A magazine just for monsters? Nowadays this hardly comes as a surprise. Yet, in the late 1950s, James Warren's Famous Monsters of Filmland hit the US newsstands like a bomb. Join us looking back at the origins of a cult genre magazine and the golden age of early horror film.
To create and publish a US film monster magazine for kids in the 1950s probably was far from "off topic". The Great Depression following the First World War had triggered a global financial crisis in the late 1920s. For many people the future looked grim: they had lost their work, income, wealth or livelihood in the banking crash that went down in history a as the "Black Friday". Soon after that, war drums sounded accross the Atlantic once again: WWII was about to begin, and even after that, things did not really get better. In the 50s, the Cold War fueled fears and despite the industry's recovery a decade later, in the 60s Amercia was fighting a bloody war in Vietnam - and a lot of US citizens disapproved. Hard times during which. for many, fiction offered a great way to escape. Get a little distracted. Escapism was the new thing and with it dark fantasy started to infiltrate a booming entertainment industry.
It is actually a common theory that, during dark and less optimistic times, one genre especially blossoms: horror. In the early 20th century this trend became palpable in the new industry that was international film. But of course the horror genre is much older than that! Just think of the ancient myths and bizarre folklore stories of various cultures, the late 18th century German "Schauerromane" (aka shockers), or literary figures like Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe.
The times of early horror films
In the early days of film history, directors - especially the French - almost immediately started to produce horror short films. While the first US horror movie, The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895), more or less ventured on historical terrain, the films produced in France only a year later seemed much more fantastic: In 1896 Georges Méliès created Le Manoir du Diable, Un nuit terrible, and Conjuring a Lady at Robert Houdin's. And despite the fact that the British soon discovered the subject of horror films, France set the tone for quite some time when it came to the supernatural featuring on the big screen.
Following the invention of moving images, four and a half decades brought about the classics we know today, such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (among others the very first 1908 production by Otis Turner), The Golem (1915, Paul Wegener), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920, Robert Wiene), or Godzilla (1954, Ishiro Honda). Many productions made film history and in the early days Europe dominated the scene. But soon America started to move up. In the 1930s Universal Pictures became one of the leading production studios in the US horror biz. Legends like Dracula, Frankenstein, or The Invisible Man conquered theaters, and some hidden gems evolved during these innovative times - like Tod Browning's Freaks (1932) - a highly controversial film that almost borders on social criticism, and today is lost to the public in its entirety due to excessive censorship and cutting.
A horror magazine is born: Famous Monsters of Filmland
The lists of horror films had grown longer and longer when James Warren and his friend and author "Forry" Forrest J Ackerman teamed up to launch a new project in the mid-1950s. From what we've seen so far it appears rather obvious that they had more than enought topics of conversation. Warren had met Forry during his brief career as the publisher of After Hours when Ackerman served as his agent and provided the men's magazine with photo material from Hollywood. Now Forry introduced his colleague to a French film magazine, Cinema 57. It dealt with horror films exclusively - and James Warren was competely taken in.
Looking back now, the mid-50s really seemed a great time to revive the horor genre in the US. For decades many entertainment media had published horror stories, and harsh censorship rules inflicted on comic books by the Comics Code Authority only seemed to fuel the want for gory topics. Cinema 57 reminded James Warren of the horror films of his childhood und he figured - quite rightly so - that other readers would share his interest. The fact that in 1957 a number of old horror movies were licensed out to American TV stations probably only helped with his project.
In cooperation with Ackermann, Warren created a "One-Shot" of his new film magazine and named it Famous Monsters of Filmland. Featured stories revolved around monsters of film history. Sure: Nomen est Omen. But instead of reducing the strange creatures to bizarre or scary characters, Warren turned them into the closest thing to a hero. A clever move that brought him the success he longed for - as he would soon realize.
Still, on the way to the top, a few obstacles had to be overcome: As the printers requested an advance payment of 9,000 US$, Warren had to get a loan from his bank. As a new publisher, he had no relevant security to offer that exceeded the value of his typewriter, as he later recounted during an extensive interview with Tomorrow's Publishing. Whether his charmimg ways or his limitless enthusiasm finally convinced the bankers is unclear, but the loan was granted and was not to be regretted: According to Warren, the first issue of Famous Monsters (cover date February 1958) with a print run of 200,000 practically sold out within a few days. A second print was necessary to cover the readers who had missed the first publication and wanted to buy it.
The profit surely helped Warren Publishing to get up-and-running and to fund the next issue of Famous Monsters - although the return of cash to the firm's bank account was rather slow. Due to a delay in payment, the second issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland went public eight months later - and kept up the initial success. Toghether, Warren and Ackerman really made their film monsters famous.
A special magazine for lovers of the obscure
Especially kids and teens loved the monsters and helped to trigger the magazine's amazing success up until the late 1960s. Short articles, high profile illustrations and great graphic artwork presented insights on horror films from the era of silent movies up to what was then "contemporary" film. If you wanted to know all about cult actors like Lon Chaney, Sr. (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1923 or The Phantom of the Opera, 1925), Warren Publishing was the address for you. Hardly any other magazine covered the legendary acts of the genre's contemporary or silent movies like they did.
The hype even triggered two fan conventions: In 1974 and 1975 fans met with a respectable cast of stars in New York City: Next to Forrest J Ackerman and James Warren, Verne Langdon, Peter Cushing, Ingrid Pitt, Barbara Leigh, Catherine Lorre, Cal Floyd, and Sam Sherman joined the show. And even when it came to staff - James Warren knew how to pick 'em: Among his early co-workers for Monsters of Filmland were Gloria Steinem (a journalist today know as the "icon of women's lib" of the late 60s and early 70s) and the ever so unforgettable Terry Gilliam (Monty Python's Flying Circus).
With its bankruptcy, Warren Publishing closed the long-lasting and at times highly successful chapter of Famous Monsters of Filmland (and all their other publications) - until the magazine got re-disvovered and revived by another monster fan in 1993 - the photographer Ray Ferry. But that's a different tale entirely.