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The Very Model of a Monster

hunchbackThis month, I am going to be indulging in some unabashed nostalgia. Why? I recently reached the grand old age of 51 and, as these things sometimes do, it prompted me to look back to my childhood and youth, to reminisce about the supposed joys of that era. Whilst I would never wish to go back there, even if I were offered the chance to physically visit it in time, there were some aspects of that era which were highly appealing. I am going to be talking about one of those facets below.

I can’t remember exactly when I first encountered Aurora Universal Monsters model kits, but it was most probably before the age of ten, which would place it in the very early 1970s. I seem to be remember it was on one of the irregular parental visits to Carmarthen, a small farming town about 30 miles from my home, and we (my parents and I) had gone into Woolies (Woolworth’s) to have a look around. There, in one of the rooms set towards the back of the shop, I spied a garishly lurid box with The Witch emblazoned on it and needless to say, I was entranced and fell in love with it. My parents must have been a bit wary about the whole thing, as I know I failed to persuade them to get it for me. However, at Christmas that year I received the Godzilla model, and from that point I never looked back.

I soon learnt that there were a series of them: The Phantom of the Opera. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, King Kong, The Wolfman, The Mummy, Frankenstein, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Witch, and The Forgotten Prisoner of Castle Mare. The only ones I never found were The Wolfman and King Kong, but I collected all the rest. I absolutely loved those models – I’d possessed a penchant for all things macabre from a very early age: for instance, when I was a mere three years old I would pester my father into taking me around the cemetery just down the road and then, when I was six, I would make Lego headstones and plant them in neat rows on a patch of earth in the back garden. I probably don’t need to tell you that my mother became a tad concerned and sought the advice of a psychologist – thankfully, he reassured them that it was simply a case of natural curiosity. At any rate, the Aurora range satisfied my ‘dark’ side admirably.

My local model shop stocked Aurora catalogues, which I absolutely thought essential. And it was in there I discovered further deadly delights, like their Monster Scenes range (which included The Hanging Cage, The Victim, Pain Parlor, Gruesome Goodies, Vampirella and Dr. Deadly) which, as far as I knew then, weren’t available in the UK. There were other gems too, outside of the realm of horror: comic-book characters, wildlife models, prehistoric reptiles and hominids, famous people, and armoured knights, plus sci-fi spaceships and characters. My eyes must have lit up like lighthouse lamps when I turned each page in that catalogue and, whilst I bought quite a lot of their models from other ranges, the horror/macabre items were always the ones which attracted me most.

The Aurora Plastics Corporation was formed in 1950 by Joseph E. Giammarino and Abe Shikes in Brooklyn, New York, originally as a contract supplier of injection-moulded plastics. It was only when John Cuomo, a sales manager, came along in 1952 that the company started producing model kits, concentrating on aircraft. After relocating to West Hempstead, Long Island, in 1954, Aurora started expanding its range and it really hit its stride when it started producing figure kits and issuing models of unusual subjects.

It acquired several licences to produce models of science fiction-based properties, including Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Invaders, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Lost in Space, Land of the Giants, and Star Trek. There were also models of Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Wonderwoman, The Hulk, and assorted others, plus a two kits which were apparently by the director William Castle (The Frog and The Vampire), all of which appealed to the younger demographic the company were aiming for. But then, in 1961, things changed up a gear yet again: the first of their Universal Monsters range was issued.

Frankenstein made its debut that year, to be followed soon afterwards by the rest of the range which continued in production throughout the sixties and into the ensuing decade. This was the high-point of Aurora’s success – the models were avidly collected on both sides of the Atlantic, and I knew quite a few of my friends were similarly taken with them. I remember trekking down to town, to either the local Woolies branch or the model shop, hoping they would have any new ones to grab. It was all good, harmless fun, and it certainly made for one of the treasured memories of my younger years.

Like all good things, however, there had to come an end eventually, and Aurora was no exception. What did the company in, apparently, was the appearance of the Monster Scenes range. American parents and religious groups decried their choice of subject matter, fearing (as seems to happen every generation) the corruption of youngsters’ minds and morals. By all accounts, Aurora never recovered from this and eventually appeared to fade away. That latter happened to coincide with my transition into being concerned with teenage matters and girls.

Fast-forward thirty-seven years or so, and those kits have become collectors’ items, so much so that they achieve some quite astonishing prices. Just take a look on eBay for confirmation. Thankfully, however, during the nineties and noughties there were several companies, like Polar Lights, Moebius, Atlantis, and Monarch, who reissued the kits, produced from the original moulds. All of the Universal Monsters range is available (although bizarrely, some of those are now collectors’ items themselves) at much more sensible prices (but still relatively expensive).

So, for my 51st I bought myself one of those reissues in a fit of nostalgia, The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Polar Lights. This is based on the 1923 Lon Chaney Universal production and captures a scene where Quasimodo (Chaney) is chained to a round, swivelling wooden table structure and about to be punished by whipping. As pointed out up above, the original models had been aimed at a younger demographic, meaning the tooling and level of detail are nowhere near as high as would be demanded by older and, presumably, more serious model-makers. This is true of The Hunchback: the face barely resembles the Chaney interpretation, although there are aftermarket items which can be bought which aid in making the kit more realistic.

Other manufacturers also copied or reinterpreted the phenomenon for a while, like Revell with their Monsters from the Movies series and Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth’s Rat Fink-based range, as well as Hawk Model’s Weird-Ohs. In many ways, this explosion of the bizarre in the model kit world was symptomatic of something deeper going on, perhaps a conscious distancing from the values and mores of the previous generation. It might not be a coincidence that around the same era when Aurora flowered had seen the rise of the teenager as a separate demographic as well as the onset of rock ‘n’ roll, the guitar-bands and psychedelia of the sixties and seventies. Certainly there was a shifting of perspective in popular culture, no doubt engendered as an antidote to the gloomy war years of the forties and, maybe, the rejection of the staid adult world which had been responsible for the war in the first place. But, whatever the reasons, I am grateful that it affected most positively my childhood and that it’s given me such great memories.

SIMON MARSHALL-JONES

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2 comments

  1. David A. Riley

    I loved the Aurora models too. I first learned about them in Famous Monsters of Filmland, which at the time (the 1960s) was available here in virtually any newsagents. When they eventually arrived in UK model shops I couldn’t wait to get my hands on them. The first I bought was The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Eventually I got the Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, Frankenstein’s creature, the Mummy, and the Wolfman. I also started to make my own from scratch, using cloth, clay and plastercine, including what I then thought were pretty good copies of Christopher Lee’s creature and Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein. Unfortunately all of these have long gone. I can’t even remember where or when.

  2. David A. Sutton

    Yep, I bought those monster kits too! I even remember the “prisoner” kit, with a figure behind bars… unless my memory is completely doolally.

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