As a kid, Halloween was my favorite holiday. I was a monster kid through and through, and Halloween was such a fun holiday for someone who loved creepy stuff. We got candy, had a reason to dress up in costumes, and there was scary stuff on television. Heck, even the commercials were creepy. However, nothing was more exciting than when Fox Family (and later, ABC Family) announced their 13 Nights of Halloween programming block. This was once “must-see” TV and wasn’t just Hocus Pocus playing on loop (lookin’ at you, Freeform). This was what really helped solidify me as a horror fan.
Sure, my mom introduced me to the Universal Monsters and Young Frankenstein when I was little, but there was something about the spooky “family films” of my youth that really did it for me. Some people call this stuff “gateway horror” because it’s creepy enough to linger in your mind, but not gory; perfect fodder for a kid like me. Some important films for me were The Monster Squad, When Good Ghouls Go Bad, Halloweentown, Under Wraps, Phantom of the Megaplex, and the Disney TV show So Weird. Horror always felt “dirty” because it was primarily advertised toward adults, but these eerie family films made it feel safe and made me feel less weird for being fascinated by all this creepy stuff. However, one film more than others seemed to have a profound effect on me in a way that I wasn’t expecting… but I couldn’t remember what it was.
I remembered watching a movie either on Disney Channel or Fox Family about two young kids making their own makeshift Frankenstein’s Monster in their parent’s toolshed. This was all I could remember, but it was enough. Somehow, these images burned themselves into my brain, but no one knew what I was talking about. Others would give me weird looks as I ranted about faint memories of kids in a desert, maybe a trailer park, wanting to resurrect a body. Why did they want to do this? I had no clue, but I remembered some really creepy images of our young heroes in a pretty impressive lab trying to bring their D.I.Y. corpse to life. Why had this movie made such an impact on me? Why did I remember it so strongly, but also not at all? I remember loving every second of it as a kid, yet no discerning details stuck out.
Sometimes, I think we as a society take the internet for granted. I can have the smallest bit of information, feed it into Google, and have my answer. Yet, I found nothing concrete when trying to Google, “a movie about kids making their own monster.” Every search was bringing up Tim Burton’s original Frankenweenie, which was another film I grew up watching that many hadn’t seen until it was remade. I became obsessed. Did I make this up? Did I devise a potentially great idea and somehow pass it off as a memory? Should I have been writing these ideas down? No, I was confident I had seen this movie. Someone besides myself must have seen it.
Finally, after a lot of searching, I decided to try the last thing I could think to do: ask a Facebook movie group. Facebook groups can be really hit or miss with information. You ask a simple question and instead of a simple answer, you get a bunch of replies focusing on the wrong part of the question. I made a post with all of the information I could recall and mentioned how it might have come on Fox Family or Disney Channel, and it was met with dumb answers like, “Fox Family sucked,” and “I don’t know, I watched REAL horror films as a kid.” However, this time was different, as one poster jumped on within minutes and said, “Did it star Burt Reynolds? If so, it’s probably Frankenstein and Me.”
How did I forget about the legendary Burt Reynolds? His laugh was probably one of my earliest childhood memories! I looked it up and wouldn’t you know it, this random person on the internet was right. I wasn’t ready for the journey of re-discovery I was about to go on.
Frankenstein and Me (working title: Mojave Frankenstein), directed by Robert Tinnell and released in 1996, tells the story of Earl Williams (Jamieson Boulanger) and his younger brother, Larry (Ricky Mabe). They live with their mom and dad in a small, desert area and have dreams of monsters. They’re completely obsessed and their father, Les (Burt Reynolds), is very supportive of their dreams until a heart attack takes him away and spirals their lives out of control.
Both times I’ve rewatched this movie since my rediscovery have been a gut punch for me, especially this last one, where I ugly cried no less than three times. Burt Reynolds has always reminded me of my father and a big part of that might be the fact that my dad was such a big fan of his. However, Burt Reynolds’ portrayal of Les Williams hit me like a ton of bricks the first time he walked on screen. He walks like my dad, talks like my dad, and has the same belief in me that Les has in his kids. My father is no longer with us after he died from throat cancer, but watching this movie made me feel so incredibly close to him that I thought he was sitting next to me.
There’s a scene in the very beginning where Les tells his sons the story of his one big dream in life: to be an actor in Hollywood. For being such a seemingly unknown role for Burt, he brings his A-game as he tells the story about his short tryst in Tinsel Town and how he gave it all up to support his family. While my father never had dreams of the silver screen, I’m sure he had dreams and desires outside of raising my brother and I, and while I don’t know my dad’s story, I felt like Burt was a conduit for him. My father was such a huge supporter of my filmmaking dreams. After he passed away, his work friends all came up to me telling me how much Dad would brag about me and my dreams of making movies. Sadly, my dad passed away before he could see the first big short film I ever made.
Another detail that hit me hard was after Les passes and his tool bench is left completely untouched. If you were to go into the basement of my mother’s house, my dad’s workbench is down there practically untouched, frozen in time like a shrine to who he was. He spent so much time down there, much like Burt’s character. He was always tinkering and there’s a wonderful little scene in this flick where Earl asks his dad if he thinks he could bring a monster to life and Les states, “Of course, as long as I have a plan.” Les draws up a little hand-drawn sketch of what he’d do and from this point forward, Earl is obsessed with trying to bring his father’s plan to life. He does it to feel closer to his dad in a weird kismet moment where their interests align. My father was also a man who felt he could do anything “with a plan.” He claims up until he passed that the only reason he never made my mother a yard swing was because he never had the right plans. Maybe this is what I’m meant to do? Maybe instead of writing this, I should be making a swing. Who knows?
To count all the ways that Tinnell’s film affected me would become tedious, but the fact remains that this is a film that had a profound effect on my love of horror films as a kid, because Earl and Larry have vivid imaginations that would take them in and out of some wonderfully re-created scenes from The Wolf Man, Night of the Living Dead, and of course, Frankenstein. These moments stuck with me, seeped their way into my brain and made me love the genre. However, the film took on a newfound importance as an adult, because it feels like a way for me to connect with my father, whom I truly miss. Even as I type this, I have tears swelling in my eyes. The final scene of Frankenstein and Me has Earl and Larry in a scene that looks to be straight out of The Mummy. The creature approaches and right before they get attacked, you hear “CUT!” We’re in another fantasy, but in this specific fantasy, Les is behind the camera directing the two young boys. Earl’s last fantasy is one that brings his father back to him and that’s how I feel watching Frankenstein and Me.
At one point, Les tells his sons, “I gave up too soon. You know, you got a dream, you gotta stick with it. You gotta go for it, you can’t back off. So make me a promise. You two have a dream, you go for it with everything you got. Right?”
I will Dad. I will continue chasing my dreams.