Mel Birnkrant presents:
The Life and Death of
"MATCHBOX"

        
    When I was ten years old or so, half a century ago, The Universal Monsters were universally scary. I was among the innocents who rooted for the good guys, identifying with brave but boring lab assistants, and crowds of angry towns people, carrying torches.  I failed to see that human beings were indeed the villains, or appreciate the deep humanity of monsters. 

             My monster viewing skills were practiced to perfection.  I knew the whole routine.  Step one: squint your eyes a little; full moon rising, Lawrence Talbot in the woods. "Even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers at night, may become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms and the moon is full and bright." Step two, peeking through the narrowing cracks between your fingers, Larry’s eyes look kinda funny.  His hands look kinda fuzzy.  He bares his lower teeth and growls.  You know what’s coming; soon he’ll have a nose just like a puppy.  Step three: you dive behind the seat in front of you to hide, imagining far worse than what is really happening,  until the on-screen screams subside and you dare inquire; Is it over?

          Yes, it was soon over. Little more than ten years later my infant daughter watched the same monsters on TV, from the cozy confines of her playpen, laughing with glee.  Universal Monsters were no longer scary; they had become a kid’s best friends.

           Meanwhile, thanks to artists like Dick Smith and Stan Winston monster make-up became more incredible than ever. Fangora Magazine had upped the ante, making Famous Monsters of Filmland look old-fashioned.  Along the way,  I never lost my lifelong fascination with monsters.  But the ability to be terrified by them was gone forever.  Or so I thought...... until I met the idiots at  Matchbox, and watched in Horror as they destroyed MAXx FX.
How “out of it” were they?  Let me site one small example that sums it all up nicely. Having  just completed the Creature from the Black Lagoon, I drove down to Matchbox to deliver it in person.

That was the first and last time I met with the man in charge of the whole project.  He proudly disclosed his master plan to me, his latest bright idea: Each Monster in the series would come packed with its own back-pack and camping gear!

That was all I had to hear.  I knew we were in trouble.
To begin with, no one at Matchbox had seen a horror movie since childhood.  They had never heard of Freddie Kruger or Jason from Friday the 13th.  So right from the start they eliminated them, and returned the prototypes to me.

Next, in the course of pricing out the product, Matchbox discovered a warehouse full of surplus 10”Mego figures. Thus, they opted out of doing an expensive and better articulated 11" GI Joe sized figure, and decided to take the cheap route and  go with  recycled Mego dolls instead. 

Meanwhile as Matchbox management slowly realized that they didn’t know what they were doing, they  grew increasingly afraid to introduce the product without the “insurance” of a license.  Thus  they acquired the only monsters that they knew, the Universal nostalgia crew, Frankenstein’s monster, Non-Lagosi Dracula (Bela’s family would not permit his likeness to be used), the Mummy, the Woof-man, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  To bring the line up to date a little, they acquired the "Alien" license too.

Then they commissioned me to create four new monster make-ups, to fit the 8” figures.  I tried my hand at making them look bigger.
In 1988 there were still a lot of small toy companies, not just two giants who had gobbled up the rest, as is the case today.  “Matchbox”was essentially an English manufacturer, but they had a branch in New Jersey. I never could quite figure out how they were related.  Apart from having the same well-known die-cast cars in common, the New Jersey branch seemed to be independent of its parent company, producing its own brand of  mediocrities, right here in the USA.  As Fate would have it, they were practically my partner’s neighbor, located a few miles away, and much easier to approach than Mattel, Hasbro or Kenner.  So when MAXx FX's presentation was  ready Kiscom put it in the car and bopped right over.”  The rest”, as the saying goes, “is History”.
Why Matchbox bought MAXx was a mystery, for among that pack of typical toy trade types who ran the company, there was not one who had an ounce of knowledge or affinity for monsters.  They didn’t “get it” from the get-go, and were clearly  “in over their heads”.
            Although, Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein Monster was one of the greatest make-ups of all time, with Lagosi out of the running, I saw no reason to license the Universal Monsters and make them part of the MAXx FX line.  The Wolfman had been bested by "The Howling" or "An American Werewolf in London", and The Mummy was downright generic.  The need to license these characters had been circumvented  many times before.  And in films like "Monster Squad" the characterizations had been improved upon. Universal would only impose restrictions that would dumb down the line. (And they did!)  So when I was asked to do the Creature from the Black Lagoon, who, even when I was a kid, seemed to me as menacing as a goldfish, I tried to cheat a little and give him a more toothy grin.

Of course I didn’t get away with it, not that it ultimately mattered.  Somewhere in the dire days that followed I spied a Matchbox version in kelly-green styrene that resembled the Aurora model kit and looked like s--t!.
              Matchbox kept us pretty much in the dark.  But whenever our paths did cross, red flags were raised.  It became evident that many hands were involved with MAXx, and none knew what they, or the other ones were doing.  Whoever commissioned a sculptor to create the head on the lower right, either didn’t know  or failed to inform him of its purpose.  The prominent feature of the resulting sculpture, which I suspect resembles its creator, is its full head of hair, which of course, is not compatible with snap-on make-up.  I trimmed his hair as much as I dare,  rightfully worried that such basic lack of understanding was typical of what was going on at Matchbox
               When the first three Make-ups were finished my new video camera happened to be lying near by.  I picked it up and made a shaky hand held recording, sensing that I would never see these prototypes again.  Several weeks later when the Creature was completed, he went before the camera too, along with a brief cameo from Jason and Freddy, who had been returned to me.  I discovered the raw footage a couple of days ago and spliced it all together, adding music.  For some reason the Creature was eventually returned to me .  But the other three were gone forever .

With this video my personal involvement with MAXx FX was over,  We didn’t meet again till Toy Fair.
Continue to TOY FAIR
Return HOME
Copyright Acknowledgment: All images of  MAXx FX and other Products and Images, created by Mel Birnkrant, are Copyright
                   (c) BIRNKRANT KISCOM/ The OBB