The holidays are a time when the little ones rub the sleep from their eyes before the crack of dawn to scamper down the stairs to see what goodies Santa left under the tree. Is it a train for Johnny? Or maybe a dolly for Suzy? Or maybe it’s a galactic monstrosity so intent on ripping Johnny’s throat out that it has an extra mouth inside of its mouth. Or perhaps it’s a gelatinous millipede Suzy can create in her very own mad laboratory. Along with the usual Star Wars and Batman merchandise, terrifying toys that appealed to my love of monsters terrorized my own childhood. Here are ten of the most terrifying.
We begin our discussion of monster toys as all discussions of monsters must begin: with Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy. In 1973, Mego, the company that totally dominated the pre-Star Wars toy market, built on the success of its superhero figures with ones celebrating Universal’s classic monsters. And these were not just any monsters; they were “mad”, possibly because they looked kind of crappy, at least compared to the similar dolls Remco would produce seven years later. While Remco’s line would be nicely molded to capture the visages of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaneys Sr. and Jr., Mego’s line was a bit generic. Dracula wore an outfit that looked more befitting Mayor McCheese than the Prince of Darkness, and the Frankenstein Monster looked a bit like he had gas. The Wolfman was pretty cool though, with its wolfier head than that of the Chaney-style werewolf. The only other creature in the line was a fairly convincing Mummy. Mego’s creeps got a really cool accessory with the Mad Monster Castle Playset, sort of a big version of Remco’s little carrying case (more on that to come). This one had a working drawbridge and gruesome interior artwork depicting decapitated heads in mayonnaise jars. A fresh generation of serial killers followed.
2. The Game of Jaws (1975)
Before Star Wars, toys tied-in with major motion pictures were pretty rare, so you could probably forgive the Ideal toy company for pitching one based on the fairly adult Jaws to kids. Or maybe parents just weren’t as skittish about what they allowed their kids to watch back then, because I recall both seeing Ben Gardner’s horrifying head floating underwater and playing with The Game of Jaws at an impressionably young age. Even though I was basically scared of my own butt when I was a little kid, I still loved Jaws (the only scene that made me flee the room was when Quint scraped his fingernails down a chalkboard…it still makes me plug my fingers in my ears today). I also liked The Game of Jaws, probably less because I found the task of removing little plastic tires and boots from the shark’s mouth before its jaws snapped shut challenging and more because the big, toothy shark looked cool. There should be more toys that involve the risk of being eaten by animals.
3. View-Master Frankenstein and Dracula Reels (1976)
The faddish View-Master united two of the most ephemeral fads: 3D movies and reading. Kids would plug little discs embedded with slides into a plastic, camera-shaped device and flick though a series of captions and 3D images. Two of the strangest reels told the tales of Frankenstein and Dracula. What made them particularly eerie was the use of dolls to illustrate the stories. I can’t quite remember if I had the Dracula one, but I absolutely remember Frankenstein from the somewhat disturbing image of a swaying, wedding gown-clad monster on the envelope encasing the reel. The truncated story is notable for depicting the monster as Karloff’s iconic square head while sticking pretty closely to Mary Shelley—complete with Elizabeth’s traumatizing death.
4. The Monster Squad Game (1977)
I had no idea what “The Monster Squad” was when I found Milton Bradley’s “Monster Squad” board game at a garage sale, but seeing the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, and the Wolf Man on its box was enough to get me to part with my twenty-five cents. I made a few attempts to figure out how to play the game (mostly by myself…no one else I knew really gave a shit about monsters) before losing interest. The live-action “Monster Squad” series apparently had equal trouble keeping anyone’s interest since it ran for a mere thirteen episodes on Saturday mornings from 1976 to 1977. Starring the three main monsters and Gopher from “The Love Boat” and the House of Representatives as a crime-fighting team, “Monster Squad” had nothing to do with the shitty movie of the same name that followed a decade later.
5. Shogun Godzilla (1977) and Non-Shogan Rodan (1979) Dolls
It’s amazing that the U.S. took so long to catch up with Japan’s obsession with merchandising the King of Monsters, but we finally got our shit together in 1977 when Mattel unleashed its Shogun Godzilla, an odd addition to the company’s Shogun Warriors robot toy line. This massive, two-foot tall monster had an impressive ability the real Godzilla (ie: a dude in a rubber suit) did not: he could shoot his fucking hand right off his wrist! He also lacked his cinematic equivalent’s spiny plates, which probably helped reduce wind resistance. A huge lever on the back of his head made his tongue poke out, as if to say: “Blah! I’m taller than you, kid!” Even bigger was a Rodan doll (not part of the Shogun line but designed to duke it out with Mattel’s Godzilla) that followed in 1979. With a staggering 38” wingspan, that thing would have made Kenner’s Darth Vader shit his plastic pants.
6. Creepy Crawlers (1978)
Mattel’s Creepy Crawlers are terrifying for a couple of reasons. First of all they are disgusting little jiggling spiders, snakes, millipedes, bats, toads and other off-putting members of the animal kingdom. Secondly and most significantly, they originally required small children to use a 390° hot plate just as capable of cooking little fingers as little bugs and reptiles. That rather flawed design had been around since 1965’s Giant Creepy Crawlers toys, and amazingly was not discontinued until 1970. During those five years Mattel put out numerous variations on its wriggling mold-maker toy, such as Creeple People, Eeeeks!, Picadoos, and most terrifying of all, Incredible Edibles (these things actually were edible, at least according to legend). The one I remember is the less dangerous Creepy Crawlers toy from 1978. This rejiggering replaced the hot plate with an enclosed plastic oven for baking those tubes of gelatinous, probably toxic goo into creatures of the night. I never owned this toy, but a friend did. I recall it being tedious. The molds took about an hour to set and the results were not the perfectly formed, perfectly colored little creatures on the box or TV commercial. If nothing else, Creepy Crawlers taught me a valuable lesson about how suckers are born every minute.
7. Mighty Men and Monster Maker (1978)
As a kid, I couldn’t run without tripping over my own feet nor could I throw, kick, or bat a ball. Deservedly, this got me branded a complete and total abomination by my peers. I was only able to carve out a little niche of respectability for myself in art class. I was the kid who could draw, so I have no clue why I wanted a toy called the Mighty Men and Monster Maker, because this was really designed for all those little baseball and soccer geniuses who couldn’t sketch a stick figure to save their magnificent lives. This was basically a “boy’s” version of a toy called Fashion Plates. Little girls (but not boys) could use that thing to mix and match plastic plates depicting skirts, blouses, and the disembodied heads of beautiful models. They’d then lay paper over the plates and scribble over the paper with crayons to form a complete, full-color picture. With the Mighty Men and Monster Maker, boys (but not girls) could do the same with the legs, torsos, and disembodied heads of a bunch of generic superheroes and monsters. I got a lot of use out of mine before realizing it was much more satisfying to draw my own designs from scratch.
8. Krusher (1979)
I remember receiving Krusher for Christmas quite distinctly, yet I’m a little fuzzy on why I wanted him aside from the fact that he was a big, green, ugly monster. The gimmick of Mattel’s 14-inch rubber beast is that you’d let the air out of him using a little valve on his belt (an otherwise useless belt since Krusher wore no pants) and then crush him up into a little ball of fists and fangs. Somehow, turning the valve in the other direction made him puff back up again. Since Krusher had no other balloon-type creatures to interact with, he had limited playing appeal for me until Return of the Jedi came out and I decided to use him as a stand in for the Rancor. By the time Kenner issued an actual Rancor toy in 1984, I’d pretty much outgrown playing with toys. Lousy timing, but at least it allowed me to give Krusher some time in the sun.
9. Alien Doll (1979)
What cries out for a kiddie toy tie-in more than a movie full of gore, profanity, and leering close ups of Sigourney Weaver’s crotch? Even as a wee thing of five, I suspected there was something profoundly wrong about Kenner’s Alien doll. I hadn’t seen the movie, of course, but its too subtle poster depicting a glowing space egg and captioned with the nightmare inducing “In space no one can hear you scream” still freaked me out. The toy itself was even more horrifying because it was such an accurate 18” reproduction of the terrifying monster from the most terrifying flick of 1979. What were the kids in the TV commercial thinking as they played with that fucking thing? More importantly, what were the suits at Kenner thinking? Probably something along the lines of “Our Star Wars toys are such a hit! We should cash in on that new space movie too!” Allegedly, parents felt differently, and protested so hard against the gruesome plaything that they managed to get it pulled from the shelves before Kenner could follow up with its “action-panties edition” Ripley doll. Other theories are that the banning had more to do with copyright issues or that it was more of an unofficial banning from parents who simply refused to buy the damn thing. As a kid, I probably would have agreed that the alien doll was a bit much. As an adult, I recognize that it was a pretty cool toy despite and because of that.
10. Remco Monsterizer (1980)
My favorite semi-obscure toys of the early eighties were Remco’s mini monster action figures. I got the whole lot of them—Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man, the Gill Man, Phantom of the Opera, the Mummy—as well as their groovy laminated cardboard haunted lair/carrying case for my birthday one year. These creatures’ Star Wars-figure-size was a boon since I could have Han Solo stand in for Jonathan Harker or Obi-Wan Kenobi play Van Helsing. The 9” dolls Remco produced weren’t as versatile, though they did have the amazing ability to perform a little crushing motion with their arms when one pressed a lever in their backs. The Frankenstein Monster could also be shoved in a boffo accessory called the Monsterizer. It was a sort of high-tech variation on his slab. You’d roll the Monster into place by turning a crank. Then all the bulbs and doodads above him would light up and make buzzing noises. Remco also produced a Mini-Monsterizer for its small-scale toys, which I only became aware of while researching this piece. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Santa will drop one under my tree this year.