King of the Monster Kids
February 12, 2013
In the world of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, encompassing not just movies but everything from genre fiction to poetry, art and even porn, Forrest J Ackerman (1916-2008) was an iconic figure. Much of this iconicness was self-styled, with Forry an aggressive self-promoter, though it’s also true that he was dearly loved by several generations of close friends and fans who never met him. It’s also indisputable that Forry, thanks mostly to his widest-ranging achievements, the popular magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland and as a literary agent for established, burgeoning, and outré talent, helped shape the fertile young minds of future genre-shapers like Stephen King and George Lucas, who in turn helped bring these same once-disreputable genres into mainstream acceptance. (Worth noting: By 2012, for instance, all ten of the Top-Grossing movies that year were sci-fi/fantasy/horror.) Imagine an It’s a Wonderful Life-type scenario in which Forry had never been born. It’s possible the genre would have trended in that direction anyway, without his influence, but there’s also little doubt the landscape would have looked a lot different without him.
The AckerMonster Chronicles! The Forrest J Ackerman Story is a new, direct-to-video documentary feature from director Jason V. Brock. From a technical standpoint, it’s a big improvement over Brock’s earlier film about writer Charles Beaumont (and it sources many of the same interviews), though it’s equally quirky and nearly as cinematically diffuse and editorially meandering. By design it’s also more a celebration of its subject and neither very probing nor critical, though it does acknowledge Forry’s unsavory side. It’s also not a documentary destined to introduce and explain the Forry Mystique to the uninitiated masses, but for those already orbiting Forry’s universe, The AckerMonster Chronicles! serves as a pleasant memorial. One of apparently several documentary projects filmed not long before his death, it prominently features a frail Forry throughout (seated, sometimes sinking deep into a La-Z-Boy chair while oddball backgrounds are matted in behind him), as do the late Ray Bradbury and writer-director Dan O’Bannon.
You had to be there. For children of the 1950s through the early 1980s especially, Forry and the magazine he edited had a profound impact. Writer Bill Warren has accurately described him as a kind of benign Pied Piper. Back then science fiction, fantasy, and horror was considered frivolous, mind-numbing entertainment at best, at worst the first step on the slippery slope toward juvenile delinquency and long-term prison sentences. Those of us who’d eagerly stay up until three o’clock in the morning to catch Ghost of Frankenstein on “The Late, Late Show” and built plastic model kits of Godzilla, who read Under the Moons of Mars and attempted stop-motion animation on borrowed 8mm cameras, were viewed with contempt, bemusement, and ridicule. Our own parents would sometimes purge us of our prized collections, hoping to “set us straight.”
Forry and his magazine not only fueled our passions, Forry himself legitimized our interests. Here was a bona fide adult who’d carved out a niche in the very field we all loved, informing us not only was it okay to like all this crazy stuff, but that it was even possible to build a career around it. Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Joe Dante, Tim Burton, Danny Elfman, and Rick Baker all read Famous Monsters, but more importantly the artists and craftsmen inspired by Forry who’d eventually land employment at places like Pixar, LucasFilm, Disney, and NASA probably number in the tens of thousands.
The Mecca for such folk was undoubtedly the “Ackermansion,” Forry’s museum-like home. From the early 1950s (at least) until his death Forry welcomed strangers from around the world nearly every weekend at no charge. There were actually three Ackermansions over the years, first on Shelbourne Drive in Los Angeles, then an 18-room mansion on Glendower Avenue in the hills above Los Feliz (the best-remembered of the three) and, finally, when Forry fell on hard times, a much smaller ranch house about a mile to the south.
My own story was like thousands of others. Through a friend I got ahold of Forry’s phone number, MOON-FAN, and cold-called him several times from my native Michigan. When I visited California for the first time Forry invited me to visit but I was staying in Orange County and had no way to get there. I ended up buying a bus ticket to Universal Studios, and the sympathetic driver rather amazingly agreed to make a little detour off the 5 Freeway, dropping me off at the corner of Los Feliz and Vermont Avenue, even more incredibly offering to pick me up six hours later on his return trip.
Forry and his Ackermansion didn’t disappoint. Even though Forry’s wife, Wendayne, had relegated Forry’s collection to the bowels of the estate, it was still a densely-packed avalanche of material: books, stills, posters, lobby cards, discarded and donated movie props, souvenirs, and toys. Like-minded souls scurried about like rats in a cheese-packed maze, wide-eyed with wonder. (And he’d let us wander without supervision, a display of trust that must have cost him thousands in casually pilfered items through the years.) Invariably, Forry would invite his guests to lunch, usually with dough these same visitors had just dropped into the silver plate intended for the Ackermansion’s upkeep. In later years Forry preferred the House of Pies, a local coffee shop, but back then he favored a gruesome little restaurant on the other side of the L.A. River known as The Swedish Table, a buffet-style place specializing in things like green Jell-O and sauerkraut. Like a king holding court he’d regale his guests with stories about meeting people like Boris Karloff, H.G. Wells, Al Jolson, and Fritz Lang, anecdotes rife with the same bad puns littering Famous Monsters, stories he repeated by rote to his guests week-in and week-out.
Those of us who got to know Forry better gradually saw another, much more complex side to his personality. When Forry’s health first went into decline around 2001-02, filmmaker Ted Newsom and I decided to visit him at Kaiser Permanente Hospital, where writer Bill Warren also happened to be staying following open-heart surgery. After visiting Bill we stopped by Forry’s room. He was sickly and weak but rambled on for quite a while, expressing hopes that he’d recover in time to attend an upcoming convention. After a while, Ted joked, “You know, Forry, you’ve been talking for 20 minutes and you haven’t even asked me how I’m doing!”
Forry was genuinely puzzled. “No-o-o-o-o?” he replied, as if to say, “Why I earth would I be interested in your life?” For his part Ted thought Forry’s response was hilarious.
But that pretty much sums up Forry in a nutshell. Some of those far more devoted to him, the magazine and the Ackermansion (and its survival) were sometimes hurt and disappointed by Forry’s self-involvedness, his inability at times to return the heartfelt affection, dedication, and appreciation others selflessly gave him, though he was generous to a fault in other ways and rarely were his actions malicious, though he did delight in sticking it to a select few he regarded as enemies, sometimes obsessively so.
Forry also occasionally demonstrated an appalling lack of tact and common sense. The AckerMonster Chronicles addresses one of the most notorious examples of this behavior, a profoundly tasteless letter he wrote to dying writer Robert Bloch asking him for “his last autograph.” In the interviews presented here, Forry’s friends are forgiving, arguing Forry was basically a Big Kid who in never growing up also never learned any of the social graces, but that the tradeoff was a rare, childlike innocence that served him well in other ways.
Unquestionably Forry’s most vocal critic is writer Harlan Ellison, whom the documentary unfairly dismisses as a curmudgeon who, it implies, complains about everything. But I was in court the day Harlan took the stand as a character witness against Forry (see below) and watched uncomfortably as Harlan shook with emotion, tears in his eyes, recalling the effect of that letter had on Bloch, his wife, and their friends. Bill Warren, also in attendance and a friend to both Forry and Harlan, found this so upsetting he fled the courtroom; it was more than he could bear. While most people would second-guess their motives (“Should I really have sent that letter at that point?”), during Harlan’s testimony Forry had the same blank, bemused look on his face as when Ted posed that question years later at Kaiser. He just couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.
The AckerMonster Chronicles! also tackles (Ray) Ferry vs. Forry, the petty, costly legal battle over rights to certain Famous Monsters trademarks, a case Forry eventually technically won though it was a hollow victory that, in the end, cost him the house on Glendower and probably contributed to his physical decline. When the two one-time friends parted acrimoniously, practically everyone unequivocally sided with Forry, and Brock’s documentary is quick to similarly condemn Ferry as a scoundrel with no redeeming qualities. (Was Ferry approached for an interview to defend his position? The documentary presents only Forry’s side.) “He’s a crook,” John Landis declares. “That’s not so bad, but he was also nuts … pathologically nuts.” Maybe so. I wasn’t privy to all the details, but based on the available evidence it strikes me that Ferry had more than a few reasonable complaints about Forry’s actions during their brief “partnership.” Ferry was like Forry an egomaniac but, unlike Forry, Ferry was also a hothead who fatally underestimated the fierce loyalty of Forry’s fans. He picked a fight he couldn’t possibly have won in the Court of Public Opinion even if all the facts had been on his side, and clearly they weren’t.
The AckerMonster Chronicles! is like Brock’s Charles Beaumont show disorganized. It’s a bit like The Swedish Table itself: a smorgasbord of satisfying and revolting items largely disconnected from one another. It doesn’t have a particular point of view beyond a general admiration for its subject. It’s not really The Forrest J Ackerman Story because it leaves so much out. From his living room chair Forry repeats several oft-told tales but there’s as much material emanating from other interviewees – William F. Nolan, David J. Skal, Ray Harryhausen, John and Wilma Tomerlin, etc. – talking about Forry’s personal impact on them. It’s in those interviews where the documentary comes off best.
Although Forry obviously is the main focus, the film digresses occasionally to other matters, while at other times delves disproportionately on seemingly minor things, including Forry’s “porno stash” and his interests in lesbians and nudist colonies. (There’s a long, superfluous montage of stills featuring Russ Meyer-type big-breasted women.) The show crudely cuts from one topic to another with awkward, unrelated, mostly crude CGI-generated images of zipping comets, star fields and the like, and during several of the interviews there are even a few footnote-like disclaimers and clarifications.
And, inevitably, there’s a brief chat discussing Forry’s interests in Esperanto, but to what end? Actually, it’s John Landis rather than Brock who provides the answer. “The key to Forry is Esperanto. He speaks Esperanto. What is Esperanto? It’s an international language. Created for what? Utopia.”
The disc is fairly packed with extra features including, amusingly, slideshows featuring the covers of every issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland, as well as four other magazines Forry edited, Vampirella, Spacemen, Creepy, and Eerie.
As a documentary, The AckerMonster Chronicles! The Forrest J Ackerman Story is a real mess, a jumble of raw, fannish material unlikely to appeal to a wide audience. It certainly wouldn’t have won over those disapproving parents of the 1950s and ‘60s. But for those of us that were there, it’s a pleasant if disjointed viewing experience.