Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Aurora Monsters: The Model Craze That Gripped The World (2010)

I used to have a photo of one of my brothers from when he was a kid. Granted, this, in and of itself, is nothing to get excited over. In the image, my brother," Hans" (not his real name), is wearing a "Snidely Whiplash" mustache which was probably cut out of a loose piece of faux fur that was lying around (hey, it was the 70s). This is not the interesting part (it is, unfortunately, the funny part). No, what is most interesting is in the background. Standing majestically on a table behind "Hans" is a model of Jack Kirby's Devil Dinosaur, the cherry red co-protagonist (along with semi-primate, Moon Boy) of the comic book of the same name. I wanted that model. I still do. Of course, it wasn't until decades later that I discovered that what I thought was the coolest toy in the universe was actually a Tyrannosaurus Rex model from Aurora's "Prehistoric Scenes" line. Sadly, this photo has been lost to time, but I know deep down that it was really a Devil Dinosaur kit, just disguised as a T-Rex.

This is the overall feeling both informing and evoked by The Aurora Monsters (for brevity's sake, we'll skip the subtitle in this review), a documentary love letter to, specifically, Aurora's line of monster and horror-themed model kits first produced in the 60s. Sadly, there are no Devil Dinosaurs presented herein. Produced for The Witch's Dungeon (a museum dedicated to classic horror) by Dennis Vincent and Cortlandt Hull (the Dungeon's founder and great nephew of Werewolf of London's Henry Hull), the documentary is set up in segments of individual interviews bookended by short skits and introductions with legendary horror host Zacherley and puppet sidekick Gorgo the gargoyle as a framing device. While trying to cure Gorgo's sinus problems, the duo find some old Super 8 film reels and play the interviews therein. That's basically it.

Now, I like nostalgia. I think, in general at least, nostalgia is a good thing (hell, it's given Joe Franklin an entire career). It's only when your sense of nostalgia prevents you from moving forward that it becomes restrictive and harmful. If it weren't for nostalgia, I probably wouldn't watch and review half the movies I do. If it weren't for nostalgia, you probably wouldn't be reading this at all, I'd guess (unless you're one of the people I bribe to read it). And it is the sense of nostalgia as an inspirational factor that really drives this doc. The filmmakers are not so concerned with history (only about a half-hour is devoted to the people involved directly with Aurora at the time the line was introduced) as they are with the "monster kids" who were fans of the kits and how their future endeavors were stimulated by them. For Example, there's artist Daniel Horne who paints and sculpts classic horror characters. Actor Jeff Yagher sculpts garage kits that more closely resemble the James Bama box art than the Aurora originals did. And so on…

If the producers' point of view regarding the subject is under any doubt, their use of the "Cool Ghoul" as emcee eradicates it handily. Touted as one of the first (and certainly the most famous this side of Elvira) television horror hosts, Zacherley gives it his all in each of his segments. It is easy to see how the man has maintained so rarefied a career for over half a century. He delivers his lines, hits his marks, and most of all, sells the character and his situations. As cornball as it sounds, on some level you have to believe that a horror host is more than a collection of bad puns and crappy slapstick with a tinge of the horrific, and Zacherley accomplishes this with an exuberant ease (especially praiseworthy considering the man's almost 100-years-old). This was my first experience with Zacherley, and his mastery of the form is in full evidence. The effectiveness and need for this framing device is open to debate, but to me it's like chocolate and peanut butter, spaghetti and meatballs, Captain and Tennille, etcetera. Yes, it is incongruous and tangential to the subject matter, but it feels right. Monster kids build Aurora monster models and play with them while watching late night horror movies hosted by characters like Dr. Morgus, Uncle Ted (our own local talent), and Zacherley.

In documentary films, the idea of objectivity has been at the center of debate since the medium was invented (even before, probably). While some feel that the camera presents truth, others feel that its mere presence constructs truth. Personally, I fall in the latter category. Once there is a person behind the lens, no matter what the intent is (or says it isn't), some form of editorializing takes place. You can give ten people ten cameras, have them all film the same event (you can even stipulate the intent), and you will get ten different documents with ten different points of view. But that's a discussion for another day. Suffice it to say, The Aurora Monsters doesn't worry itself with ideas of objectivity at all. After all, the filmmakers aren't out to attain any lofty societal goals. They are all about spreading their affection for this short-lived and much-loved trend. Does that make this a "good" documentary or a "bad" one? Well, as a documentary, it won't have the Frederick Wiseman's and Errol Morris's of the world in fear for their jobs. But that's not really the point, is it? Mash notes don't have to be particularly well-written or be transcendent. They only need to be heartfelt. And this is.

I was astounded at how little of the film deals with the people who were personally involved with Aurora at the time of the line's inception. What's here, though, is fascinating, and listening to the three interviewees (James Bama, Andrew Yanchus, and Ray Meyers) is informative and entertaining. These interviews are interspersed with (what I'm sure are rarely seen) behind-the-scenes artwork and photos. Sadly, I wanted more of this history but didn't get it. Perhaps there are practical reasons behind this. Perhaps there's no one else from then still alive. Perhaps the historical aspect was only intended as a springboard into the monster kids' later exploits. Only the producers know for sure, but for something titled The Aurora Monsters, you'd think it would have a stronger emphasis on the eponymous objects.

Which brings me to structure, and this may be the films' biggest problem. It plays like this: Zacherley and Gorgo do a little sketch, Gorgo finds a reel of film, they roll the film, and we watch the interviews (ostensibly from the film reels), one at a time. The interwoven photos do some of the heavy lifting at fending off boredom (and they are thankfully shown with notations of who they portray), but the monotony of the formula gets old. Ultimately, it gives the proceedings the feel of a show on the Discovery channel (not that that's necessarily bad). I believe that, had they intercut between interviewees, they could have built and maintained a nice sense of momentum, even including Bama, Yanchus, and Meyers throughout the whole film instead of only at the start. They could have still had Zacherley in it, and it would have been a more unified whole. Still and all, if you were ever a monster kid (or ever wanted to be one), you can certainly do much worse than wasting a couple hours with The Aurora Monsters.

MVT: The James Bama interview. If you ever saw any of the man's artwork, you'd understand why this interview is such a treasure for his fans. Plus, he seems like a damn nice guy.

Make or Break: The Mad Geppetto segment is the "Make" for me. These guys take their love of classic monsters to a new level. This is the best example in the film of innovation over imitation (not that the others herein are just imitators). Great stuff.

Score: 6.5/10


  1. I love the Aurora model kits. I actually wrote an article (many moons ago) about their line of Famous Monsters. I'm almost ashamed I didn't know this existed. Thanks for the heads up!

  2. My pleasure, Christine. Thanks for reading. Where can I find the article you wrote? I'd be interested (as well as anyone else who may be viewing this, I'm sure) in reading it.