Famous Monster Review

On the life and times of Dr Ackula…

If you have ever been a reader of Fangoria (and it’s probably fair to say that most people are not given that its UK readership is tiny) then the name Forrest J Ackerman will be familiar to you. Having enjoyed more mentions in Fangoria than even its editor, Ackerman is a cult figure in the world of horror in spite of never having written a novel, made a movie or sliced’n’diced several teens on a remote farm in Texas. Instead, Ackerman was the ultimate fan. Not, mind you, a writing-letters-in-green-ink-and-stealing-underwear-from-the-washing-lines-of-celebrities kind of fan but, as several of the contributors in this feature testify to, a man who collected movie props at a time when they were considered little more than industrial waste and who, in his own house, created a treasure trove of horror memorabilia. And, best of all, was perfectly happy to guide complete strangers through his mansion, a place that is to horror movie fans what the Playboy Mansion is to chronic masturbators.

Famous Monster begins with Ackerman’s history, taken straight from the man himself. Returning home after serving his time in the armed forces during the Second World War, he was a man driven by his love of science-fiction, horror and fantasy. At the age of eight, he created the The Boys’ Scientifiction Club, was a frequent contributor to magazines and helped set up the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society. Without ever writing a novel himself, though he was the author of several short stories, Ackerman drifted into becoming literary agent for a bunch of writers that included Ray Bradbury, future Scientologist L Ron Hubbard and even Ed Wood. To Ackerman, Wood was a drunken voice calling him on the telephone at two o’clock in the morning but this friendship saw Wood accompany Ackerman to the premiere of John Landis’ Schlock, something that impressed Landis no end. And Wood too, who was surprised that Landis had not only heard of him but pronounced himself a fan of Plan 9 From Outer Space.

The centrepiece of this documentary, though, is Famous Monsters of Filmland, the magazine started by Ackerman that introduced the history of horror, science-fiction and fantasy, as well as more recent movies, to younger readers. Coming along just as televisions became commonplace and monster movies were hitting the drive-ins, Famous Monsters of Filmland was shot through with a sense of humour and a healthy dose of cynicism, even to those films that it featured. As John Landis describes it, it was a magazine written for fourteen-year-old boys but which wasn’t afraid to lampoon horror movies on account of, “…most fantasy movies being shit…even Forrest knows that!” One who remembers this fondly is director Joe Dante, who recalls writing into Famous Monsters of Filmland with a piece titled The 50 Worst Blockbusters, some of which he admits now that he hadn’t actually seen. Ackerman not only printed the article, largely rewritten according to Dante, but sent the young Dante a copy of the magazine with the now exciting-sounding Dante’s Inferno billed on the cover. To a section of nerdish young boys, Dante was probably a hero but one doubts if it did little for his relationship with girls.

Unfortunately, movies changed but Famous Monsters did not. As horror became less about monsters and more about psychopaths stalking young girls, Famous Monsters lost out to several newcomers, Fangoria included. The magazine made an ill-fated return years later but Ackerman was effectively forced out of his position and lost even the name to it. As his health suffered, all Ackerman had was his home and his movie memorabilia but he was even to lose that. Actor Dan Roebuck guides us through some of the memorabilia that Ackerman might once have had and lost while Roger Corman and Ackerman himself bemoan the fact that directors, who are now wealthy but were once scrimping pennies to buy Famous Monsters of Filmland, did nothing to ensure that Ackerman’s possessions remained in one collection. His health, which had been failing for years, deteriorated in late 2008 and Ackerman died that December.

As well as being a decent documentary of the man better known as Uncle Forry or Dr Ackula, Famous Monster does well at recalling a time when horror on television was something of a rarity and the only places that children could see monsters was in the pages of comic books and magazines. More than one contributor talks about scanning the pages of TV Guide for those movies mentioned in Famous Monsters, while Michael Weldon’s Psychotronic magazine did more than that by reviewing movies of that week for their genre credentials. Alongside clips of The House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler and Frankenstein, Famous Monster is a loving tribute to horror’s ultimate fan. Others have paid tribute before – Ackerman has been cast in Amazon Women on the Moon, The Howling and even Michael Jackson’s Thriller – but this is an affectionate tribute to a man who influenced not only moviemakers but encouraged many a young boy (and girl) to

Famous Monster was, in all likelihood, produced for television with each sale on DVD being something of a bonus. The picture is anamorphically presented in 1.78:1 and not counting the scratchy old footage of monster movies and the visual effects that are used to complement these, the image is very decent. The bonus features imply that some of the contributors, particularly director John Landis and Roger Corman, might have advised director Mike McDonald on his interviewing technique but while they may not be particularly exciting-looking, McDonald does a fine job of selecting the best moments from each contributor. The DD2.0 soundtrack (without subtitles) also does well at presenting the dialogue but, again, isn’t anything more than talking heads and old movie (and stock) footage.

Speaking of these features, they’re a bit of a mixed bag. The Commentary is good with Mike McDonald and writer Ian Johnston giving away more information on Ackerman than was included in the main feature but being honest enough to describe their own failings during the making of the documentary. Everything else isn’t quite so interesting, including a Blooper Reel (3m19s), More Forry Memories (26m51s) and Deleted Interviews (22m18s), the last of which includes our hearing from cult movie stars like Caroline Munro and Grace Lee Whitney, which just aren’t of the standard set by the rest of the feature. The Mini-Ackerman (7m03s) takes the viewer through what’s left of Ackerman’s memorabilia while Dan Roebuck’s Living Room (5m37s) does the same for the actor/writer with all the gubbins that he’s bought from Famous Monsters of Filmland (and other magazines) over the years. Finally, there is a Photo Gallery.

Eamonn McCusker

Updated: Apr 08, 2009

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
Famous Monster Review | The Digital Fix