"This is the story of 500 forgettable movies. And 2 unforgettable men."
So reads an onscreen legend at the beginning of "It Conquered Hollywood! The Story of American International Pictures," the latest documentary from American Movie Classics. The one-hour special, narrated by director Peter Bogdanovich (who got his start on such American International projects as "Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women") debuts at 10 p.m. EDT Tuesday (May 1) on the AMC network.
From "The Fast and the Furious" in 1954 to "The Amityville Horror" in 1979 (more or less), American International Pictures was the leading producer and distributer of teen-oriented exploitation titles.
Typically, an AIP release focused on monsters, juvenile delinquents, rock 'n roll, beach parties, bikers, Italian musclemen, hippie protest, "blaxploitation," kung fu or Edgar Allan Poe.
In reality, many of those 500 or so B-movies were anything but "forgettable." After all, who could forget pictures with such titles as "How to Make a Monster," "Beach Blanket Bingo," "It Conquered the World," "Machine Gun Kelly" and "I Was a Teenage Werewolf," to name only the films that will be screened Tuesday through Friday night on AMC next week?
The "2 unforgettable men" referred to in the AMC special are AIP founders James H. Nicholson (1916-1972) and Samuel Z. Arkoff, who, at 82, remains the very embodiment of the cigar-chomping, money-minded, plain-talking but self-mythologizing mogul.
"Aaaah, you could just feel the money pouring in," Arkoff recalls in the documentary, remembering those heady days when his partner Nicholson would dream up such guaranteed boffo-at-the-box office titles as "The Beast with a Million Eyes." (Exhibition rights to movies were sometimes sold to theaters on the basis of a title and a poster, before a script had even been written.)
The thesis of "It Conquered Hollywood!," which was written, directed and co-produced by John Watkin and Eamon Harringtoncq, is that AIP saved Hollywood from financial ruin by discovering and catering to the massive, mobile, post-war teen audience - the audience that now dominates the movie marketplace.
At a time when television was stealing away mature moviegoers and the average Hollywood film cost about $6 million, AIP produced such epics as "Daddy-O," "The Cool and the Crazy" and "Reform School Girl" for about $60,000 each. Teenagers didn't care about production values, they wanted to be entertained - and they wanted to get out of the house, away from their parents and the TV, to such hangouts as movie theater balconies and the passion pits of the drive-in.
As Bogdanovich says in the documentary: "Teenagers were hungry for movies that showed them the way they wanted to be - cool, rebellious and sexy." Such sociological ramifications weren't on the minds of anybody working on the films at the time, according to special effects and makeup artist Bob Burns, who got his start working as an assistant to AIP's top monster-maker, the late Paul Blaisdell, on such movies as "It Conquered the World" (1956), "Invasion of the Saucer Men" (1957) and "The She Creature" (1957).
"We were just making a movie - that's it," Burns, 66, said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Burbank, Ca. "We were just making a monster for a movie, and you just hoped it would look okay. You only did a retake if something completely fell apart."
Burns said Blaisdell built his monster costumes "by the seat of his pants" - almost literally. Such monsters as the She Creature and the three-eyed mutant of "The Day the World Ended" were "built on long johns - long underwear. You would take foam rubber, like from couches, and sculpt it and glue it down to the underwear. You would add antennas, fins, fangs..."
Burns - who graduated to such pictures as "Aliens" after his AIP days - is an avid collector of fantasy movie memorabilia. His treasures - which include props from such movie classics as the original versions of "King Kong" and "The Wolf Man" - are now on display in a new volume titled "It Came from Bob's Basement: Exploring the Science Fiction and Monster Movie Archive of Bob Burns" (Chronicle Books, $24.95).
While AIP's monsters lacked the state-of-the-art realism of King Kong and many others, "these things are Hollywood history as far as I'm concerned," Burns said.
"Paul did it quick and dirty, so to speak, but his monsters became icons. Paul would probably be more surprised than I that these movies are so popular now.
"They have a lot of charm that films today don't have. The CGI (computer-generated) stuff today is amazing, but there's something about the old hands-on stuff that is wonderful. It has a lot of character."
The fast-moving "It Conquered Hollywood!" tends to overgeneralize (it ignores the fact that many other companies also produced teen exploitaton flicks, albeit with less panache than Nicholson and Zarkoff), but it's unfailingly entertaining. How could it not be, with its succession of clips from such works as "Teenage Caveman," "The War of the Colossal Beast" and "The Terror," which starred a young Jack Nicholson?
(Others who got a break at AIP include Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Charles Bronson, Robert De Niro and Woody Allen, whose debut feature, "What's Up Tiger Lily?," was distributed by the company.)
If nothing else, the special reveals one reason why many of today's teen movies are so lackluster. AIP gave its drive-in programmers such titles as "Dragstrip Girl" and "I Was a Teenage Frankenstein." But what are today's teen movies called? "Say It Isn't So," "Get Over It" and "Head Over Heels," to name just three recent releases. With bland, anonymous titles like that, it's no wonder a recent story in Variety about the box-office failure of recent teen flicks was headlined "No Pop in Zit Pix."
Few American International releases were treated seriously by reviewers in the company's heyday. Now, however, it's apparent that these unpretentious, efficient, atmospheric films offer plenty of interest for auterist critics, cultural commentators and camp aficionados alike.
As for Arkoff, he says he considers "Bikini Beach," "Boxcar Bertha," "Blacula" and the rest of AIP's output to be part of the nation's cultural history, for better or worse. Says the mogul: "That's the way I like to think about my pictures - they were Americana."