Verne Langdon’s monster masks

A veritable Hollywood renaissance man, Verne Langdon’s contributions to horror culture are plentiful.

He wrote for Famous Monsters of Filmland; produced horror records such as An Evening With Boris Karloff & His Friends (scripted by Forrest J Ackerman, containing dialogue and scores from the original Universal films), and as an accomplished musician himself, he has recorded monster-themed albums, including The Phantom of the Organ and Music for Zombies. However, it is in the world of monster masks where Langdon has left his most indelible imprint.

Langdon for his start in makeup and props while working in Hollywood studios, creating masks for “spook shows,” a merging of horror films, live theatrics and cheap thrills popular in the ’30s that was revived during the monster kid crazy of the early ‘60s.

When he joined Don Post Studios in 1962 (he would eventually own 50 percent of the business), elaborately detailed masks simply weren’t offered to the casual customer. At the time, Post, the originator of the over-the-head rubber mask, was focusing on larger props for films studios — the commercial mask business received little attention. A fan of Famous Monsters from the very beginning, Langdon sought to offer what the burgeoning market wanted: studio-quality masks of the favourite monsters.

After reopening a 1948 licensing deal held by Post with Universal, Langdon conceived the line and oversaw production while artist Pat Newman sculpted the masks. This initial series, released in 1964, consisted of six characters: The Mummy, Frederic March’s Mr. Hyde, The Wolf Man, Lon Chaney’s Phantom, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula and Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster.

Twelve more characters from the Universal roster were released in 1966, appearing on a monster calendar, as well: Mr. Hyde (as he was when he met Abbott & Costello), Dracula, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Mummy, the Wolf-Man, Phantom of the Opera, Mole Man, a gorilla, a Metaluna monster from This Island Earth and Karloff as the Mad Doctor in House of Frankenstein. Among Langdon’s favourites: Frankenstein Monster (as portrayed by Glenn Strange) and the Hunchback, in the style of the Lon Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces.

Despite Langdon’s efforts, finding distribution was difficult, and since the masks were not yet being mass-produced, giant department stores were out of the question. So he set his sights on the various mail order magazines and magic shops in California. Bud and Merv Taylor of the Disney Hotel thought they’d be great Halloween sellers, but despite it being the middle of summer, Langdon insisted they sell the custom line immediately. Begrudgingly, they accepted, offering the centre spot in the gift shop. The hotel was a 40-minute drive from the studio. By the time Langdon arrived back at Post, the entire line had sold out.

Richly detailed ads eventually appeared in the back of Famous Monsters through Warren Publishing’s distribution arm, Captain Company, in the same pages that advertised vampire fangs, X-ray glasses and giant monster posters. Unlike those items, bubbling with hyperbolic guarantees that rarely delivered, Langdon’s masks were the genuine article, many of which were sculpted from the original Universal moulds.

Langdon left Post in 1968 to pursue other interests, including working on all five Planet of the Apes films, but he wasn’t finished with selling masks yet. In 1972, on a whim, he sculpted two new ones: the Neanderthal and the Zombie. The latter, a tight-lipped study in scaly green gruesomeness, appeared on the cover of Warren’s 1972 Creepy Yearbook. It became one of his biggest sellers when it was offered to readers of the various Warren publications at a hefty $34.95. Considering the average comic book cost 25 cents at the time, that was a lot of allowance money to save up. Today, the original Zombie mask is highly sought by collectors — one sold on eBay for $2500 USD last year.

While Langdon’s masks were undoubtedly groundbreaking, their high production costs often kept them out of the department stores where most kids shopped for costumes. Until the 1990s, a child’s Halloween costume usually came in an elaborately detailed box depicting a startlingly authentic mask and costume. Of course, inside, was nothing more than a generic black satin or vinyl costume with ties in the back, a logo on the front and a flimsy, moulded-plastic mask with an elastic band that mashed into your face.

But now those aisles overflow with realistic, licensed latex and rubber masks that are affordable. Although cheaper materials and labour are ultimately responsible for kids running around dressed like Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhies every October, it was Langdon’s pioneering foresight to create a market to ensure that these masks would someday be available to everyone.

This article originally appeared in Rue Morgue Magazine #104, October 2010.

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