Monday, January 29, 2024

"The Monster Maker": A sci-fi film about pollution that didn't get made

In James Monaco's 1979 book Alain Resnais1, the author describes a tantalizing film project involving surrealist director Renais and Timely Comics/Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee that, sadly, never came to fruition.

Resnais, who was French, spent some time in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s working on various potential projects. One of those possibilities, as Monaco wrote, involved a documentary about H.P. Lovecraft, with some backing from William Friedkin. But that fell through, possibly because Friedkin got involved with The Exorcist2.

Another idea involved a film, proposed to be titled The Monster Maker, that would be written by Lee. 

Monaco spends part of a chapter on Renais' unrealized projects going into great detail about the project and its origins. The Monster Maker would have followed Larry Morgan ("a producer of grade C horror films") and his regular lead actor, Stephen Cavanaugh. Morgan aspires to produce something greater than schlock. And Cavanaugh, whose wife has recently died, "thinks air pollution was the cause. He goes a little crazy and blackmails Morgan into promising to do a film which will expose the evils of pollution once and for all time," Monaco wrote. The sci-film element comes at the end, with garbage itself becoming the monster (possibly having been "summoned" by the now-insane Cavanaugh).

"The sky darkens with smoke," Monaco wrote, describing the ending. "The bay overflows with pustulous flotsam and jetsam — and worse — dreck. Garbage runs rampant in the streets. In a montage of 25 extraordinary scenes, pollution triumphs in the city as crowds run screaming in terror from the stench, the smoke, the horror of it all."

For all of this, the tone would have been crucial — and perhaps impossible to nail. Lee and Resnais envisioned a comic-book-like story with "a subtle tone of cinematic irony to be a commentary on the style as well as an example of it." Why style? Wrote Monaco: "'The Monster Maker' is a grand and exuberant compendium of all the cliches of the B movie which have thrilled and enthralled audiences for fifty years: science fiction, sentimental romance, horror, revenge, and cataclysm — it's all there. That more important perhaps, 'The Monster Maker' takes these conventions seriously at the same time as it parodies them. This is not camp, but something more serious."

And thus the American Spider-Man co-creator Lee and the French surrealist Resnais were setting the bar extremely high. Monaco opined that The Monster Maker would not have been a very commercial project, and added that "with a little bad luck, it could easily have been a disaster for Resnais."

A disaster, perhaps. But there's no way it would have been an uninteresting one.

Resnais did extensive location scouting in New York for the unrealized project. In his book, Monaco includes a handful of those photos, reprinted from Resnais' photography book, RepĂ©rages, which was published in 1974. Those black-and-white images are further reproduced here. The quality is poor for several reasons, including the fact that I couldn't open the book flat to get good photos. But I think they give a good idea of Resnais' vision and inspirations for the meta-commentary pollution monster movie that was never to be. 
1. Yes, I'm a film nerd for having this book. My favorite Resnais movie is Last Year at Marienbad, but his most interesting and challenging film that I've seen is the one he made immediately afterward, Muriel. Also, it my opinion that Resnais' 32-minute 1956 Holocaust documentary, Night and Fog, should be be required viewing for American 11th grade or 12th grade students (with proper context, forewarning and discussion beforehand). This is especially needed in this moment, when society's knowledge of history, 20th century history in particular, is threatened by undereducation and by the willful promotion of false or revisionist history that seeks to advance hate-based agendas. Night and Fog's length fits neatly into a single class period, and I think those young people who watch it will be far less inclined to subsequently take dangerous demagogues and denialists of true history seriously. 
2. Interestingly, while the idea for a Lovecraft documentary floundered, Resnais in 1977 made a fictional film about an aging writer titled Providence. Some scenes were filmed in Providence, Rhode Island, where Lovecraft lived most of his life. Providence also features Ellen Burstyn, who was of course in Friedkin's The Exorcist. I need to track this one down!

No comments:

Post a Comment