Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Famous Monsters of Filmland

When I was a kid, I loved monster movies.

I say that to draw a distinction from modern horror films, which are roughly divided between slasher flicks and supernatural thrillers such as The Ring. I'm not, and never really have been, a fan of those genres. For my money, Hitchcock fairly well both opened and closed the book on slasher films with Psycho — one of my dozen or so favorite movies of all time — and pyrotechnic ghost stories just aren't my cup of tea.

But back in the day, movies had monsters. Frankenstein (which properly refers to the scientist, not the monster, but I use the name accommodatively here). Dracula. The Wolf Man. The Mummy. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. King Kong. Godzilla. Gamera the giant flying turtle. The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

You know... monsters.

And because movies had monsters, monster movie fans such as my younger self had Famous Monsters of Filmland.

For monster movie fans — and fans of science fiction, horror, and fantasy films in general — Famous Monsters of Filmland (often referred to simply as FM) was the Magna Carta, the Constitution, and the Ten Commandments rolled into one sensationalistic, hyperbolic, photography-packed magazine. Everything you ever wanted to know about genre films and the people who created them found its way into the pages of FM. Before there was an Internet Movie Database or a Wikipedia, FM provided one-stop information-shopping for youthful connoisseurs of frightening film fare.

Behind Famous Monsters stood a giant of a man named Forrest J. Ackerman. "Uncle Forry," as we legions of readers called him, edited and published FM, and wrote a fair amount of the material appearing within it. Ackerman is often credited, and I believe correctly so, as the father of modern fandom. Everyone who's ever attended a Star Trek, comic book, or science fiction convention owes a debt of gratitude to Uncle Forry, who first made obsessing over such things not only respectable, but marketable.

Forry Ackerman is also the guy who coined the term "sci-fi" as a shorthand reference to science fiction. (I'll let you be the judge of whether that was a good thing. But I believe the Sci-Fi Channel people should be paying Forry royalties, if they aren't already.)

From the time that I was ten years old until I began high school, Famous Monsters of Filmland was my near-constant companion — much to the consternation of my parents, who tended to look askance at my fondness for scary movies in the same way they detested my addiction to superhero comics and Star Trek. My friends and I would pore over every issue, and discussed in animated detail what we read.

In Famous Monsters, I learned of the special effects wizardry of Ray Harryhausen and Paul Blaisdell. I discovered the makeup secrets of Lon Chaney, Senior and Junior, and the up-and-coming Rick Baker. I took peeks behind the scenes at Hammer Films and American International Pictures, two of the great horror factories of the '50s and '60s, and Toho Studios, home to all those wonderful Japanese monster films. I read about the genius of such visionary filmmakers as Roger Corman, George Pal, Samuel Z. Arkoff, Terence Fisher, and of course, Hitchcock.

When it came to monsters, Forry Ackerman not only talked the talk, he also walked the walk. His Los Angeles home, fondly designated "the Ackermansion," warehoused thousands of props, stills, and other items of memorabilia from the movies he loved. Back in the day, Uncle Forry would give tours to fans who dropped by for a visit. Next to Disneyland, the place I wanted to see more than any other on earth when I was a kid was the Ackermansion. Sad to tell, I never had the opportunity.

Though my interest in monster movies faded as I grew older — as did the monsters themselves — I am a film buff and pop culture fanatic today at least in part because of Famous Monsters of Filmland, and the movies it so lovingly chronicled.

Thanks, Uncle Forry. I hope you're having a devil of a Hallowe'en.

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1 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Blogger Janet offered these pearls of wisdom...

Just wanted to let you know your guest post is finally on tap for tomorrow!:)

7:11 PM  

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