"You must create a female for me with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being. This you alone can do, and I demand it of you as a right which you must not refuse to concede," -- Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.
"But science, like love, has her little surprises, as you shall see," -- Dr Pretorius, The Bride of Frankenstein
Bride of Frankenstein. It’s just the best, isn’t it? I mean James Whale’s Frankensteinis awesome, but his Bride is just miles ahead of it. In the four years between Frankenstein and Bride, talkies had come a long way, technically. Structurally, Bride is also better, leaving out the long dull interludes between the interesting bits. The actors are in great form. Karloff is at his peak, and the addition of dialogue for his Monster gives him much more to work with. Colin Clive’s Frankenstein is wonderful, alternating between pathetic self-pity and steely determination. Ernest Thesinger steals the show as the camp, malevolent Dr Pretorius. Valerie Hobson does her best with scant material as Elizabeth and Una O’Conner and E. E. Clive do memorable comic turns. But best of all is Elsa Lanchester, who does extraordinary things in a tiny amount of screen time. ...continue reading "Bride of Frankenstein – 1935"
The wood sang its sweet song to Gwendolyn Harper, but for once she could not listen. Most days, she could hear little else. Her ears filled with a thousand tunes and she was happy. Now there was no room in her broken heart for the joy of wood.
Sunday morning and the crowds were yet to arrive. Gwen worked in the timber section of Handy Pavilion, amongst the vast shelves of potential. Rough long baulks of framing pine, neat thin strips of hardwood decking, huge pallets overloaded with sheets of plywood and MDF. This was her kingdom and these were her people, and yet she would give it all away from one sweet kiss from the man she loved from afar.
Norman, his name was. Norman. Nor-man. New hire. Worked in power tools. He was a young man of perhaps twenty, perhaps less. He had a tufty little beard which didn’t suit him, and yet which could not obscure his beauty. There were tattoos up and down his arms. She wondered how far they extended beneath his shirt, beneath his apron. ...continue reading "Do It Yourself — Chapter 2: A Wooden Chorus"
It was a Saturday morning, and the hot sun beat down on the hardware centre. The centre’s air conditioning struggled to put up a fight, but it was still anyone’s battle.
Axel Plazoff was restocking a shelf of caulking guns, when out of the corner of his eye he spotted a familiar face. It was a handsome face, screwed up in an expression of concentration, and it belonged to a big man who examined the label on a can of exterior varnish with the intensity of a bomb-disposal expert wondering which wire to snip.
'The picture I present to you is peaceful and human, and you must feel that you could deny it only in the wantonness of power and cruelty.' - Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.
'Speak! You’ve got a civil tongue in your head. I know you have, because I sewed it back myself!' – Prof Frankenstein, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein.
I Was a Teenage Frankenstein is not a great movie. It was released in the same year as Hammer's Curse of Frankenstein, and it does not hold up well in comparison. It is shot on minimal sets with a tiny cast. The monster makeup is awful and the acting is second rate at best.
It does however have its moments. I’ve said before, one of the things I like most about Frankenstein as a story is that even a lot of the bad versions have something interesting to say. I Was a Teenage Frankenstein is a good example of this. Under the campy fifties B-movieness of it all is a dark little story of an abusive father and his dysfunctional family. ...continue reading "I Was a Teenage Frankenstein – 1957"
'It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another.' - Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.
'They must all know. Know that I, Baron von Frankenstein, master of the secret of creation, have now mastered the secret of destruction!' - Baron Boris Frankenstein, Mad Monster Party.
Perhaps the strangest thing about Frankenstein is that it isn’t always a horror story. Certainly my own first encounter with the Monster was as a character in children’s TV. I’d seen the Groovy Ghoulies, The Drac Pack and The Munsters long before I saw a version of Frankenstein that was actually meant to scare. How exactly did this legendary fiend become family entertainment? I’m not entirely certain, but it somehow it seems to work. ...continue reading "Mad Monster Party? – 1967"
'To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death. I became acquainted with the science of anatomy, but this was not sufficient; I must also observe the natural decay and corruption of the human body.' - Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
'Dr Stein just won the Nobel Peace Prize for solving the DNA genetic code.' - Dr Winnifred Walker, Blackenstein.
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Two good, fine meals. But what if… what if someone were to bolt them together? To take these two greasy comfort dishes and create a monstrous creature of deliciousness!
But what’s that you say? It would be playing God?
Bah! You lack the will of the true scientist! It is only through such dangerous, unethical experiments that mankind has been able to develop the wheel and the orthopaedic sandal! Do you think Sir Arthur Churro or Dr Lionel Sushi had to kowtow to the ethics committee when they invented culinary marvels?
"From the midst of this darkness a sudden light broke in upon me—a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple, that while I became dizzy with the immensity of the prospect which it illustrated." - Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.
"It's alive!" - Victor Frankenstein, Frankenstein (1931)
James Whale's Frankenstein.
It’s great isn’t it? Even after all these years, it still sets the standard for Frankenstein movies. I won’t say it’s the best, but it’s what people who make Frankenstein movies are shooting for. Even drivel like Blackensteintries for the cinematography, and I, Frankenstein tries for the pathos. They fail – oh, Lord, how they fail – but they try. If you’re making a Frankenstein movie, James Whale’s masterpiece is the mark you’re trying to hit.
It has all those classic moments, doesn’t it? The over-the-top graverobbing scene. So good! The introductory scene of the man in front of the curtain, warning the audience of the horrors to come. The graveyard, all shadows and expressionist lines is full of quiet grieving, while a twisted scientist and his assistant patiently wait to undo the solemn ritual of burial. The reanimation scene itself – still a thing of beauty after eighty years as artificial life in the form of lightning is poured into the Monster’s inert body while Colin Clive rants.
Karloff’s wonderful silent portrayal of the monster, by turns childlike and monstrous. The drowning of the little girl, cut out of the movie in the 1930s and still shocking today. The torchlit pursuit of the Monster, the fight between maker and Monster, the burning of the windmill, all of these things and more have become part of our pop-culture iconography, and rightly so.
No, if there is a problem with the movie, it is not the parts you remember, it’s the parts you forget. In between the classic scenes and sequences, the film is exceptionally dull. Whole scenes are completely superfluous. Take the initial conversation between Elizabeth and Victor Moritz. It seems to go on forever, yet the only information it conveys is that Henry Frankenstein is a scientist, working on something spooky in a lab in an abandoned watchtower, his friends are worried about him and they are bringing in Dr Waldman to help talk sense into him, and Victor is keen on Elizabeth. They then go to Dr Waldman, who explains everything again.
Useful information -- except that Frankenstein’s need for cadavers has already been established in the graverobbing scene. That he is performing questionable experiments in an abandoned watchtower is established far more dramatically in the following scene, in which Frankenstein’s friends and Dr Waldman show up to talk sense to him. Moritz’ attraction to Elizabeth is never followed up on, and the character himself simply fades out of the story. The man in front of the curtain already told us that Frankenstein means to create life, and Frankenstein himself repeats that in the next scene.
In short, we have a whole mess of plot points that are dramatically explained and then pedantically re-explained. Other non-horror scenes are equally interminable and inexplicable. Henry’s father seems especially out of place. The scene where Baron von Frankenstein tells off the Burgomaster seem less like Mary Shelley and more like P.G. Wodehouse on an off day. It is really almost like there are two movies. Try skipping over the horror sequences and you get a film about a scientist who almost loses his girlfriend due to his work obsession, then gets her back, much to the delight of his gruff old duffer of a father.
Partly, this comes from the source material, which is not Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but a stage adaption of Frankenstein that retold the story as a sort of drawing room drama. This adaptation comes from a long tradition of Frankenstein plays dating back to very soon after the novel's original publication. Early versions meddled with the novel, and later adaptations meddled with earlier adaptations, until the movies came along. After that, movie followed movie until the modern reader can experience a real 'what the hell' moment when they read Mary Shelley's original.
So apart from its sense of style, what does this version bring to the tradition? It brings a doozy: the brain. The brain changes the story completely. In Mary Shelley’s novel, the brain is insignificant. The Monster is a tabula rasa, a blank slate, capable of good or evil, but turned to wrongdoing through Frankenstein’s abandonment of him. Alone into a hostile world, the Monster is persecuted and opposed at every turn, until it becomes obsessed with revenge against its creator.
In Whale’s Frankenstein, there are echoes of this. The Monster kills Fritz, who torments him, and Waldman, who tries to kill him. Its attacks on Elizabeth and Frankenstein are portrayed as revenge on its creator. Even his most shocking killing—that of the little girl—is based on a misunderstanding of the world, rather than malice.
And yet, there is the brain. The criminal brain that Fritz has brought instead of the good brain. The Monster’s choice of victims implies something of Mary Shelley’s interpretation--wrongdoing being a case of nurture. The narrator, following a long tradition of Frankensteinian stage drama – insists that the story is essentially Judeo-Christian, implying the Monster’s sins are a result of his non-divine creation. But the brain—the brain implies that the cause of the deaths of Fritz, Waldman, and the little girl can by physically located. The brain is the location of the Creature’s identity and since it is a criminal brain, the Monster itself must behave criminally.
This naturalistic, physiological explanation for the Monster’s wrongdoing becomes the major thread that unspools from this movie throughout the history of Frankenstein in cinema. It comes up again and again in in Universal’s Frankenstein saga and is revisited in the Hammer Frankensteins. It is brilliantly parodied in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. Elsewhere it is added to–the wonderful Frankenstein: the True Story by Isherwood and Barrcoldy; Kenneth Branagh's less wonderful Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and even the Munsters all suggest that the Monster’s identity is only partly derived from the brain, and partly from his other component pieces.
Whose brain the Monster receives determines who and what the Monster is. You can make a Frankenstein movie without worrying about the brain, you just can’t call it Frankenstein if you do. You have to call your movie something else – Blade Runner, for example, or the Terminator. Your Frankenstein’s Monster must be called something else – call him Ultron or HAL or K1 or Jamie Gumm or Lore. Call him Hymie the Robot, why not.
But I’ve wandered from James Whale’s Frankenstein. My point is, this film establishes a huge amount of the cinematic iconography of Frankenstein, but also presents three different possible morals of a story of an artificial creature who turns against its creator. The materialist moral – that the creature is the sum of its parts, so defective parts equals defective creature – has become so deeply entrenched in that iconography that it is almost impossible to make a straightforward, serious Frankenstein movie without incorporating that moral.
I want to examine Frankenstein movies in this blog, whether they are called Frankenstein movies or not. We won't be looking at these films in any particular order, though I will try to keep the Universal and Hammer Frankensteins in their respective chronological orders.
I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It may even… horrify you. So if you feel you are unable to subject your nerves to such a strain… Well… we warned you.