and the Secret of the Scarecrow, which is available for purchase here. He writes about horror for a number of publications and websites, including suite101. His latest book, 25 Underrated Horror Films (and The Exorcist), is available here.