When Hollins Professor of English R. H. W. Dillard was just a grad student at the University of Virginia, he never imagined an expensive bottle of whiskey and a $50 payment to write a screenplay with acclaimed writer George Garrett would result in one of the most (in)famous sci-fi/horror films in American cinema: the 1965 cult classic Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (FMtSM). And yet that’s exactly what happened. Sort of.
“Given all the things going on both in class and out of class in the world, I don’t think much about FMtSM these days,” said Dillard about the sole film he co-wrote nearly six decades ago. “But I do think of it in class on certain occasions, such as my Kubrick class this last semester, since FMtSM‘s director, Robert Gaffney, was a close associate of Stanley K. and worked on several of the pictures we studied. Then, I put on my FMtSM t-shirt and puff with pride.”
If the title of the movie sounds ridiculous, well, that’s because it is. The flick’s about a modern-day Frankenstein’s monster (named appropriately enough Col. Frank Saunders) created by the U.S. military in order to combat an impending alien invasion aimed at kidnapping earth women to repropagate their race. The film premiered in the summer of ’65 at the Trieste Science Fiction Film Festival in Italy and for a while was even paired as a double feature with Golden Globe-winning film Inside Daisy Clover, which starred Natalie Wood and Robert Redford.
The sci-fi picture about women-absconding extraterrestrials didn’t win any awards, but over the years, much to Dillard’s surprise, FMtSM became a cult classic, appraised by audiences and critics as either brilliantly funny or so outrageously bad as to be impossible to not (secretly) savor the train-wreck appeal of the film’s ludicrous plot, 60s-saturated soundtrack, and over-reliance on stock footage (that doesn’t always match). The film became so popular/notorious that Robin Williams even once used a scene from FMtSM on a cable TV show, and some clips were also included in a comedic documentary about B movies called It Came From Hollywood (even though FMtSM was neither produced by Hollywood nor shot there.)
Regardless of which end of the critical spectrum fans fall on, the film is now considered one of the first movies to have gathered a large cult following exactly because of its “campiness” or “camp,” a kind of aesthetic or style that’s so low budget and seemingly bad it actually boomerangs back to being really enjoyable. Think of Mel Brooks’ comedic masterpiece Young Frankenstein, a tongue-in-cheek homage to the age of black-and-white horror films, except FMtSM was ahead of its time, beating out Young Frankenstein by nearly a decade. And much like Young Frankenstein, FMtSM has maintained its camp-classic status for more than half a century now.
However, most unbelievable about this little B-movie-that-could is the incredibly talented (perhaps overqualified) group of writers behind the screenplay. In addition to Dillard—who’s left his indelible mark in American literature, especially as a poet and editor of the Hollins Critic—the writing credits also include the aforementioned Poet Laureate of Virginia and Guggenheim Fellow George Garrett, and professor and publisher John Rodenbeck, who as the director of the American University in Cairo Press published an English translation of Naguib Mahfouz’s surrealist novel The Thief and the Dogs, which paved the way for Mahfouz’s Nobel Prize in Literature. (There’s even a rumor that Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Henry Taylor contributed some lines to FMtSM, but Dillard said that, although Taylor was a close friend of the group, he didn’t have a hand “or even a finger” in crafting the script.)
But how exactly did these three very different literary titans come together on such a Frankenstein’s creation as FMtSM? At the time, Dillard and Rodenbeck were both graduate students and part-time junior instructors at the University of Virginia, where Garrett, already an established poet and fictionist, was a professor in the English department. The three became fast friends, so close in fact that, according to Dillard, one night he and Rodenbeck “smuggled” their desks from the junior instructor room into the office of George and W. R. “Bill” Robinson, who would become a noted film scholar. Their shared space was marked by a slightly ironical sign that read, “Master Artists Corp.” Now the story goes that Garrett, who had some prior screenwriting experience, got a call one day from his old Princeton friend Richard Hilliard (who was fostering his own indie film aspirations) to write the story for a movie that had only a title. That title: Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster. Daunted by creating an entire script from such a ridiculous premise, Garrett reached out to Dillard and Rodenbeck for help. So the Master Artists Corp sat around Garrett’s kitchen table one night with a bottle of whiskey and began throwing out ideas for what would become the first draft for FMtSM.
For what it’s worth, the movie was originally intended to be a parody of the sci-fi/horror films that Dillard loved growing up. Of the three writers in the Master Artists Corp, he was the most versed in horror movies, and it’s actually a genre that fascinates and haunts him even today. “I am, of course, still trying to figure out the appeal of the horror film to my psyche, Frankenstein especially,” said Dillard. “Perhaps something dark in there beneath my cheerful demeanor.” The Hollins professor considers horror to be profound cinema that explores the dangers of technology, the inner darkness of humanity, and the compassion we can all have for our monsters. That first draft of FMtSM would’ve explored these themes, particularly through the manmade “monster” Col. Frank, with some comedic routines such as Frank’s legs, which were transplanted from a deceased tap dancer, breaking out into dance whenever the melody of “Sweet Georgia Brown” was played. Sound familiar to Mel Brooks’ monster from Young Frankenstein singing, or really groaning, “Puttin’ on the Ritz”? Except FMtSM would’ve done it first!
However, that’s not (necessarily) the film that got made. The producers of FMtSM, while amused by the original concept, wanted a serious horror film they could easily sell to the summer drive-in movie theater crowd. “I learned (and try to pass on to my students who don’t want to hear it) that the first version of a screenplay is far from the final version,” said Dillard, who’s also taught film and screenwriting courses at Hollins for years. “The final film may bear little resemblance to where the screenplay started out. That’s an important lesson and one that’s often overlooked in screenwriting classes.”
To that point, Dillard and the Corp did numerous rewrites on FMtSM, each straighter than the last, to appease an increasingly nervous pair of business-minded producers. And while the three writers had no hand (or even a finger) in the actual production of the movie, the end result does retain a lot of the initial script’s core ideas and even some scenes from the overtly comedic first draft, such as the gloriously cheesy and over-the-top performances of Princess Marcuzan and Dr. Nadir (the film’s two primary antagonists), and the impressive ineptitude of General Bowers, who chuckles over comics in the midst of an alien invasion.
It’s been more than half a century now since Dillard worked on FMtSM (and saw it at a Vinton drive-in where the reels were played out of order), but the campy classic that’s entertained multiple generations still occupies a special place in his heart. “Those days sharing an office with the other members of the Master Artists Corp were a joy and a delight, even though sadly enough I alone am left to tell thee,” said Dillard. “We had such a great time day-by-day, and FMtSM was a lasting (or so it seems) tribute to the good time we had.”