Wednesday, October 7, 2015

My Top 5 Frankenstein Movies


Mary Shelly got the shaft, historically speaking. A smart, literate, talented writer and editor, on top of being the only woman in her peer group, and what is she best remembered for? Only the first science fiction novel, ever, and when it’s mentioned, trust me, it’s with much grousing and grumbling and caveats from the science fiction community.

Of course, I’m talking about Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus, a decent, if somewhat by-the-numbers piece of Victorian melodrama, written in 1818, that inadvertently grapples with the concept of the soul, what makes us human, and asks the question of whether or not science should meddle with the forces of nature. Heavy stuff, don’tcha know. But those hard SF guys, the graybeards, over in the corner, will shake their heads, and say, “Well, sure, some of the ideas are there, but really...”

How do you top that kind of back-handed compliment, I wonder? Oh, I’ve got it! Make a movie out of an extremely successful stage play and overwrite all of the conceits and concepts of the novel into its most reductive form, and turn a brilliant allegory into a grotesque caricature that is parodied and copied ad infinitum, well into the 21st century. Talk about “No Respect.”

As with the Dracula movies, it’s probably best to look at Frankenstein movies from the baseline question, “how close to the book do they get?” To do otherwise is to invite madness and perfidy into this house, and I’ll not be a party to it. To say that there’s some great portrayals of Pop Culture Frankenstein—that lumbering creature based on Boris Karloff’s most famous role—is a given. After all, we're talking about one of the most recognizable figures of the 20th century. And whether we’re watching Herman Munster or reading Marvel Comics’ Frankenstein as drawn by Mike Ploog, or looking at any of the hundreds of other versions—they are all great, for what they are: Pop Culture Frankenstein. Not literary Frankenstein.

With that in mind, here are my top five favorite Frankenstein movies. It’s a motley assortment, to be sure. What I’d like to do is take my favorite parts from each movie and sort of, I don’t know, stitch them all together to make one giant, killer, dead-on movie. I’d call it my Frankenstein Frankenstein cut. 


6. Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943)
Okay, remember what I said about Pop Culture Frankenstein above? Yeah, this is exactly what I’m talking about. It made the list because it’s got a better than average script by SF writer Curt Siodmak, picking up where The Wolfman (1941) and Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) left off. Larry Talbot, the Wolfman, is resurrected when grave robbers remove the wolfsbane from his coffin. He makes his way to Frankenstein’s castle and while kicking around the ruins, stumbles across Frankenstein in the frozen waters.  And then, much like in real life, the poop hits the fan when Talbot tries to reconstruct the good doctor’s work.

Bela Lugosi played Frankenstein in the movie opposite Lon Chaney Jr.’s role as Talbot. It’s hard to believe that Lugosi was pushing sixty at the time, and as a result, he couldn’t do some of the really physical stuff, like the wrestlemania fight at the end of the movie, and so Lugosi’s stunt double filled in. Still, you can clearly see Lugosi under the Jack Pierce make-up in the close-up shots.

This movie was the beginning of the “more monsters is better” Universal formula, and it’s the best one because there’s a sincere effort to make the story coherent. Not so much so with later outings. Because this movie established that the Universal monsters were all living in the same universe, this is also the birthplace of Pop Culture Frankenstein.

5. Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
Normally, I would never say this about Christopher Lee, but he’s not the main reason to watch this movie. He’s just not. His heart wasn’t in it, and it’s obvious, because that Frankenstein make-up sucked. It just sucked. It’s messy, crude, and yeah, I know, they were trying to get away from the now-iconic Jack Pierce design, but they went the wrong way.

The real reason to watch this movie is Peter Cushing as Dr. Frankenstein. He’s the man; driven, obsessed, chilling, relentless. Nothing will keep him from his dream of bringing the dead back to life. He’ll even kill to get what he wants. That’s focus.

Despite the heartbreak that is Christopher Lee with lumpy pancake make-up on his face, the movie is really watchable. It’s made abundantly clear throughout the movie that Cushing’s mad scientist is the real monster, but Lee manages to get some mayhem done on his own, and also in the service to his master.

If none of the above sounds like Mary Shelly’s book, that’s not an accident. The movie was Hammer Studio’s first foray into updating and re-imagining the old Universal movies. I think this is one of their better efforts, and the only thing that keeps it from being everyone’s favorite is the terrible make-up job on Lee—something they fixed in later films. So, you know, it’s not just me that thinks that.

4. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (1994)
This could have been, and probably should have been, the corrective it was advertised to be. Kenneth Branagh, fresh from doing all of that Shakespeare stuff, sets out to adapt, direct, and star in a lavish do-over of Frankenstein—and do it right, as we can see by the addition of Mary Shelly’s name to the title. Produced by Francis Ford Coppola. A screenplay by Frank Darabont. Filmed on location in actual castles, with sumptuous sets, a huge budget, and a lengthy running time to get it all in, and yet, this film is a hell of a near miss. What happened?

I’ll tell you what happened. Branagh cast Robert De Niro as the monster.

Yep, you heard me. Terrible, terrible stunt casting that takes you completely out of the movie every time you see him in his subdued make-up. Don’t get me wrong—they tried, they really did, to get it right. But instead of asking those big picture questions about the meaning of life and whether or not Victor should be meddling with the powers of creation, the film centers around Dr. Frankenstein’s rejection of his creation and the monster’s anger at his “father” for being abandoned. Lots of victimization, and not a lot of villany. Oh, and no scares. I don’t know that there should be a lot of scares when you’re doing Frankenstein from the novel, but there’s audience expectations to manage, and this film drops the ball.

Not completely, mind you. There are some scenes that made it to the screen that have never been in a Frankenstein movie up until that time—like Victor’s and the Monster’s final confrontation in the frozen North. Straight out of Shelly. And while De Niro does give a good acting performance, it’s still not what the movie needs. It’s a good thing that Branagh and Helena Bonham Carter are pretty to look at.

3. Frankenstein (1931)
It’s hard to discuss literary Frankenstein without mentioning this movie, a nearly exact copy of the stage play of the same name (hey, it worked out well for Dracula, right?) And Universal hit upon something with their portrayal; the idea of the grotesque nature of the monster being a source of horror and tragedy.

Make-up man Jack Pierce loved to tell the story of his idea for Boris Karloff’s now-legendary make-up. He figured that the good doctor wasn’t a skilled surgeon and that he’d take a lot of short cuts, such as lopping the top of the head off and sewing the top of the skin over, like a flap, with clamps for easy access. Creepy, right? Also, kind of genius. And the bolts are in the neck because, of course, the monster runs on direct current, like a battery. But the stitches in the face, neck, and hands, and the dazed, disfigured look, stirred audience members up more than they may have realized. So many of the people in the theaters had to deal with the soldiers coming home from The Great War in Europe with horrible disfigurements—missing arms and legs, noses and ears, scars that no make up could conceal, and worse. These veterans were walking reminders of the horror of war, and Frankenstein was the stand-in for a nation’s reaction to those veterans. The movie made it okay to scream and shudder when Karloff lumbered into the light, a living reminder that War is Hell.

Accuracy be damned. This film modernizes the setting, for what that’s worth—everything is still in the backwater countryside of Europe. It’s fitting that, despite the 20th century trappings, it’s still torches and pitchforks for the movie’s monster-hunters. It’s enjoyable now for what it is, but what it isn’t is Mary Shelly’s Novel.

2. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Much ado has been made over this film—the sequel to the smash hit, and in some weird way, a very personal statement for director James Whale. I think the movie has a lot of hubris in it—the notion of “playing God” and creating life is pushed even farther, and with more disastrous results, in this film. If anything, the themes are closer to what Shelly seemed to be driving at in her novel.

Whale must have thought so too, because he opens the film with Elsa Lanchester as Mary Shelly, knitting on the divan whilst her husband Percy and Lord Byron men roll their R’s and pose and preen while they talk about how neato it was that a mere slip of a girl could write so wonderfully wicked a story. Lovely. She eventually tells them there’s more to the story, and then we dissolve to the end of the first film, implying that everything that follows in the film was somehow or another straight from the author’s mouth.

Clearly this is not the case, but if you want watch a well-shot, bizarre, whackadoo black and white camp-fest, this is your movie. It’s a beautifully told, messed up morality play based on a subplot from the original novel, teased into a feature-length film, and featuring the sexiest Universal Monster to ever spurn a creature’s tentative advances. Thematically, the movie is worth your time, but you have to make it past Dr. Pretorius’ collection of homunculi first.

1.Frankenstein (1973)
It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when the best horror stories could be found on daytime television, but let’s face it, Dark Shadows was a saving grace. Not so much for the show itself, because it was still a soap opera, vampires and werewolves notwithstanding. But rather, because it was so successful that producer Dan Curtis got the go-ahead to adapt some classic novels into made-for-television movies. In addition to Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde and Dracula, he also managed to crank out a fine version of Frankenstein starring Bo Svenson as the monster.

No, I’m not kidding.

The production is claustrophobic, shot on a shoestring budget, with video lighting and no sense of scale to any of the shots. The whole thing feels like you’re watching a theatrical production, and that makes the suspension of disbelief hard to overcome. But Curtis stuck to the book, much in the same way he did with Dracula and Dr. Jeckyl. I know you don’t believe me. But if you’re looking for Literary Frankenstein, this is about as close as you’re going to come until someone comes along and shoots the novel as a mini-series, which is honestly what needs to happen.

(bonus) Young Frankenstein (1975)
You can’t talk about Frankenstein without talking about Young Frankenstein. This is Mel Brook’s greatest achievement, and certainly a high point in his collaboration with Gene Wilder. Their working together was like catching lighting in a bottle. Yeah, a FRANKENSTEIN-SHAPED BOTTLE! Boom! They got to use Universal's original sets and props, and that alone lent a lot of weight to this gag-a-minute movie that more or less keeps the general ideas set forth in the original Karloff movie.

Everyone in the film is funny in their own way, from Marty Feldman to Madelyn Kahn and all points in between. And the film is nearly as quotable as The Big Lebowski. If you haven’t seen this movie, you simply must. Don’t believe anyone who tells you Space Balls or Robin Hood: Men in Tights or even Blazing Saddles is a better Mel Brooks  movie. It’s not. They are all wrong and I can prove it with math. Young Frankenstein is better than all of the others and is required viewing for horror and comedy fans.
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