With it being the Halloween season and all, I can't help but have monsters on the brain lately. We had already decorated most of the house (the living room looks like a chamber of horrors!) but there seemed to be something missing. "Why don't you put out those old monster models of yours?" one of my daughters suggested.
So I did just that. I opened our old cedar chest (an heirloom passed down by my late mother) and there, nestled between stacks of books, stood my small platoon of surviving monsters... a little dusty, but still intact and ready for display. Most of the Universal Monsters that I loved so much as a child were there: Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, the Phantom of the Opera, The Mummy, King Kong, and my all-time favorite, the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
I had possessed them all at one time or another, but, sadly, some had become damaged and were discarded along the way. Just bringing these out of storage and sprucing them up for Halloween brought back cherished memories of those days when I was nine or ten, when those wonderful Aurora monster models were all the rage. Along with Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine, the models are what I remember most about my boyhood during the late 60's and early 70's. Those cardboard boxes of plastic fodder for my ghoulish pre-pubescent imagination.
Aurora started releasing the Universal Monster models in the early 60's, in what was known as the "long box". That was before my time. Sure, I watched the old monster movies on my local creature feature around that time, but it wasn't until later -- around 1969 or 1970 -- when I really got into building the models. And they were the "glow-in-the-dark" kind in the square box.
An Aurora ad from the back cover of a DC comic
I recieved a very modest allowance back then for doing chores around the house and it was a flat-out miracle, but I usually managed to save every penny until we went to town at the start of the following month (that's what folks did when they lived out in the country with the big city twenty or thirty miles away). I remember riding in the back seat of my father's old two-toned '56 Chevy, sticking my hand in my jeans pocket every now and then to make sure I had remembered to bring those few dollar bills and a jingling fistful of change. If had forgotten my loot, it would have been a dark and dismal journey indeed. But luckily I never did, for that particular trip to town was motivated (on my part) by thoughts of glorious monsters, both on the printed page of a magazine and in styrene plastic within a creepily packaged box.
After stopping at Brown's Drugstore for the latest issue of Famous Monsters, we would head over to the only Sears department store in Nashville at the time. That was before the days of the big shopping malls... if you wanted to shop, you pretty much had to go downtown. Sandwiched between the mail-order pickup and the lawn & garden department was the toy department. Sears had an entire back wall devoted to models and hobby supplies back then. Most of the models were hot-rods and military aircraft, but stuck smack-dab in the center of all the "normal stuff", as my dad would call it, were the Aurora monster models... those square boxes bearing every man-made monster, vampire, werewolf, and creature that I had ever loved.
After selecting my monster-of-choice for that particular month, I would add some model glue (yes, they actually allowed kids to buy the stuff without a parental permission at that time) and maybe a few bottles of Estes paint if needed. I never cared much for the shiny paint, preferring the muted tones instead, for added authenticity. Also, I never smeared my monsters fangs and claws with candy-apple red to simulate blood. Alot of guys I knew wanted their monsters extra gory (even Kong and Godzilla), but I made mine as close to their movie counterparts as possible. This annoyed my model-building pals, but then I always did tend to go against the grain for the sake of realism.
On the way home, I always pestered my parents to let me peel away the cellophane and open the box. My mother insisted that I wait until we got home, but she knew the suspense was killing me! "Okay," she'd finally give in, "but if you lose a piece in the car, I don't want to hear you belly-ache about it later." Fortunately, I never lost a single piece of a model kit... even when my father slammed on the brakes at stop signs, because he wasn't paying attention.
We would usually get home around one or two o'clock in the afternoon. I'd take refuge in my bedroom, crack the window for proper ventilation (even in the dead of winter) and, with a snack of Kool-Aid and a peanut butter sandwich, prepare to work on my most recent model project. Most of the time, I would have an issue of Famous Monsters laid open for inspiration, but not close enough to be soiled by stray globs of glue or paint (heaven forbid!) On the glow-in-the-dark models, sometimes I used the glow pieces, sometimes I didn't. The models came with both sets of heads, hands, and feet, giving you a choice. If you wanted, you could even take the extra pieces and construct a cool, little "mini-monster".
My favorite of the bunch was the Creature from the Black Lagoon. He was cast in green plastic, so there wasn't a whole lot of painting involved, just the belly scales, gills, and fins. The Gillman had a really cool base, too, which included a skeleton hand, a swamp snake on a gnarled tree branch, and a big spiny lizard that I never could quite identify. A lot of the other models had neat bases as well. The Mummy's had chunks of temple columns and pyramid blocks decorated with hieroglyphics and a king cobra. Godzilla's had the buildings of Tokyo underfoot and Kong's had a totally-trampled jungle scene. Perhaps my favorite base was the Phantom's. There were the usual garnishments like rats and such, but there was also the window of a dungeon with a rotting and horrified victim within, clutching the iron bars in desperation. The least remarkable base belonged to Frankenstein. It was simply a grassy cemetery plot with a tombstone at the rear. Pretty boring compared to the others, but that didn't matter. You simply had to have ol' Square-Head in your collection.
A few of the models sort of irked me in one way or another. I loved the Wolfman, but could never figure out why he wore no shirt! After all, Lon Chaney Jr. always donned a long-sleeved work shirt whenever he went through the change. If it hadn't been for his jeans, held up by a rope (another faux pas of realism on the model designer's part), he would have been naked as a jaybird! Also, the Hunchback model was sort of a sloppy mixture of Chaney Sr.'s rendition and Anthony Quinn's bellringer. And the Dr. Jekyll as Mr. Hyde model was several inches smaller than all the others, although it did have a cool table with laboratory beakers and bottles, and an overturned stool. The Witch was the most disappointing of the bunch. The figure itself was only about four or five inches tall, compared to Frankie's impressive nine inches. The Witch did have the most elaborate base of all, though, with a boiling cauldron and lots of creepy details that were particularly hard to paint.
Although not a true Universal Monster,
the Forgotten Prisoner of Castel Mare
has long been a favorite of model-builders
One of my favorite models wasn't even a true Universal monster at all. The Forgotten Prisoner of Castel Mare was the partly-clothed skeleton of some unfortunate victim, shackled to a moldering dungeon wall, its jaws stretched wide in a silent scream. Any youthful lover of horror really dug skeletons (pardon my pun) so that probably contributed to the Forgotten Prisoner's appeal, even though it didn't actually originate from a real motion picture. I heard later that it was created exclusively for Famous Monsters Magazine, which made it even more desirable.
The sad part was, once you finally put together the original twelve Aurora models, there was no more to be found, except for maybe the Munsters and the superhero models like Superman, Batman, and Robin. But just having those twelve horrific monsters on your bookshelf, glowing eerily in the dark hours of the night was both chilling and comforting to us monster-loving boys.
In recent years, companies like Revell, Polar Lights, and Moebius have re-released most of the old Aurora models. For decades, there was a disheartening rumor that Jekyll & Hyde's original molds had been destroyed, but the 2007 re-issue by Moebius proved that urban myth to be false. Although today's youth aren't really into model-building like their parents (or grandparents) were, and most kids wouldn't know Count Dracula if he came up and sank his fangs into their throat, the new re-issues give model-builders, both old and new, the chance to construct their favorite movie monster and relive those nostalgic days from the monster boom of the sixties and seventies.