Sunday, April 3, 2011

Aurora Monsters DVD Review (Unabridged) Part Two

The Aurora Monsters: The Model Craze That Gripped the World. Available from The Witch’s Dungeon, 90 Battle Street, Bristol, CT 06010. To order send check or money order (payable to Cortlandt Hull) to the address above or visit or $20.00 SRP.

Reviewed by Marian Owens Clatterbaugh

The remaining interviews take us into the worlds of some of the best-known next-generation artists, who match the enthusiasm of Bama, Yanchus, and Meyers when they recount how the Aurora box art and model kits inspired and influenced their own art.

First is Daniel Horne, award-winning painter, sculptor, doll maker, and mask maker. Trained as an oil painter but a master of many mediums, Horne notes that the one constant is his "passion and love for art and for honoring the classic horror icons Karloff, Chaney, and Lugosi." What he loves most to do are monster portraits, and we're treated to close-ups of some of his striking oils (Bride, Werewolf of London, Christopher Lee as Dracula, Hunchback, Mr. Hyde, Zacherley, and many more. With his sculptures, Horne sometimes incorporates slight caricature to emphasize his own feeling about the character, or in the case of Sleepy-Time Frankie in his duck-print pajamas, a more light-hearted side to the character.

Daniel Horne's Werewolf of London Painting
When Horne saw James Bama's paintings (Aurora box art, Doc Savage paperback covers), he was "floored—had never seen this kind of art being done." As a paperback artist himself, while in art school he was greatly influenced by Bama's work. Horne felt Bama to be a "major, major influence on him visually…and spurred him on to become one of the brotherhood, the society of illustrators—nice to be a part of that."

Jeff Yagher, an actor who has made hundreds of television appearances (Seinfeld, CSI, Bones, Star Trek, and many others), is also a talented sculptor whose work includes Box Art Tribute kits for Monsters in Motion and other projects for Sideshow, XO Factor, and Cinemaquette. Yagher credits Bama's color-rich paintings as his inspiration for using cover art as source material for a kit and is amazed at Bama's ability to take a photo and "imbue it with so much life…the mood he created, and the style just helped with the collector's gotta-have mentality."

Yagher remembers opening an Aurora kit on a Christmas or birthday and seeing "that wonderful Bama box art…and being just a little disappointed that the actual sculpt didn't match the box art exactly. I thought, I wonder if I couldn't get closer to the box art?" Thus his dream took form: to sculpt model kits so they could be built, painted, and set next to the box "so that you could look back and forth and not be able to tell the difference." He describes the particular challenges in producing three-dimensional models from 2-D source material, and in imagining how Bama might have painted a 360° view of the character.

Cortlandt Hull, artist and film historian, recalls his childhood introduction to the classic horror films by Zacherley, the Cool Ghoul, on Shock! Theater. His fascination with the monster makeup and the atmosphere created in the films sparked a longing to form his own artistic expression within the genre he so loved. Soon there was Famous Monsters of Filmland, and then the Aurora monster kits with their beautiful paintings by James Bama—well, that's what "really did it" for Hull—imagine these figures life-size, in full scenes, with lighting! Thus began The Witch's Dungeon in 1966 outside Hull’s home in Bristol, Connecticut. At age 13, Hull worked together with his father to construct the building. His mother, a costume designer, made the costumes for the figures. As Hull grew older and his makeup and sculpting talents developed, The Witch's Dungeon became an elegant tribute to classic horror that is now considered the longest-running Halloween attraction in the United States.

The late Ben Chapman, Julie Adams, and Cortlandt Hull
It is like seeing the Bama box art come to life as the camera glides past the inhabitants of The Witch's Dungeon, dramatically lighted in their detailed sets; there's The Creature, Frankenstein's Monster, The Mummy, The Fly, Hull's uncle Henry Hull as the Werewolf of London, Zenobia The Gypsy Witch, Dr. Phibes, the Red Death Phantom, and Nosferatu. Hull reflects on how rewarding it is to think that after more than 40 years he has been able to share with others his excitement for these classic films and possibly encourage those who overlook black-and-white movies to give them a look. "If that's the case," says Hull, 'then I hope The Witch's Dungeon has inspired somebody as well as the Aurora model kits have."

Next, actor Daniel Roebuck (Fugitive, Final Destination, Agent Cody Banks, Lost, and many other well-known TV and films) entertainingly discusses how his interest in "all things monster" evolved. Roebuck credits the Aurora models as providing a source inspiration when he was an aspiring actor, with the characters costumed and in a full setting, bringing to life his earlier intrigue with the classic horror and science-fiction makeups and scenes. Roebuck presents an inspiring setting himself, in his own Dr. Shocker's House of Horror memorabilia collection, lovingly displayed full-size figures, masks, props, toys, even an autographed Herman Munster doll ("Dan, you're a doll! Fred Gwynne '88") from when he worked on a film with Gwynne.

Roebuck loves to see visitors exclaim over items they remember having as children: "Even people who don't collect monster paraphernalia like we do, many of them had Aurora models." Some even get the desire to return to their former hobby and become Monster Kids once again.

Go Transylvania University!
Zacherley and Gorgo are back, dressed in their old Transylvania U uniforms, reminisce about the old days with the boys, "running through the graveyard, kicking the old skull around." Zach reflects, "In the 1960s, Monster Kids were mesmerized by the movie monsters." As if to prove his point, a 1960s scene appears of a boy building an Aurora monster kit in his bedroom. A Wolf Man hand appears on his shoulder—it's his friend, who hands him the 1964 Famous Monsters of Filmland with the announcement of a national monster kit contest, sponsored by Aurora Studios and Famous Monsters. Young model builders hoped to win one of the coveted award plaques "Master Monster Maker." Young actors Lex Lagacé and Brett Adams are so focused and absorbed, you'll feel like you're back in your old room making your monster memories.

Other interviewees include Mad Geppetto artists Fritz Frising, model painter and garage kit creator since 1992; Jim Tufaro, known for the sculpting, construction and design of Steeplechase Man, Sweeney Todd, Eck-O-Nette, Hope and Crosby, etc.; and designer/sculptor Scott Whipple, who reflects on how the Aurora box art influenced his artistic expression and moved it in a direction he had never before anticipated, leading to his unique diorama creations.

Sideshow Collectibles' Tom Gilliland and Mat Falls describe their creative process and techniques. Gilliland, VP of Creative Services at Sideshow and Staff Painting Designer for Rick Baker's Cinovation, strives for a creative interpretation of the classic figures that might bring about a rebirth of the character for the enthusiasts of today (while not upsetting the purists). Falls, Sideshow founding member, Product Sculptor, and VP of 3-D Design, also assists in Baker's Cinovation films and gives an absorbing wax sculpture demonstration.

The final interviewee is Frank Winspur, President of the family-operated Moebius Models, known for its monster/sci-fi/character kits, re-releases of classic Aurora kits, and new designs. Winspur describes the origins of Moebius and how the business evolved into a maker of model kits with a retro look but enhanced with today's production techniques.

Winspur also relates an amusing story of the resurfacing of some of his old model kits from the distant past, which gives Gorgo an idea for curing his sinus troubles—to hilarious effect—and sparks his passion for model making.

The artistry of the film is perfectly complemented by the music, scored and performed by Jack Johnson, who has collaborated with other musicians in a wide variety of techniques and musical styles, and gifted guitarist Mike Johnson.

Extras (approximately 15 minutes) include a Behind the Scenes segment and bios of the filmmakers and interviewees.

The Aurora Monsters is an elegantly crafted trip back to the "Monster Craze" of the 1960s.

So, gather your old models around you, settle back, and enjoy an entertaining and inspiring look at the creation and influence of this beloved icon of classic horror and fantasy.

And, of course, "Good night, whatever you are!"

Zach admiring Big Frankie!
A big congratulations from Monsters from the Vault to Cortlandt, Dennis Vincent, and everyone involved with The Aurora Monsters on their Rondo Award!

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