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How to Make a Madhouse: How Two Films Reflect AIP’s History

By Christopher Stewardson


The filmography of American International Pictures (AIP) is one of the most vibrant and eclectic in all Hollywood. The company audaciously touched everything from creature features and beach party movies to juvenile delinquency and counterculture, nurturing a generation of film talent in the process. In 1958 and 1974, AIP released two films which reflect the company’s history in interesting ways, and in the case of the latter, its lead actor, too. These films are How to Make a Monster and Madhouse. To understand how they mirror the journey of AIP, let’s dive in for a closer look.


Under the leadership and market savvy of James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, AIP was formed in 1954 as the American Releasing Corporation (ARC). Six years prior, the 1948 Paramount ruling had divested the major Hollywood studios of their own theatre chains. In turn, those studios decreased the number of lower-budgeted pictures they produced, focusing instead on expensive films with accompanying technologies like 3-D and stereo sound to stay competitive with television. Independent theatre owners found themselves with fewer films and higher rental costs, and thus ARC stepped into the breach, aiming to produce low-budget product to satiate demand. Within ARC’s first year of operation, Arkoff and Nicholson hit upon a strategy that would catapult them to success: double bill packages. For the cost of a single picture from the majors, ARC could supply two, netting themselves a guaranteed profit by occupying both halves of a double bill. By 1956, ARC had become AIP.


AIP quickly made a name for itself producing exploitation films for teen audiences, accompanied by fabulous ad campaigns featuring artwork by Albert Kallis and Reynold Brown. One of AIP’s early successes was I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), a strikingly mature look at angst, authority, and adolescence. Later that year came I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, a clunkier follow-up but one which nonetheless has interesting ideas about monstrous fatherhood and taught cycles of violence.


In 1958, AIP released How to Make a Monster, completing an unofficial trilogy of sorts. In the film, AIP takes on a fictionalised form as American International Studios. Robert Harris plays Pete Dumond, the makeup artist behind the studio’s Teenage Werewolf and Teenage Frankenstein pictures. While working on a new monster film (“Werewolf Meets Frankenstein”), he’s told by the new studio heads that the horror cycle is over and that he won’t be needed once production wraps. In revenge, Dumond uses a hypnotic chemical agent in his makeup (“it’ll have the same effect chemically as a surgical pre-frontal lobotomy”), and then instructs his teenage stars – made up as the werewolf and Frankenstein monster – to kill the new executives. 


What’s interesting is that AIP’s horror cycle was ending. Two years later, Roger Corman (the maverick filmmaker who’d helped AIP off the ground with films like 1955’s Day the World Ended) was asked by Arkoff and Nicholson to make two more low-budget, black-and-white horror films. Corman asked to use the money to produce one film instead, in colour and widescreen. And in 1960, Corman’s House of Usher vividly opened like a mission statement for AIP at the onset of the new decade. Indeed, Arkoff had announced plans in the trade papers for AIP to become the industry’s “ninth major”, with fewer films but greater production values. And as the 1960s wore on, AIP produced several Edgar Allan Poe adaptations with Corman, released a series of beach party movies, and increased its involvement with overseas imports and co-productions. 


How to Make a Monster was shot in black and white, but its last ten minutes burst into colour. This was a gimmick shared with both I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and War of the Colossal Beast (1958). At the film’s climax, Pete Dumond traps his teenage stars in his home, surrounded by the various masks and props he created for prior productions. Many of these props were the real thing, including a saucer man from Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957), as well as the Venusian invader from It Conquered the World (1956). Interestingly, these were made by Paul Blaisdell, an effects artist who’d produced several fantastic creatures for AIP’s ‘50s output. His work with AIP did not continue into the ‘60s as the company’s output changed, adding another facet of reality reflected in Dumond. 


When one of the teens knocks over a candle, the house goes up in flames, consuming both Dumond and his creations. To that end, the film’s climax reflects the real-life ending of AIP’s black-and-white monster cycle. Dumond, a scorned artist obsessed with his monsters, dies as the cycle dries up. But the use of colour for this ending also foreshadows the company’s trajectory in the following decade. 


When House of Usher was released, its colour and widescreen were far from its only achievements. The film also brought Vincent Price to AIP. Corman knew immediately that he wanted Price for the role of Roderick Usher and was thrilled to work with him, later recalling that “working with Vincent inspired creativity, liveliness, and joy in the art of being alive.” With a long-term contract at AIP, Price starred in further Poe adaptations like Tales of Terror (1962) and the excellent Masque of the Red Death (1964), as well as comedies like Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965). While his contract meant he was sometimes obliged to appear in projects that were far from ideal or rewarding, Price always turned in reliably entertaining performances. 


But by the early 1970s, horror had changed again. Price was still appearing in memorable entries like The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), but the writing was on the wall. George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) had asserted a modern immediacy with palpable urgency. And by the time of Madhouse, films like The Exorcist (1973) and The Wicker Man (1973) were startling audiences with their visceral, unflinching approach. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) would enter release just a few months after Madhouse.


While How to Make a Monster presents a fictionalised version of its parent company, Madhouse does much the same for Vincent Price himself. Price plays Paul Toombes, an aging horror star famous for his series of “Doctor Death” pictures. The Doctor Death films are shown via repurposed footage from Corman’s Poe cycle, with new shots of Price inserted as the title character. But the Doctor Death films are old hat now, and Toombes struggles with decisions to revive the character via television. He must also contend with rivals and sleazy executives, as well as a masked killer stalking him at every turn. 


Madhouse was less successful than prior AIP—Price pictures, with Sam Arkoff feeling that television had eaten into the horror audience. “You cannot sell what is being given away”, he remarked. But the genre was still very much alive and attracting sizeable cinema-going audiences. Rather, Madhouse was simply outmoded immediately. On one hand, it correctly identifies that the period horror films it ascribes to the fictional Paul Toombes – in turn mirroring the real-life career of Price – had been superseded. But on the other, even the modern-day setting of Madhouse feels left behind, its scenes of killing and bloodshed looking quaint and theatrical next to its contemporaries.


Despite this, the film’s ending suggests continuation. It is revealed that the masked killer is actually Toombes’ long-time rival, Herbert Fray, played by Peter Cushing. Believing Toombes to be dead in a TV studio fire, Fray plans to pick up the Doctor Death mantle. But Toombes was not killed, and instead murders Fray in revenge. The ending shows Toombes perfecting his makeup to look exactly like Fray, ensuring that he alone will carry on as Doctor Death even with a different face. 


This ending hints at a rebirth for Toombes, that the kind of horror with which he has been associated will persist. But the reality was quite different. AIP would continue just six more years before coming to an end. Even before then, James H. Nicholson had left the company in 1972 to pursue a multi-picture arrangement with 20th Century Fox. It was a deal he would never complete; he died of cancer at age 56. With Nicholson gone, Arkoff would lament that things weren’t as enjoyable as they’d once been. In the late ‘70s, despite some considerable hits in the company’s final years (like 1979’s The Amityville Horror), Arkoff merged AIP with Filmways. He then sold his stock in 1980, and AIP was absorbed entirely. 


For Price, Madhouse marked the end of a consistent run of horror roles. Though he would star in horror films again in pictures like House of the Long Shadows (1983), and his work extended to the stage, television, and radio, Price’s time as a recurring horror film actor had ended. In many ways, Madhouse is for Vincent Price what Targets (1968) is for Boris Karloff, right down to footage from their prior movies played in-film to depict the work of their characters – blurring the lines between character and actor, person and persona. Both films deal with horror actors eclipsed by forces beyond their control, be it industrial shifts or simply the real world catching up with them. 


The ending of How to Make a Monster, with its focus on forced closure and endings, heralded a new beginning for AIP. Meanwhile, the ending of Madhouse, which suggests renewal and continuation, preceded both the company’s end and the winding down of Price’s career. With all they share in themes and ideas, How to Make a Monster and Madhouse make for a terrific double bill. Watching them together is perhaps the best way to pay tribute to American International Pictures. 


 

Christopher Stewardson writes about mid-20 Century horror and science fiction films and has been published in Little White Lies, Fangoria, Dread Central, Arrow Video, Eureka Entertainment and elsewhere.

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