In 1966, two people took major steps toward living their dreams. One was James Bama, a New York City commercial illustrator, about 40 years old, whose portfolio included dozens of cover paintings for Doc Savage paperbacks and the box art for many of Aurora’s monster model kits. The other was Cortlandt Hull of Bristol, Conn., great-nephew of “Werewolf of London” star Henry Hull, a 13-year-old lover of classic horror movies and builder of Aurora models.[caption id="attachment_723" align="alignleft" width="200" caption="Dennis Vincent, left, Cortlandt Hull and two scary friends at the Witch's Dungeon. The Dungeon is open Friday through Sunday evenings in October. Halloween lovers should stop by if they're in the neighborhood. Photo courtesy of the Witch's Dungeon."][/caption]
Looking over my notes for this month’s “Resin the Barbarian” interview, recognizing the time frame of the turning points in these two men’s lives, I was fascinated to realize that Mr. Bama began to move away from the genre work that has remained popular about the same time Cortlandt embraced a life ever influenced by monsters. Cortlandt’s decision was made in part because he — like millions of others — so loved Mr. Bama’s box art. Decades later, Mr. Bama was impressed with the work Cortlandt and director Dennis Vincent did profiling artist Basil Gogos on “The Witch’s Dungeon: 40 Years of Chills”, so he invited them to visit his home in Wapiti, Wyo., for a rare interview that will be featured in the documentary “Legends of Film & Fantasy”, to be available on DVD in early 2010.[caption id="attachment_726" align="alignleft" width="400" caption=""I created The Witch's Dungeon in 1966," says Cortlandt Hull, "when I was 13, inspired primarily by James Bama's cover art and the Aurora kits. But an 8-inch model was not frightening to me, I wanted them life-size — that's how my classic horror museum began! Jim Bama (pictured) asked us to bring our life-size Karloff Frankenstein Monster with us — so he could have a photo with it, as he loves the film — a huge honor for us!" Photo courtesy of the Witch's Dungeon."][/caption]
Wapiti is where Mr. Bama finally settled a few years after he and his wife, Lynne, departed Manhattan, according to the introduction to the book “The Western Art of James Bama”. They’d visited a friend in Wyoming in 1966 and began to realize how different their lives could be. After return visits in 1967, the Bamas settled in Wyoming for good in 1968. Bama continued doing commercial work for a few years to make ends meet, but his focus quickly turned to his own works. His realist approach to Western people and places has gained Mr. Bama widespread respect as a fine artist.
Around the time Mr. and Mrs. Bama were discovering Wyoming, Cortlandt was working with his father, Robert, to turn a Swiss chalet-style building into the Witch’s Dungeon, a place to house the life-sized monsters the boy had started fabricating when he decided the Aurora models just weren’t big enough. The Dungeon, open every year around Halloween, continued to grow over the years, as did Cortlandt’s artistic abilities. In October 2009, Zenobia the Gypsy Witch (Cortlandt’s original creation) welcomes visitors to a visit with many of Cortlandt’s monsters, including the Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein’s Monster, Count Dracula, the Creature from the Black Lagoon and, of course, the Werewolf of London.
Cortlandt and Dennis were very busy on a mid-September Saturday. For Dennis, the major task was editing footage for “Legends of Film & Fantasy”. Cortlandt was building the “Graveyard of Classic Ghouls” at his Witch’s Dungeon in preparation for opening the attraction’s 43rd year. Still, they made time to speak with me on the phone to tell me about their visit with James Bama.
We also talked about some of the other actor, filmmaker and artist interviews done for the documentary, including one with garage-kit sculptor Jeff Yagher, creator of the Aurora Box Art series of kits produced by Monsters in Motion.
In addition to taking the time to speak with me, Cortlandt and Dennis were kind enough to give me a preview of two of the nearly completed segments of the upcoming DVD, the interviews with Mr. Bama and Jeff. I watched each several times and anxiously anticipate the completed movie.
HEADING TO WYOMING RIGHT AFTER WONDERFEST
If you’ve read this far, you have probably been familiar with James Bama’s artwork a long time. You may be one of the millions of people happily threatened by the Frankenstein’s Monster Mr. Bama painted for Aurora’s first monster model, chilled by the glow of the fire under his Witch’s cauldron, or terrified by his mask-waving Phantom of the Opera. All of his colorful monster-model paintings — even the ones Mr. Bama himself doesn’t much like — magnetized people (mostly boys) to store shelves in the ’60s and inspired them to build the kits inside the boxes. Some of those boys, now middle-aged men, still love the work. Thanks to their enthusiasm, plus reissues of the classic kits with the classic artwork by Polar Lights starting in the ’90s, it continues to be discovered by others.[caption id="attachment_736" align="alignleft" width="350" caption="Poster courtesy of the Witch's Dungeon."][/caption]
However, Mr. Bama didn’t realize until fairly recently that he’d long since fulfilled his childhood fantasy of being a “hero in the monster world,” and he hadn’t actually seen an Aurora model until Cortlandt and Dennis visited.
The filmmakers were able to connect with Mr. Bama thanks to the efforts of mutual friend Roger Kastel, an artist whose works include the movie posters for “Jaws” and “The Empire Strikes Back.” He gave Mr. Bama a copy of “40 Years of Chills”, which Mr. Bama watched and enjoyed enough that he invited the filmmakers for a visit. Arranging the trip to Wyoming required some schedule-juggling and a big road trip after WonderFest 2008, but “we don’t regret it,” Cortlandt said.
The man they met spent years in which he wasn’t very interested in discussing his commercial art. He’d left that behind in part because he’d grown disillusioned creating works considered “disposable” by those who commissioned them, including the Aurora box art. Such works were rarely preserved, and in the case of Mr. Bama’s artwork, they were often radically modified by other artists, such as when the monster paintings were redone for the later, gaudier square-box glow versions of the kits.
For Easterner James Bama, Dennis said, the West of the mid-’60s was “exotic”. He felt an affinity with the area’s underappreciated Native American population and is pleased that he was able to realistically depict those people in his artwork. “He portrayed them in ways they hadn’t been portrayed before,” Dennis said.[caption id="attachment_741" align="alignright" width="250" caption="Cortlandt Hull, left, says the Aurora artwork of James Bama was a bigger inspiration for him than the models themselves. Photo courtesy of the Witch's Dungeon."][/caption]
After about four decades in which he’s painted the subjects he loves and built a solid reputation as a fine artist, Mr. Bama, now in his 80s, “likes his life,” Cortland said, and he has embraced the notoriety of his earlier works.
In the “Legends of Film & Fantasy” interview, Mr. Bama says he loved horror movies as a child, even though they frightened him so much that “I had to sleep with my mother periodically.” He still enjoys them and rewatches them regularly with his wife, Lynne. Back in the ’60s, Mrs. Bama costumed herself as a witch and posed for that Aurora kit’s box art. She was the only model he used for those paintings, all the others were based on publicity stills and pictures of the kits.
Despite his genre work, Mr. Bama says in the documentary that he was unaware of contemporaries such as Frank Frazetta or Basil Gogos. Fantasy works of that sort simply weren’t what he sought out in his private time.[caption id="attachment_744" align="alignleft" width="250" caption="A Hasbro paint-by-numbers kit inspired by James Bama's Phantom of the Opera box art."][/caption]
For years, he was “completely unaware” of the influence of his Aurora artwork. He had no idea how many products had been marketed that were based on those paintings, including plastic plaques, wallets and paint-by-numbers kits. He hadn’t even seen an Aurora kit in person until he saw some that Dennis and Cortlandt had brought with them.
However, he said, he has encountered plenty of people who are familiar with the kits.
“But you would not believe how many people I know, even in Wapiti, Wyo., who are around 50, who made those model kits when they were teenagers. A lot of them.”
MAKING A DOCUMENTARY: LET THE SUBJECTS SPEAK
James Bama is not comfortable with “big” attention, said Cortlandt Hull, who interviewed the artist for “Legends of Film & Fantasy”. Mr. Bama likes to reach out to fans and talk about his work, but he doesn’t want his home thrown into an uproar by a crew led by an interviewer with a substantial ego, only to see a small piece of the interview used.
For Cortlandt and Dennis Vincent, the important thing is to let the people they’re visiting tell their stories. “You never see us on camera,” Cortlandt said.[caption id="attachment_752" align="alignright" width="315" caption="Actor David Hedison, star of the original "The Fly", is interviewed in "Legends of Film & Fantasy". Photo courtesy of the Witch's Dungeon."][/caption]
Don’t change what people say. Put in the work — a LOT of work — to come up with appropriate visual elements to enhance the message, not detract from it. Narrating the film instead of letting the subjects deliver their messages in their own words is “the easiest way to do it,” Cortlandt said, but it’s poor filmmaking.
“If you don’t like solving problems on a daily basis, it’s not for you,” Dennis said of making movies.
Dennis and Cortlandt put in considerable effort locating visual elements for their movies. They’re thrilled when families share behind-the-scenes photos from classic movies with them, allowing them in turn to share the photos with a wider audience for the first time.
They also spend a great deal of time locating and cleaning up memorabilia, such as ads from old comic books and issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.[caption id="attachment_757" align="alignleft" width="225" caption="Actor Bill Mumy, left, will be featured in "Legends of Film & Fantasy", directed by Dennis Vincent, right. Photo courtesy of the Witch's Dungeon."][/caption]
“We like everything to look as if it just was made,” Cortlandt said.
For the segment with Mr. Bama, Terry Ingram of the Universal Monster Army helped locate vacuform plaques and wallets that were plainly inspired by the Aurora box artwork.
For me, the most interesting thing Cortlandt and Dennis said about making their movie is that they take their interviews seriously. What they’re exploring, as the title indicates, are “film and fantasy” subjects, and that includes horror and science fiction movies and people who sculpt monster figures. For some, that would be an opportunity to poke a little fun, treat it as kids’ stuff. But, said Dennis and Cortlandt, their approach isn’t gimmicky. When actor Bill Mumy, for example, told them a story about Alfred Hitchcock, they knew it was great fun, but also fascinating, and they were delighted Mumy took the time to tell them about it.
A DUNGEON MASTER SINCE HIS EARLY TEENS[caption id="attachment_765" align="alignleft" width="238" caption="Naturally, Cortlandt Hull's Witch's Dungeon includes a life-sized sculpture of Great-Uncle Henry, the "Werewolf of London". Photo courtesy of the Witch's Dungeon."][/caption]
As stated earlier, Cortlandt Hull opened the original Witch’s Dungeon Classic Movie Museum in Bristol, Conn., in 1966, when he was 13 years old.
Called “a tribute to the actors and effects artists who have given us the classic fantasy films,” the Dungeon features Cortlandt’s life-size figures based on classic horror and sci-fi films. The museum has won the support of many whose relatives are featured, including Sara Karloff, daughter of Boris Karloff; Ron Chaney, great-grandson of Lon Chaney and grandson of Lon Chaney Jr.; and Bela Lugosi Jr.
The museum is open for its 43rd season in October 2009, every Friday through Sunday from 7 to 10 p.m. The price of admission is only a buck, and I for one would be all over it if I weren’t clear across the country.
JEFF YAGHER AND HIS AURORA BOX ART MODEL KITS
I’ve been a fan of Jeff Yagher’s sculptural work seven, maybe eight years now. Anyone who enjoys classic monsters and garage kits is familiar with his work. In 2006, Jeff agreed to talk with me about his Aurora Box Art kits, produced by Monsters in Motion, most of which were inspired by the Aurora work of James Bama. He has been a gracious interview subject several more times since then, in Resin the Barbarian entries focusing on Monarch Models and a profile of Steve Riojas’s work on Jeff’s Yagher Classics series, and for a 2007 Amazing Figure Modeler article.[caption id="attachment_775" align="alignright" width="400" caption="Dennis Vincent took great care in lighting Mike Rutherford's Wolf Man model. The resin kit was sculpted by Jeff Yagher, creator of the popular Aurora Box Art series of models. Photo courtesy of the Witch's Dungeon."][/caption]
For “Legends of Film & Fantasy”, in an interview conducted by actor Daniel Roebuck, Jeff discusses his longtime affection for James Bama’s Aurora paintings and the challenges of translating them into three dimensions. He enthusiastically describes the rush of emotions Bama inspired in his use of color and mood, creating “the collector’s gotta-have mentality.”
I was particularly interested in hearing Jeff describe his concerns in sculpting the Aurora Wolf Man, whom Mr. Bama interpreted as a combination of Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man and Oliver Reed’s beast from “Curse of the Werewolf.”
“The particular challenge for that one,” Jeff said, “was making it not Lon Chaney’s Wolf Man, not Oliver Reed’s werewolf, but James Bama’s interpretation.”
The editing skills of Dennis Vincent, of Colorbox Studios, are on great display in the Yagher segment. He paid a visit to the New England home of Mike Rutherford to shoot video of Mike’s wonderful buildups of the box art kits. Mike, a huge fan of Aurora models and keeper of a monstrous MySpace page, painstakingly painted the kits to resemble the box art that inspired them, and Dennis spent more than six hours shooting them to make sure he got exactly the lighting and angles he needed for “Legends of Film & Fantasy.”[caption id="attachment_782" align="alignleft" width="450" caption="Mike Rutherford's Aurora Box Art kits, sculpted by Jeff Yagher and featured in "Legends of Film & Fantasy". These kits are all depictions of artwork by James Bama. "Sure, I have to study these paintings to get the color as good as I can," Mike says, "but Jeff really has to study these paintings and transform them into 3D. Even after six years of building the box art kits, I still find it incredible how Jeff is able to do this.""][/caption]
What he has done with that footage is great fun, as Dennis transitions the video between Mr. Bama’s paintings and Mike’s finished model kits, demonstrating how Jeff’s sculpture and Mike’s paints mirror the work that inspired them more effectively than side-by-side photos can hope to do.
“I learned that these two guys don’t fool around when it comes to their craft,” Mike told me in an e-mail. “We did talk but they were both focused on doing a good job with the filming. I was shocked with the amount of equipment that they brought with them. I live in a small house so we didn’t have a whole lot of room and I really should have brought the kits to Cortlandt’s house, but we were afraid of the kits getting damaged during the move.
“I was amazed at how long the entire process took, but after seeing a tiny bit of the film, I can see why it took so long. They were sure to film each kit from every angle, still shots, rotating shots, white lights, colored filters … You name it and they did it.”
Mike has been an unabashed fan of Jeff’s work and the two are friends. Mike has also known Cortlandt for several years, and he helped the two get in touch for “Legends of Film & Fantasy.”
“LEGENDS OF FILM & FANTASY” COMING SOON
The four-hour documentary from Dennis Vincent and Cortlandt Hull will be available on DVD in early 2010. More than two years in the making, “Legends of Film & Fantasy” is hosted by actor Mark Hamill and includes interviews with more than three dozen people, including:[caption id="attachment_784" align="alignright" width="270" caption="Actor Mark Hamill serves as host and guest on "Legends of Film & Fantasy". He discusses the challenges of acting in "The Empire Strikes Back" with Yoda, a puppet whose off-camera behavior was unpredictable."][/caption]
- Director George A. Romero.
- “Teenage Frankenstein” Gary Conway.
- David Hedison, star of the original “The Fly”.
- Actor Bill Mumy of “Lost in Space”, “Babylon 5” and much more.
- Julie Adams of “Creature from the Black Lagoon”.
- Makeup masters Dick Smith, Rick Baker and John Goodwin.
- Mat Falls and Tom Gilliland of Sideshow Collectibles.
- Artist Roger Kastel, painter of the famed “Jaws” and “The Empire Strikes Back” movie posters.
- Artist and sculptor Daniel Horne.
Watch for more information on the final release date at preservehollywood.org. I’ll also be sure to pass it along here at Resin the Barbarian when I find out.
Many thanks to my friend Mike Rutherford for suggesting I get in touch with Cortlandt Hull and Dennis Vincent. Mike’s enthusiasm for building models and classic horror cinema has been an inspiration for me since about 2002.