Friday, March 11, 2011

Universal Monsters: The Merchandising Oddities of the early '90s

What kid wouldn't want to color these guys?
Ever since Dracula first urged us to listen to the ‘children of the night’ back in 1931, the Universal Monsters have been an undeniable force to behold. After the monumental success of Dracula (little tidbit: the Lugosi classic opened on Valentines' Day back in '31) Universal Studios went full steam ahead in an attempt to bring every conceivable monster under the sun (or moon) to the silver screen. What followed was a wave of man-made monsters, lycanthropes, reanimated Egyptian corpses, and gill-men from the deepest depths of the Black Lagoon. From 1931 to 1947 the Golden Age of Universal Monsters had ruled the box office with an iron claw, until getting their final hurrah in 1948's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which would be the last time Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi would officially portray their respective roles of the Wolf Man and Dracula.

It sure beats coloring in My Little Pony

The silver age of the Universal Monsters arrived in the 50s with the Creature from the Black Lagoon trilogy. At that point, Frankenstein, the Mummy, Dracula, and the Wolf Man had been laid to rest due to ever-dwindling box office returns. By the early 1960s Universal had all but discarded their once-profitable icons of horror, leaving England’s own Hammer Studios to pick up the slack for the better part of the next two decades. Hammer brought the nightmarish black-and-white creatures to riveting color with plentiful servings of blood, titillation, and violence.
Gone but far from forgotten, it was only a matter of time before the Universal Monsters were resurrected, this time finding their way into the homes of unsuspecting viewers, thanks solely to the booming popularity of television. It seemed, just like in their onscreen adventures, the Universal Monsters were unstoppable – and their presence was only bolstered by the outpouring of horror related magazines like Forest J. Ackerman’s, Famous Monsters of Filmland and the horror-themed newspaper, The Monster Times.
With their legacy firmly cemented in the world of cinema, it seemed that the Universal Monsters had achieved immortality. By the early 1990s Universal Studios found that their classic creatures could be exhumed once again in a merchandising frenzy. This new market served Universal two-fold, they could reach the younger age set and the baby boomers at the same time. An unprecedented flood of Universal Monster products hit the market, sadly many of which were just plain mind-boggling…

Reissued box art
Original box art
Back in the 1960s the Aurora model kits were a huge hit with kids across the country, so it would only make sense for them to be reissued in the 90s. After all, what kid wouldn't wanna build their own snarling, bloodthirsty, menacing monster? How about a neon pink mummy? Some genius at Monogram, the distributor of the monster reissues, came up with the questionable idea to re-release these kits as neon monsters, which could both glow in the dark glow and under blacklight. That would be great, but back in the 90s I didn't know many kids who had blacklights and, if they did, I sure didn't know many who would keep them turned on day and night just to mask their pink mummy kit lurking in the corner. Sure they could be painted over, but that kind of defeats the point of the neon molding. Perhaps the biggest insult of all was the box art for the Monograms reissues. The original Aurora kits each featured stunning box art that demanded attention. What did we get in the 90s? Hideous bright-neon colored photos plastered against solid black backgrounds that served as an assault to the eyes. 

Pogs. An all-but-forgotten pastime.
Some odd things came out of the 90s. Pogs happened to be one of them. What can be more odd than that, you ask? Monster Pogs. Now, the allure of pogs has always escaped me. Back in the 90s, at the height of their popularity, they just seemed like little circles of cardboard that...well, I guess were supposed to be used in some sort of game.

Pogs, however they're played with, seem innocent enough, right? Wrong. These mind-warping, delinquent-inspiring little suckers were banned in schools across the country. Apparently, kids would keep the pogs they won in a game, so teachers came to view 'pog playing' (if that's the proper term) as a form of gambling.

Nevertheless, kids loved it and there was money to be made in the budding pog industry. Universal Studios naturally cashed in with a series of Monster Pogs. Each package came with a 3-D Slammer (whatever that does), 17 caps, and 1 'night-glow cap' because who wouldn't want to play pogs in the dark of night.
Bend-Em, but don't touch-em
Branching away from the pog market, Universal Studios struck a deal with Bend-Ems to release a line of their most celebrated monsters. A Universal Monster series of figures, consisting of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, and the Wolf Man hit toy store shelves in the early 90s. I myself had the Dracula and Frankenstein Bend-Ems. While, to a monster-loving kid, figures of your favorite horror icons may seem like a dream come true - it's not. Not when the figures are Bend-Ems. For one, Bend-Ems reek when they first come out of the package. Their rubbery stench clogs your nostrils, seeps into the skin on your hands, and soon makes your entire toy collection have the foul odor of a rubber factory.

To Bend-Ems' credit, the Dracula and Frankenstein figures did look decent. The Mummy was somewhat questionable, but passable. The Wolf Man was the unfortunate casualty, who resembled something of a cross between Charles Manson and a grizzled mountain man.

Placo's toy line

Telco's Bride
The 1991 Placo toy line was a step in the right direction, though the monster designs carried a far more generic, cartoon-ish look then what Universal would give us in the late 90s. They released Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy. Once again, Frankie and Drac were the only ones that received any justice, as far as character design went.

By '93 a small company called Telco began producing battery-operated motion-ettes of the monsters. With the miracle of battery-power, these rather large guys (17" and 21" depending on the monster) would shake back and forth with waving arms and blinking eyes while sound effects played on. Teclo's designs may have been some of the worst. In fact, one would be hard pressed to make the connection that they were based off their cinematic counterparts, aside from the Mummy, who slightly resembled Boris Karloff. Its curious why Telco even bothered getting the Universal Monsters license in the first place if they were just going to release generic facsimiles.

Monsters in a half-shell
One weird crossover
 Universal Studios' crowning achievement in the bizarre was their monster mash-up crossover with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toy line. The Playmates figures featured Leonardo as the Creature From The Black Lagoon and another as The Wolf Man, Donatello as Dracula, Michelangelo as Frankenstein and the Invisible Man, Raphael as the Mummy and the Mutant from This Island Earth, and April as the Bride of Frankenstein.

As a kid I was crazy about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and had more figures then you could shake a sai at. On that note, the idea of the classic Universal Monsters combining with talking adolescent turtles never really crossed my must-have list. The blending of the two franchise was just...strange. A big part of being a Turtles fan back in the 90s would be the playground envy of who had the latest figure. Not once, ever, do I recall anyone gloating about getting an Invisible Man Michelangelo or a blood-sucking Donatello Dracula.

He doesn't drink..soda
Like animal crackers but just with monsters
It seemed that whichever child-friendly endeavor Universal took, the toy lines never lasted that long. So, the next logical step? Reach into the junk food and soft-drink market. By the early 90s Dracula, Frankenstein, the Bride, and all the rest were showing up on Pepsi products. And, if that wasn't enough, by the mid-90s a brand of Universal Studios Monster Cookies hit the shelves. Having had more than my fair share of these cookies, a few things can be said: (1) they had great images of the monsters on each cookie, which was surprising (2) it was fun reaching into a box of monster cookies and seeing which monster you were about to devour (3) they were some of the blandest and most tasteless things I've ever ate - but this proves that most kids will eat anything, so long as it looks cool.

Doritos Universal Monster stickers

Even Doritos couldn't escape Universal's marketing umbrella. Each Doritos bag came with a monster sticker, which featured surprisingly good artwork.

Clearly the spokesman of child safety
In 1991 a very brief line of trading cards (and by brief, I mean like a dozen different cards) were produced of the Universal Monsters, in an effort to spread the word about child safety. Seriously? Were terrorizing monsters really the voice of reason when it came to wearing reflective gear out at night? Case in point: on the Wolf Man's card (which explains on the card's rear the importance of staying in well-lit areas at night) he is shown, with a seemingly devil-may-care attitude, leaping off a cliff. Not exactly the best message. If you think about it, that's about the equivalent of having a card of Jason from Friday the 13th telling kids to wear life jackets while swimming - while beheading a camp counselor.

The late 90s Burger King toy collection
The early 90s Universal Monster merchandise wasn't a complete failure, though it was far from a success. It's best to view the early 90s attempts as a testing ground for some of the far better products that Universal released in the late 90s.

For example, in '97 the Burger King kids' meal set proved to be an impressive collection, considering it was manufactured by a fast food chain. Each figure came with a neat little glow-in-the-dark sticker and featured fairly decent figures that put both the Bend-Ems and the Placo toy line to shame.

Late 90s = big difference
 By 1998 Sideshow Toys were releasing a line of spectacular figures that proudly boasted the likeness of the monsters screen counterparts, in favor of the early 90s bland, generic designs.

Back when stamps only cost 32 cents
No longer were Universal's greatest monsters appearing on cookie boxes, Doritos bags, and Pepsi cans. Instead they were getting the respect they deserved with United States Postal Service Stamps.

Overall, the early 90s was an odd time for horror toys, just look at the failed Nightmare On Elm Street and Friday the 13th toy lines (another article for another time) but at least some good came out of these mistakes as the mid-to-late 90s proved.

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