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American-International Pictures, Rock ‘n’ Roll Monsters: The American-International Story

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When first browsing through Bruce G. Hallenbeck’s new chronicle of American-International Pictures, Rock ‘n’ Roll Monsters: The American-International Story (Hemlock Books), it’s obvious you don’t have to be a cineaste to enjoy this read. A majority of Baby Boomers and Generation Xers will fondly recall many of the films and stars this book discusses. American-International Pictures (AIP) went hand-in-hand with the pop culture of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

AIP was not only cutting edge in many respects but incredibly eclectic in its output. There was something for everyone and every taste, and at the forefront was the American teenager. AIP catered to a changing nation and its youth, and eventually grew internationally, entertaining filmgoers worldwide.

Bruce G. Hallenbeck does a nice job keeping this all in perspective. At 298 pages, including a production filmography, it is a tightly written history of the company’s contributions and legacy. Many genres were represented throughout the run of AIP. From juvenile delinquents and monsters to rock ‘n’ roll and gothic tales of Edgar Allan Poe. As the 1960s progressed, the beach party films of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello gave way to the biker flicks and Blaxploitation cinema of the 1970s. In each decade AIP took us along for the ride. The book keeps readers moving at a steady pace and discusses the popular films AIP produced in each genre.

David Frankham provides a fascinating and enthusiastic foreword. The English actor co-starred with Vincent Price in both Master of the World (1961) and Tales of Terror (1962) for AIP. Frankham shares his thoughts working alongside the great Price and describes how kind and generous he was. As for American-International, Mr. Frankham states, “…working on my two AIP films was the happiest experience of my career, because of the camaraderie on both sides of the camera.”

In the first chapter, Hallenbeck provides a concise narrative of how James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff came together to form American Releasing Corporation (the name would later be changed to American-International Pictures). The author explains how the new company was truly a family business. Nicholson’s wife, Sylvia, was the secretary and Arkoff’s brother-in-law, Lou Rusoff, became the in-house scriptwriter. Alex Gordon (brother of filmmaker Richard Gordon) also worked early on as a producer. Roger Corman was intricately involved with AIP from the beginning. The book appropriately details this. Corman sold AIP the distribution rights to his 1955 feature, The Fast and the Furious, and continued to be a major factor in the company’s success for decades until he created his own company, New World Pictures, in 1970. There were bumps along the way. The book describes financial discrepancies Corman (and others including Bert I. Gordon) had when dealing with Nicholson and Arkoff.

The output of AIP consisted of original productions mixed with independent and foreign features that were distributed by AIP. When successful co-productions with British companies such as Amicus, Anglo-Amalgamated, and Tigon are added to the equation, the dynamics of AIP become a bit muddled for fans tackling the company’s history. AIP even collaborated with Hammer Films in co-producing The Vampire Lovers for the screen in 1970 (the book notes this being the first R rated horror film in the U.S.). Hallenbeck makes a good effort at sorting out these details. Italian films were also co-produced or distributed through AIP, including sword and sandal peplum featuring the likes of Steve Reeves and Gordon Scott.

Hallenbeck describes James H. Nicholson’s friendship with Forrest J. Ackerman and their shared enthusiasm for science fiction. The editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland was also a literary agent and it was Ackerman that assured AIP the rights to adapt Paul W. Fairman’s short story, “The Cosmic Frame” into Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957). Paul Blaisdell designed the unforgettable aliens for that film and those iconic creatures help grace the cover of this book. Ample pages are dedicated to Blaisdell’s other contributions, including The She Creature and It Conquered the World, both from 1956.

In 1959 American-International’s first CinemaScope and color production was made in England. Horrors of the Black Museum starred Michael Gough and was produced by Herman Cohen. Cohen had previously scored big with AIP’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf in 1957. Not surprisingly, it was an early attempt to match the style of Hammer Films on their home turf.  Hallenbeck devotes several pages to this film and reveals Cohen’s first choice to play the lead villain was Vincent Price. The book also touches upon Cohen’s homosexuality and possible sexual undertones in his work for AIP. A sinister shot of Malou Pantera and Michael Gough from Horrors of the Black Museum graces the back cover.

Thanks to AIP, Edgar Allan Poe was as popular as ever in the 1960s. Hallenbeck chronicles this era in his chapter, “AIP Gothic – Corman, Poe, and Price”, stating, “Price would soon be Hollywood’s number one purveyor of all things moody and macabre, AIP’s very own ‘Merchant of Menace’.”  The author explains how new life was given to the great horror stars in the Poe films, including Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, and Boris Karloff. Interestingly, these horror legends also made appearances in AIP’s Beach Party series. Hallenbeck includes Ray Milland’s contributions at this time, stating the impact of his performances in the science fiction classics Panic in the Year Zero (1962) and X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (1963).

Of special interest to horror aficionados is Roger Corman’s attempts to adapt the tales of H. P. Lovecraft for AIP. He produced and directed The Haunted Palace in 1963, which incorporated elements of Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, published in 1941, although the film was ultimately marketed as a Poe story. The author subsequently mentions Corman’s involvement bringing The Dunwich Horror (1970) to fruition before handing over the reins to his former art director, Daniel Haller. Hallenbeck praises this later interpretation of Lovecraft on celluloid, proclaiming, “…the story’s Wilbur Whateley was transmogrified into the hippy form of former child-star Dean Stockwell…it should not have worked, and yet somehow, in a sign of the psychedelic times, it did.”

Other chapters include “AIP in Europe” which chronicles the Continental films the company distributed and also “AIP in Britain” which details its London-based operations headed by producer Louis M. ‘Deke’ Heyward. Heyward helped score huge hits for AIP in the late 60s and early 70s, including director Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (titled The Conqueror Worm in the U.S.) and the Phibes films. These are considered among Vincent Price’s finest performances and Hallenbeck does his homework detailing this era.

The line between art and product was often blurred at AIP. Nicholson and Arkoff imported classics such as Mario Bava’s La maschera del demonio (1960) which they retitled Black Sunday. This gave American audiences an opportunity to view stylish European films, albeit in re-edited form. AIP often discarded the original soundtracks in favor of composers Les Baxter and Ronald Stein.

The book also showcases the Blaxploitation era of the 70s, including the talented Pam Grier who emerged as a star in films such as Coffy (1973). Nicholson left AIP in 1972 and passed away soon after. The author wraps up with AIP’s final years in which Arkoff produced The Amityville Horror (1979) and the vampire spoof Love at First Bite (1979). Readers will learn how AIP attempted to compete with bigger budgets after the success of Star Wars (1977).

Bruce G. Hallenbeck previously contributed a series on British Cult Cinema for Hemlock Books including The Amicus Anthology and Hammer Fantasy & Sci-Fi.  His style of writing succeeds nicely, discussing films without over-analyzing.

The author does well presenting AIP in an entertaining way including anecdotes on the many talented folks who passed through the ranks. A generous amount of photos are featured including eight pages of color shots and poster art.  Rock ‘n’ Roll Monsters: The American-International Story is a fitting addition for film enthusiasts and casual filmgoers alike.

About Anthony Mangos

Anthony Mangos is a freelance writer from Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He has contributed film articles in CLASSIC IMAGES and SCARY MONSTERS. His poetry has appeared in BACKBONE MOUNTAIN REVIEW and he is an arts & entertainment reviewer at PEOPLE'S WORLD online. His heroes range from Jack Kerouac to Jean Rollin and he carries on as a beat writing postman in the spirit of Charles Bukowski. He also enjoys traveling, writing fiction, and sitting in old movie theatres.

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