With a mere $3,000 in hand, business partners Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson distributed 1954's THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, defying the mainstream studio system and launching what would become a Hollywood force to be reckoned with one that eventually became known as American International Pictures (AIP). Before long, the studio defied all box office logic, releasing teen oriented films as either double features or drive-in movie packages. While many of the films can be considered "cheesy" by today's standards, there were a number of true gems that launched the careers of some of Hollywood's most notable talents.
This Halloween season, four re-vamped CREATURE FEATURES films inspired by AIP's 1950's sci-fi and monster classics will debut on CINEMAX. Additionally, a fifth movie will debut on HBO, followed by a re-broadcast of the original four. Produced by Lou Arkoff (son of the elder Arkoff), Colleen Camp and Stan Winston for the newly created Creature Feature Productions, the titles getting the remake or to use a more appropriate buzz word "re-envisioning" treatment include THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED, WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST, EARTH VS. THE SPIDER, TEENAGE CAVEMAN and HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER. Among its participating big name talent are Dan Akroyd, Gil Bellows, Carla Gugino, Natassia Kinski, Randy Quaid and Rufus Sewall.
"My dad made lots of monster movies in the '50s when he and Jim Nicholson headed up American International Pictures," explains CREATURE FEATURES executive producer Arkoff. "The titles that I've used here are five of his old titles from the '50s, however, we let the titles from the old movies inspire us to make five totally different movies, because what worked back then does not necessarily work now."
An ironic statement, yes (after all, horror is horror, right?), but a sentiment mirrored by several other Hollywood productions. Case in point: The upcoming MONSTERS, INC. is based on the principle that kids don't scare as easy nowadays. However, Arkoff has a simple explanation for this phenomenon.
"Back in the '50s, monster movies were made to exploit three kinds of fears that existed in the American public," says Arkoff. "Fear number one was that your next-door neighbor was a Communist. Hence, movies like INVADERS FROM MARS and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. The second fear was that some atomic bomb would blow up creating giant mutants of unfathomable description such as GODZILLA, THEM and ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN. The third fear was that some Martian would land and suck your brain out like THE BLOB. Well, that's not what we're afraid of anymore; we have different fears and what we're afraid of now more than anything is that monster that lies within us."
Brought in to design these monsters that hide within the human psyche was the legendary Winston and his team at Stan Winston Studio. The creature shop created never-before-seen monsters and special effects that utilized a combination of make-up, puppeteering and CGI effects.
"I went to my friend Stan Winston and I asked him if he wanted to come join me in this little endeavor," says Arkoff. "I pitched it to him the same way I just pitched it to you. And how I pitched it to you is the same way I pitched it to all of the directors and writers on the show so that from day one we all stood to make the same conceptual, thematic story."
Perhaps the most important element in creating each story was the creature itself. After all, the monster is the driving force for each film. As such, the mandate established from day one was that all creatures were to tap into the aforementioned fear inside of us all.
"To Lou and Stan's insistence, the creatures were very human based," says Shane Mahan, co-producer and creature effects supervisor. "There was some sort of human connection on all five films. So they're never really battling a thing; that was sort of a mandate to stay away from a mindless thing. That allowed us to develop a lot of personality to it and it also allowed us to do stages of development. All of the films have hidden surprises or stages built into them and I think that's what makes things watchable or keeps your attention."
The actual look attributed to each monster was the result of a group planning effort between Arkoff, Winston, Mahan and the appropriate film's director. From this collaboration, the creature design developed in a very organic way.
"The concept for each creature came with the story development from the director," says Mahan. "They would come in and there would be a round table pitch. For instance, someone would come in and say, 'I'm going to pitch a story for HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER.' And we would say, 'Great. What's it going to be?' And he'd start telling a story and by the time he gets to the middle of the pitch you realize that it's a computer game; it's a telemetry suit; it's a zombie robot composed of dead parts sort of a Frankensteinian robotic killing machine. And you just instantly start conjuring images of what it could be and you get excited about it. From that point, we would start doing two-dimensional artwork. Really, you just have to zero in on what's on the written page and you try to form mental telepathy with the director."
As for specifics, audiences can expect to see a man who chemically changes into a spider (EARTH VS. THE SPIDER), an iconic, '50s sci-fi looking creature (THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED), a telemetry suit that comes to life thinking its in a video game (HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER), genetically mutated humans (TEENAGE CAVEMAN) and a mermaid unlike any ever depicted (SHE CREATURE).
Creature Feature Productions has a 10-picture development deal with CINEMAX and HBO, five of which have actually been produced and aired/remain to be aired on the cablers. If these films prove successful then the remaining five will be shot and aired some time next year. However, the prospects look good as Arkoff has once before demonstrated a degree of success in re-envisioning his father's works.
"REBEL HIGHWAY was a similar project," explains Arkoff. "The concept for that project was that the angst all of us experienced as a teenager was something that lives within our gut deep down inside forever and there's certain people that still push that button. So I did the same thing I invited some interesting filmmakers and asked them to revisit those memories that they had."
And which filmmaker was the most successful product of that experiment? The Answer: none other than genre helmer Robert Rodriguez.
"Robert had only made EL MARIACHI at the time and I wanted a filmmaker who hadn't really done many films," says Arkoff. "And that's what I've done with CREATURE FEATURES. Robert was my grounding point for the selection of director's on this show. I'm hoping that same success is going to happen with a couple of my guys."