Sunday, January 24, 2010

It's Alive! Alive!

Films: Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Young Frankenstein
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library (Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein), DVD from Highland Community College Library through interlibrary loan (Young Frankenstein), all on big ol’ television.

Movie conventions all start somewhere, and in the case of cinematic visions and variations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus, they all start from James Whale’s 1931 classic Frankenstein. At times, as is the case here, the conventions become so well known and so completely a part of the culture and architecture of our world that we lose sight of where these things came from. Think of almost everything you know about Frankenstein as a story. Virtually everything you know comes not from Shelley’s book, but James Whale’s film.

For instance, in Shelley’s book, there is no windmill laboratory. There’s no hunchbacked assistant named Igor (more on this later). There’s no laboratory filled with giant electrodes and machinery designed to expose the monster to a storm. These things, all of which seem to have become a part of what we all expect in a Frankenstein story, are from the movie.

This is a story you should already know. Essentially, a man wants to investigate the mysteries of what causes life. To do this, he robs a few graves, cuts down a few men from the gallows, and cobbles together a new body, which he brings to life with the power of a gigantic storm and a few handy electrodes. The monster escapes, terrorizes the countryside, and is eventually hunted down by peasants wielding pitchforks and torches.

Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is the mad creator, and he brings the monster (Boris Karloff) to life not in private, but with an audience consisting of his hunchbacked assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye), his former professor Dr. Waldman (Edward van Sloan), his best friend Victor Moritz (John Boles), and his fiancée Elizabeth (Mae Clarke). He and Waldman study the creature for a time until Henry breaks down after the creature kills the sadistic Fritz (Fritz, not Igor). Left on his own, Waldman plans to dissect the monster, but is killed instead when the creature is improperly sedated on the operating table. The monster then escapes and terrorizes the countryside.

Much of the movie concerns itself with the chase of the monster and the monster’s crimes, but until the last part of the film, the monster is played sympathetically by Karloff. In fact, even while the monster goes on his rampage, much of it is caused by misunderstanding or a simple lack of knowledge on the part of the creature. Karloff’s performance is masterful because it is so tragically human, and while he never speaks and is off-screen for much of the film, it is he who drives the action.

There are, naturally, significant differences between the book and the movie. The book, for instance, is told in flashback, and the nature of the monster’s creation is never elucidated. The story takes place somewhere vaguely in Europe, while the book occurs in Switzerland. There is no assistant. Even the names have changed. In Shelley’s book, Frankenstein’s name is Victor, and his best friend is named Henry Clerval. Here, he is named Henry, and his friend is Victor. But the thrust of the story is the same—that the person of Dr. Frankenstein is a promethean figure who dabbled too much in things that were better left alone.

Of course, once started, such desires to create life cannot be quickly squashed, which brings us to the first of many sequels: Bride of Frankenstein. The name of this film is somewhat misleading, since it concerns itself with the bride of the monster rather than the bride of Frankenstein himself. This film has the rare distinction of being arguably better than the original that spawned it.

The story follows along the same basic lines of the original film. We start with the personages of Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron discussing Mary Shelley’s book. By way of exposition, Byron covers the high points of the original movie, claiming that they come directly from Mary’s work, a bit of a laugh for anyone who has read Shelley’s original work. As her new story begins, since this is essentially told as if she were relating the tale to Byron and her husband, we discover that the monster survived the fire in the windmill, and that Henry Frankenstein survived his fall from the top of the windmill.

While Henry (still played by Colin Clive) recovers from his ordeal, he is visited by a Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger). Pretorius claims to have discovered the secret to creating life as well. He demonstrates this by showing Henry his creations, which are tiny, perfectly formed people. Pretorius claims that rather than animating dead tissue, he generated his little people from inorganic matter in the same way nature does, by growing them. His desire is to create a woman as a mate for Henry’s original creature, because while his own creatures are more attractive and in some sense more pure, Dr. Frankenstein was able to create something of significant size.

The monster (still played by Boris Karloff) continues to roam the countryside, and when spotted by a shepherdess, is again hunted down by an angry peasant population. The monster is captured and almost immediately escapes, much to the dismay of constant comic relief, Minnie (Una O’Connor). The monster eventually comes across an old blind beggar, who takes him in, and teaches him to speak.

When he is discovered in the beggar’s cottage, the monster leaves, robs a grave, and returns to Frankenstein’s castle. He demands that, since he is alone but has now known a friend, that Pretorius create a mate for him, a mate created in the same way he was, and played by an uncredited Elsa Lanchester, who is listed on the cast list as just a question mark. When Pretorius doesn’t run from him immediately, the monster is convinced that he has found another friend. Frankenstein is much more difficult to convince. In fact, he is forced into helping despite his recent marriage to Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson).

Pretorius has grown a new, unused brain in his lab. What he needs is Frankenstein to create the body, coercion created by the presence of the monster. Naturally, Henry is disturbed by the appearance of his creation, but agrees to help because of threats against himself and, in particular, against Elizabeth, who is stolen away by the monster to act as a hostage.

Whale’s second film works in many ways because it is more terrible and tragic than the first, but also contains little touches of humor throughout. This is a serious film, but is not so serious that it doesn’t intentionally inject levity throughout, often in the person of Minnie. Some of the classic Frankenstein tropes come from here as well, such as the henchman shouting about the storm being ready.

The basic Frankenstein formula has spawned a number of additional stories, some good and many, many bad. Of all of them, if I’m honest with myself, the best is Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein. Despite my personal love for a film like The Re-Animator, the parody still is the most interesting and best film in the genre that isn’t one of the original two.

Here, we have a new Dr. Frankenstein (Gene Wilder), who so wants to distance himself from the actions of his grandfather that he pronounces his last name as “Fronkensteen.” A gifted neurosurgeon, he inherits the entirety of the Frankenstein estate where he encounters many of the trappings of the original story. He says goodbye to his fiancée Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn) and heads off to Transylvania. He is quickly introduced to Eye-gor (Marty Feldman), the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein’s original hunchbacked servant. He also encounters the sexy Inga (Terri Garr), Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman) whose name causes horses to whinny, and Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars), whose most distinguishing characteristic is his mechanical right arm.

Once at the castle, Dr. Frankenstein the younger discovers the original lab of his grandfather as well as all of the notes on the creation of his original monster. Eye-gor goes out to find an appropriate brain for the monster, but comes back with an abnormal one, which naturally causes the monster (Peter Boyle) to be much less than he wanted.

The reason that Young Frankenstein works as well as it does is because it includes many of the same scenes that are in the original two films. For instance, the blind beggar scene in Bride of Frankenstein is brilliantly parodied here with Gene Hackman in the role of the blind man, who in short order dumps hot soup in the creatures lap, smashes his wine glass, and lights his thumb on fire, all in the guise of attempting to be friendly.

What also makes Young Frankenstein work is the combination of both broad and subtle humor. There are dozens of little touches thrown in that aren’t necessarily obvious right away, but that add significantly to the general tone of the film. For instance, Inspector Kemp wears an eyepatch and a monocle on the same eye, a subtle comedic touch that is never questioned or referenced throughout the film. This is Mel Brooks at his best because it is Mel Brooks before he started applying every joke he made with a sledgehammer.

Filmmakers who currently create films that they call parodies should take a good long look at the connection between Young Frankenstein and the two films that are its source. Young Frankenstein works not because it does the opposite of the original films, but because it does the same thing skewed just a few degrees to one side or the other. It works because the parody is funny for those who know little of the original story and funnier for those know more.

Why to watch Frankenstein: The best of the reanimation films and the source of virtually all of the Frankenstein tropes.
Why not to watch: I can’t think of a single reason not to watch.

Why to watch Bride of Frankenstein: More mad science, more comedy, more horrific.
Why not to watch: You like your reanimation films without comedy.

Why to watch Young Frankenstein: You’ve seen the originals and want to see another side of the story.
Why not to watch: You have no sense of humor.

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