For National Teenager Day: A Tribute to Early Teenage Horror Films

Apparently today is National Teenager Day, which is pretty revolting…as EVERY day in this country is National Teenager Day. Still, it presents me with an opportunity to release this post I had originally planned for last October (I normally post about lots of vintage horror during Halloween month). Here are several films from the period when low budget producers stumbled on the ingenious idea to mash up two lucrative genes of their day: horror and teen exploitation. This was the 1950’s, of course, eons before later franchises like Teen Wolf, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sabrina the Teenage Witch would pay it homage. Almost all of these were produced by American International Pictures.

Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957)

This was one of the first of the genre to exploit the burgeoning “generation gap”, naturally assuming the teenagers’ perspective. “We’ve experienced this thing — why won’t the grown-ups believe us?” And the grown-ups are all jerks. Of course, the “thing” the kids have all seen is invading aliens. That’s what you get for driving around in cars all night, kids! Comedy impressionist Frank Gorshin (best remembered as The Riddler on Batman) has a hilarious early turn in this film as a drunk. Invasion of the Saucer Men was released on a double bill with this:

I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)

This was one of AIP’s most successful films and it was shot in just one week. Beyond the crass commercialism of its concept, it actually has powerful subtext. Adolescents ARE going through terrifying changes, after all. Werewolf transformation may well be the best of all cultural metaphors for that process. Michael Landon of Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie plays a teen with a violent streak which gets him into lots of trouble. He goes to see a psychotherapist (Whit Bissell) who turns out to be a mad scientist who uses hypnosis on him for his experiments in getting humans to regress to a more primitive state.  Since humans were never actually wolves in their evolutionary past, I’m not sure how they could “regress” to that state, but so be it. Playboy Centerfold Dawn Richard was also in the cast, as was Guy Williams (later of Zorro, Bonanza, and Lost in Space), and Vladimir Sokoloff, later of The Magnificent Seven, who portrays Pepe, the janitor.

Blood of Dracula (1958)

I was a Teenage Werewolf was so successful that four months later, AIP produced Blood of Dracula, an almost exact remake of the earlier film, only now with girls instead of a wayward boy, changing into vampires into werewolves. It was released on a double bill with this better remembered companion piece:

I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1958)

Whit Bissell returns as a mad scientist, here a descendant of Dr. Frankenstein. here he comes to the states as a visiting professor, and assembles a monster from the parts of dead teens who were killed during a drag race. Crazy man! It’s essentially the usual Frankenstein movie story arc, transplanted to the world of American teenagers.

How to Make a Monster (1958)

This is the last AIP sequel in the “I was a Teenage…” series. Ironically, this is the first in the series I ever saw, on TV when I was a kid. Its highly improbable concept: an insane make-up artist (at a studio very much like AIP), glues werewolf and Frankenstein masks onto two extras, laced with some sort of compliance drug, and hypnotizes them to go on a rampage. Surely there are easier ways to get your revenge!

Teenage Caveman (1958)

Yes! That is Robert Vaughn in the photo! He is the star of this film, which was produced and directed by Roger Corman for AIP, released on a double bill with How to Make a Monster. It’s not really a horror movie, although the cavemen do have to battle monstrous beasts, but it seemed relevant, what with its teenagers and all. Frank de Kova, later of F Troop, is also in the cast. Later, everyone associated with the film from Corman on down, disowned it. It’s pretty boring.

Frankenstein’s Daughter (1958)

This independently made film is far below even AIP level in budget and production values (and they clearly borrowed their ideas from the master). Here, one “Oliver Frank” (actually Dr. Frankenstein’s grandson) has already transformed a teenage girl into a monster (she walks by night doing his bidding) when he decides to go a step farther by killing her and reanimating her. This one is chiefly interesting for having Harold Lloyd Jr, son of the silent screen comedian, in the cast.

The Blob (1958)

A work of perfection! This was one of the first movies in this genre I ever saw, and probably the one the wider public knows best, due to the fact that, though it was independently produced, it got a major release from Paramount Pictures. Filmed in color, its much more impressive than any of these others and earned back 40 times its production budget. In the unlikely event you don’t know it (you’d better know it), teenager Steve McQueen (soon to be a major movie star) and his friends come across a fallen meteorite, out of which emerges a small amount of goo, which engulfs people and grows bigger and bigger and bigger. And again, as in Invasion of the Saucer Men, the kids are trying to save the planet — but the Sheriff won’t believe them! Structurally it’s a very well made film…I’ve seen so many later movies that do it homage.

The Giant Gila Monster (1959)

I really enjoy this movie, even though the titular creature is clearly a regular sized lizard film alongside toy models of trains and buildings. It does double duty as a hot rod movie — the car culture threatens to overwhelm the horror element at times. It’s oddly better written than most such movies usually are.

Teenagers from Outer Space (1959)

Made for only 20,00 smackers, this cheapie got a release from Warner Brothers, clearly inspired by Paramount’s success with The Blob. This one, despite the high concept, didn’t fare as well. The titular space teens are out to kill all humans on earth, all except one, who helps earth teens save the day. It also features a giant space crustacean called the Gargon, which alien teens find delicious.

Sex Kittens Go to College (1960)

This is a surprisingly terrific movie; read our previous post about it here. It isn’t quite a horror movie (more a comedy) although it does have the science fiction angle of a robot named Thinko! In addition to starring Mamie Van Doren, Tuesday Weld, and Bridget Bardot’s sister, it has the added attraction of both Harold Lloyd Jr (again) and Charlie Chaplin, Jr, son of the silent screen comedian. 

Village of the Giants (1965)

Another surprisingly entertaining film (that is, if you share my tastes). This Bert I. Gordon special mashes up his usual obsession with giants with out of control teenagers. Among the film’s myriad pleasures is its cast. Young Ron Howard plays a precious brat named “Genius” who makes a goo that grows his big brother’s teenage friends as big as houses. First they have irresponsible fun…but then they grow power-mad and dangerous. In addition to Howard, there’s Tommy Kirk (from Disney films), a young Beau Bridges, Johnny Crawford from The Rifleman, and great rock acts like The Beau Brummels and Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon. Because you can’t have a group of teenagers in 1965 — even 50 foot tall ones — without dancing.

Still 1965 was a bit late for this sort of thing…all of it, be it giant monsters, or dancing teenagers. The Beach Party genre would die out within a matter of months after this. Soon the teenagers would be imagining all their own monsters on LSD.