Monday, October 19, 2009

Frakenstein: The Monster, the Myth, the Legend

For Halloween, my favorite holiday, I decided I would watch some of the classic monster movies that Universal put out in the 30s’ and 40s’. I love these old horror movies and one of the best is Frankenstein. It was released in 1931, starring Colin Clive as Victor Frankenstein and the immortal Boris Karloff as the MONSTER; based on Mary Shelly’s book and the play by Peggy Webling.
Now I can do a whole series of posts on Frankenstein and his monster, whose name incidentally was Adam, after the first man: just something for that Trivial Pursuit game. But I want to focus on the film, so just a quick contextual review. Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, first published in 1818. The tale is one of vengeance perpetrated by the monster for his very creation and the suffering he endured at the hands of his creator and humanity at large. The tale does not focus on the creation but rather the effect of such creation. Personally, I found the monster in the actual novel too whiny to be sympathetic.
The movie is fun Saturday matinee stuff, I remember this film as a little kid when the Saturday afternoon creature feature would come on T.V.—thanks for the therapy Mom! This, among others scared me as a kid. I know this seems almost laughable today with films like Saw, or the current faire on the Sci Fi channel. But that’s the point; this film was scary without gore, or huge special effect. The studio warned people that it would be shocking! Women actually fainted in the theater. It was atmospheric and creepy with haunting sets; filmed in black and white as all good horror movies should be.
This film built tension from the start: with Victor’s obsession to create life; lying in wait for a body to be placed in the ground so they could dig it up fresh. The hunch back Fritz cutting down a hanged criminal, but that corpse being useless because the neck had been snapped. (Note: Fritz was played by Dwight Frye, who also played Renfield in Dracula and Wilmer Cook in the Maltese Falcon) The cut scene showing the concerns of his friends and fiancé adds depth and a grounding element to the tale.
Then there is Fritz destroying the “normal brain” and taking the “abnormal brain”, the audience knowing that this is the brain that shall govern the creature being created. Later in the film when the monster encounters the young girl playing by the water side we know what is going to happen. The child’s death is only hinted at; the impact is later during Frankenstein’s wedding party when the grieving father carries his daughter in among the revelers.
The underlying complexity of the creature comes forth when the audience witnesses the abuse it endures at the hands of the sadistic Fritz. We also witness Victor viewing his creation as a mere experiment rather than a sentient being; a view shared by Dr. Waldman (played by Edward Van Sloan who was Van Helsing in 1931’s Dracula). Waldman intends to destroy the monster by dissection but is killed himself by the creature. The monster is sympathetic, you feel sorry for the poor creature; more so, in my opinion, than the book. One sees the creature trapped and dying and feels saddened by that death.
The climax is pure horror gold with the villagers chasing the monster with baying hounds, torches, and pitch forks. The creator and monster locked in a struggle at the end, with the creator pitched from the top a burning windmill. Then the creature is trapped for an ambiguous death scene that will allow it to appear in a multitude of sequels.
The movie is a classic for reason; there is a well woven plot, tension, and story. It may seem quaint by today’s standards, but that is part of that classic nature. It holds up because it is a compelling tale. It has spawned so many more interpretations over the years from comic books, Young Frankenstein, and a very good book series by Dean Koontz and Kevin J. Anderson in which the first book even mentions the burning windmill. The story was started by Shelly, but Karloff gave it life.
See: for more on this wonderful actor.

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