Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Monsterpiece Theater: Frankenstein (or the Modern Prometheus)

by Rustbelt

Publication Year: 1818

“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open…

“How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form?..

“Oh! No mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous a wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.”

The Story Every English Schoolboy Knows…

…begins in Geneva. However, this story really begins in Indonesia. In 1815, the volcanic Mount Tambora exploded. The debris released into the sky were thick enough to blot out part of the sunlight worldwide; dropping temperatures all over Earth fell and causing 1816 to be remembered as the “Year Without a Summer.” (Freezing conditions were reported in New England and northern Europe as late as July.) It was this miserable weather that forced four 19th-centurey hippies to spend their Swiss vacation indoors.

The Contest and the Nightmare

Stranded inside the Villa Diodati along Lake Geneva, and isolated from the starvation, diseases, and other weather-induced issues most of the world’s population was enduring, Percy Shelley, his then-future wife Mary, Lord Byron, and John Polidori (Byron’s physician), tried to pass the time by complaining about the world’s lack of enlightenment and how everything could be solved if people just ‘lived for today’ (like them). Finally, the well-endowed friends got tired of whining about the weather and amused themselves by reading a book of ghost stories. Finally, Byron proposed a contest in which they would each write their own ghost story. Neither Byron nor Shelley finished theirs; Polidori wrote one from a fragment that Byron started. (The work, ‘The Vampyre,’ was later condemned by Byron.) Only 18 year-old Mary completed the contest after having a ‘waking dream’ in which she saw a “pale student of unhallowed arts” standing over a man he’d created.

He Who Tried to Play God…and Failed Miserably

Okay, I’ll try to keep this brief. While trying to sail to the North Pole, Captain Robert Walton rescues an emaciated man in the Arctic. The man, Victor Frankenstein, tells Walton his story. As a boy, Victor studied science at the family estate in Geneva. However, his true interests were studying the theories of life and chemistry created by outdated alchemists. When he goes to college at Ingolstadt, Victor spends two years creating a perfect man. However, working with larger human pieces, (which was easier), the result is a powerful, but hideous creation. Victor goes home, but the Monster follows, killing Victor’s youngest brother. The two finally meet in the mountains, where the Monster implores Victor to create a mate for him and end his loneliness. Victor leaves for Scotland and is almost finished with the mate, but destroys the project at the last minute. The Monster then follows Victor back Geneva, causing the deaths of Victor’s best friend, bride, and father. Thereafter Victor chases the Monster into the Arctic. At the end, Victor dies, and the Monster boards Walton’s boat to mourn his creator. He sails into the distance, and Walton orders his ship to head for home.
Was it just a Nightmare?

The popular story goes that Mary spent the next year turning the dream into a short story, which was then turned into a novel with Shelley’s help. However, Mary may have been inspired by more than her dream. The story heavily cites Milton’s Paradise Lost, especially the tumultuous relationship between God and Satan (with whom the Monster identifies. Mary’s family- the Wollstonecrafts- were very up-to-date on the latest advances in science. She, herself, cited galvanism, the process of causing muscles to twitch when struck with electricity, (discovered by Luigi Galvini in the late 18th century), as a key inspiration for Frankenstein’s actions. However, some historians think Giovanni Aldini, Galvini’s nephew who furthered his uncle’s work, may have been an inspiration. Johann Konrad Dipple, an early-18th-century alchemist alleged to have conducted unusual biological experiments is believed to be another. (Mary and Shelley may have visited his castle on one occasion.) Whether Victor’s family name ‘Frankenstein’ comes from another of Mary’s dreams (as she claimed), or is a reference to a known German castle or family is still debated. What isn’t debated is how the heart of the story remains the hubris of Victor Frankenstein. In his pride to do the impossible, he went blindly ahead, creating a man, but failing to appreciate the responsibilities and consequences of his actions. (Thus making it, like Jekyll and Hyde, an oddly moral story written by someone who- along with her friends- held immorality up as a virtue.)

A Note on the Title

The longer publication title, ‘Modern Prometheus,’ refers to the Greek titan, Prometheus (whose name means ‘forethought’). In Greek mythology, Prometheus took fire (reserved only for the gods), from Mount Olympus and gave it to humans. A furious Zeus had him chained to a rock where a bird would eat out Prometheus’ liver every day. (Being immortal, it would grow back every night.) Like Victor Frankenstein, he failed to think ahead. Now, for the reason you really came here: the movies.
Frankenstein (Edison Studios, 1910)

This grainy, early-silent era version of the tale produced by the man who invented motion pictures clocks in at 12 minutes. (And you thought my summary was short.) And it fares like a bad romance novel. Basically, Victor (Augustus Phillips) creates his Monster (Charles Ogle), despairs, and goes home. After re-encountering his creation, Victor professes his love for his bride (Mary Fuller), purifying himself, causing the Monster to disappear. Does this make the Monster a hallucination of Victor’s dark half? Is this pre-WWI Fight Club? I think I’ll stop while I’m ahead.

Victor Frankenstein: Not a lot to say here. Phillips plays him as a happy-go-lucky guy dressed like a 17th-century fop who screws with nature, but fixes everything with the power of love.

The Monster: I have not been able to find out where Ogle’s shaggy monster appearance came from. But it sure is memorable-looking. The Monster isn’t complex here. It acts like a jealous pet that tries to Victor’s bride when she comes between it and its creator.

Full Movie HERE
Frankenstein (Universal, 1931)

Now, we’re getting somewhere. This is the movie that defined Universal Studios horror for the ages. Director James Whale may have simplified the complexities of the story, but he makes up for it with some of the most memorable images and performances captured on film. This is the movie that established the driven mad scientist, the hunchbacked assistant (Dwight Frye as Fritz- NOT Ygor), the friends who appeal to the mad scientist’s sense of reason to stop, the isolated laboratory (it was originally supposed to be art deco, but was changed to a Gothic castle), highly electrified lab equipment (created by Ken Strickfaden and reused in Young Frankenstein), and the crowd of torch-and-pitchfork-bearing angry villagers, among others. Controversial for its time, the scenes of Victor screaming about how it was like to be God and the Monster accidentally drowning a village girl were censored not long after release.
Henry Frankenstein: The eccentric Colin Clive plays the Frankenstein we’ve come to know quite well. Clive’s Henry is a proud, obsessed fanatic, showing off the creation of his creation to his friends just to prove how advanced he is. After the Monster kills Fritz, Waldman (Edward van Sloan), and the village girl, he becomes equally consumed with a desire to destroy the Monster, and is nearly killed himself.
The Creature: Ladies and gentlemen, the star of the show: Boris Karloff. Possibly Hollywood’s all-time late-bloomer (he was in his early 40’s when he got this breakout role), Karloff was hired as a replacement when Bela Lugosi turned down the role (allegedly for the lack of lines). While the movie is mainly remembered for the makeup, Karloff’s physical acting, showing the Creature with a childlike wonder for the world and the equally childlike emotions of sadness, loneliness, and fear, endowed the performance with a humanity lacking in most- say, 99%- of all movie monsters.
The Bride of Frankenstein (Universal, 1935)

Coaxed back into the director’s chair, James Whale made this second entry into the series on the condition he could do whatever he wanted. After re-reading the novel, Whale took a few ideas- mainly the Monster’s encounter with a blind man and desire for a mate- and ran from there. The story really focuses on the actions of Dr. Pretorius (an original character played by Ernest Theisiger), who wants to create a race of creatures based on Frankenstein’s work. He blackmails and, later, threatens Victor into working with him. Pretorius also seeks out and befriends the Monster in order to make the creature a willing participant in the experiment. However, when the Bride (Elsa Lancaster) comes to life, she- like everyone else- rejects the Monster. In a rage, the Monster destroys the lab, apparently killing himself, Pretorius, and the bride (Victor and his wife escape).
This is the rare movie considered better than the original. Whale’s trademark attention to details and minor characters in order to make every scene memorable is also on full display, causing many to consider Bride his finest work. (Your author, however, would say that honor goes to The Invisible Man.)
Henry Frankenstein: This time around, Colin Clive’s signature character is broken and morose, (possibly mirroring Clive’s own alcoholism at the time.) Now devoted to his wife, he only comes out of retirement when her life is threatened. It is worth noting, however, that he seemingly enjoys the creation of the Bride.
The Creature: He speaks! Director Whale decided that allowing the Creature to learn to speak (like he does in the novel), though in a childlike way, would enhance the character. For the record, Karloff hated the idea. Still, Karloff once again played the desperately lonely role to perfection. His scenes with the blind hermit (O.P. Heggie), the only person who treats the Creature as a friend, are remarkably effective and touching.
The Curse of Frankenstein (Hammer, 1957)

Call this one the kingmaker. This is THE movie that launched the careers of actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, (who started their famous friendship while making this film), as well as director Terence Fisher. In a nod to the novel, Baron Frankenstein (Cushing) tells his story to a priest while in prison. The film focuses mainly on Frankenstein and his relationship with his tutor, Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart). At first, they’re both dedicated to their work. However, a split occurs when Paul wants to announce their early findings on animals to the world and Frankenstein insists on secret human experiments first. Though the two never give up on each other, they grow apart as Paul increasingly opposes Frankenstein and his former pupil descends from obsession into amorality, madness, and evil. Another fine example of Hammer taking liberties with a story and making it work with deeply satisfying results. Of course, it ends back in prison with Victor being lead to the guillotine.


Baron Victor Von Frankenstein: Cushing plays a remarkably effective Frankenstein. He’s neither a foolish college student, nor a run-of-the-mill mad scientist. In fact, he’s both. In an arc worthy of Walter White, he goes from mere curiosity and a desire to better humanity, to an obsessive mania to finish his experiments and prove his theories right. (He also cheats on his fiancée and murders for a brain.) Fans consider this and his role as a demonic fortune teller in Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (Amicus, 1965) as the performances that made hi ma horror icon.
The Monster: Christopher Lee is hard to recognize- and I’m not talking about the makeup. This Monster is a pathetic creature easily beaten, tortured and used by its creator. A real bit player. In fact, Lee only got the role when he agreed to work for eight pounds a day, as opposed to the first choice, Bernard Bresslaw, who demanded ten pounds a day. According to producer Peter Rogers, “And so, for the sake of two pounds, Christopher Lee became an international star.”

Original trailer HERE
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (American Zoetrope/Tristar Pictures, 1992)

Amazingly, this one is actually the most book-accurate. I say amazingly because it can be so hard to follow at times. Director Kenneth Branaugh did an admirable job of not relying on or paying homage to previous ‘Frankenstein’ movies. He places it firmly in the late 18th/early 19th century time period and carefully follows the book’s character arc. Where it falls short is the manic direction. The camera and editing move like an Olympic sprinter with ADD. At least one third of the dialogue consists of actors yelling like the Novocain wore off halfway through the dental work. And the twist at the end of using Elizabeth’s (Helena Bonham Carter’s) body for the Bride just struck me as tacky. Oh, and BTW, the less said about the overt sexual imagery in the Monster’s creation scene, the better.
Victor Frankenstein: A while back, I saw post on IMDB that described this film as Kenneth Branaugh’s love letter to himself. I don’t know who that guy was, but he deserves a thumbs up. The camera is constantly zooming in on Branaugh in the role (when the editor doesn’t just start with a close-up of him, that is). Branaugh also suffers from Matthew McConaughey-level shirtlessness throughout the flick. (He’s also too old to be playing a college student.) Since when did being the director mean you could focus so much on yourself in your own movie?
The Monster: Is this when Robert DeNiro really began phoning it in? Honestly, there’s nothing memorable about this. DeNiro uses a losing-at-poker face throughout the movie. Unlike Karloff, he never bothers to endow himself to the audience. And…ah, nothing else to say. Just a classic case of going through the motions and picking up the check.

Original trailer HERE

So, who’s your favorite Victor? Monster? Movie?

Full text of Frankenstein HERE


AndrewPrice said...

Thanks for the article Rustbelt. Sorry for the delay in getting it published. I'll be back to comment once my brain clears a bit from the plague. :)

Kit said...

"It was this miserable weather that forced four 19th-centurey hippies to spend their Swiss vacation indoors."

Perfect description of Shelley & co.

Kit said...

Still laughing about. :)

Jim said...

Thanks to this monster franchise, I still can't hear "Puttin' on the Ritz" without laughing...

PikeBishop said...

"well endowed?" ;-) Curious choice of words, one of my English Lit. professors suggested that Mary came up with the contest as a way to pass the time after she got bored, and tired out by the group sex.

Rustbelt said...

No problem at all, Andrew. Given the description of your symptoms, I'm just glad you're able to use a computer.

Glad you like it. And beat the plague man. Beat the plague!

Rustbelt said...

Kit, these four would be right at home at Berkeley in the 60's. I was going to be nastier, but I had to get to the film reviews.

Hippies and their lunacy are always good for a laugh, aren't they? :)

Rustbelt said...



Rustbelt said...

Pikebishop, you have a filthy mind. Don't ever change.

Hm...that might be plausible...

Or, they could've waited for Mary to write the story and then play a drinking game while she read the book aloud: one shot every time Victor says "countenance" or "wretchedness." Given how often he blabbers those words, I'm guessing few would survive.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, Thanks for an interesting article! I actually had no idea about Mary's history or how this book came about. I know only that I read it and really enjoyed it. I have not, however, enjoyed the movies because I think the movies try too hard to make the creature into a monster rather than an exploration of something creepier, as it is in the book.

PikeBishop said...

No mention of Andy Warhol's Frankenstein, Rustbelt? ;-)

Rustbelt said...

You're welcome, Andrew!

There are other reputed sources about the stuff Mary used as inspiration. Basically, her family and friends were one of those groups that discussed science, philosophy, literature, and politics all at the same time. Kind of like the salons in France where the ideas for the French Revolution came about.
And as I mentioned to Kiy, they also resembled 60's radicals or modern mega-rich liberal elitists of today.
Other reputed sources include actual (illegal) experiments being on human cadavers at the time that involved jolting the bodies with electricity and making them move. Such science was like DNA and molecular genetics today. Without modern knowledge of the nervous system, the possibilities seemed endless.

As for making the creature a monster, that IS a problem. Just as DeNiro's version.
The closest to reaching the actual spirit of the novel would probably be Karloff. Watching the original Universal film and 'Bride,' I found it surprising just how sympathetic he made the creature. (FYI: Karloff always referred to the character as the 'Creature.' He hated it when people called it the 'Monster.')

Rustbelt said...

Pikebishop, the words 'Warhol' and 'film' in the same sentence send a chill down my spine! (That and visions of the monster lying in a pile of Campbell soup cans for eight hours!)

Rustbelt said...

And another thing...

I wanted to add this to the article, but it was already pretty long.
So, a few notes on Karloff;s iconic makeup:

Universal makeup artist/legend Jack Pierce got the assignment. He reportedly made dozens of preliminary sketches before settling on a design that was essentially an exaggeration of Karloff's facial features.
To make his head bigger, Pierce wrapped multiple layers of cheesecloth and various chemicals (not sure if mortician's wax was used or not) around Karloff's head (similar to spirit gum and cotton he later used on Karloff's mummy makeup). The flattop head is a source of controversy. Both Pierce and director James Whale took credit for coming up with it, but neither gave a satisfactory explanation.
The forehead scar is the result of Frankenstein cutting the top of the skull to insert the brain. (Pierce guessed that the doc, not being a practicing surgeon, would use the simplest surgical cut.) The neck 'bolts' are actaully electrodes positioning to let the lightning activate the motor section of the brain.
To achieve a 'dead' look, (the creature is made of dead body parts), Karloff's eyes were given heavy makeup jobs. Pierce even convinced Karloff to take out some dental bridges to make his cheeks collapse. Finally, his face was covered in green paint because, when filmed in B&W film, it resembled cadaver skin. (Pierce referenced photos he got from the LA Coroner's Office.)


Rustbelt said...

Finally, Karloff had to wear shoulder pads, ill-fitting clothes, and massive welder's boots (along with the head piece) to look taller and wider. (He was actaully shorter than Colin Clive, who played Frankenstein.)
The makeup job was redone every day (Pierce refused to use reusable prosthetics), taking between 4 and 8 hours. Sometimes, rather than endure the 'taking off' and 'putting on' process again, Karloff would go home and sleep with his head between stacks of books.

As for the Bride...
Director Whale took over and demanded that her look be based on the Egyptian bust of Queen Nefertiri in the British Museum. Elsa Lancaster's hair had to be styled around a cone-shaped wire frame. The lighting highlights seem to have been just to make the hairdo stand out against the dark backgrounds.
Lancaster apparently hated for Pierce. (She damned him for thinking that he 'made' people who wore his makeups.) In addition to her hair, she had to walk on stilts to be as tall as Karloff in costume and had her eyes taped open the entire time. She based her character's trademark hissing on swans she watched at Hyde Park in London.

And for 'Once Upon a Time' fans...Dr. Frankenstein's alter ego of 'Dr. Whale' is, in fact, a homage to director James Whale.

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