Written by Monster Awareness Month team member: Robert Hood
It’s one of the more famous misconceptions of our cultural zeitgeist that “Frankenstein” is the name of the monster. In fact, of course, Victor Frankenstein is the scientist who created the monster. The monster itself had no name. It was simply known as “the Creature”.
However, as we shall see, the misconception is not completely clueless. There is a symbiotic relationship between creator and created that the cultural phenomenon that is Frankenstein epitomizes at all levels.
The story of Frankenstein and his Creature was the work of Mary Wollstoncraft Godwin, by late 1816 the wife of quintessential romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Earlier that year Mary Godwin, Shelley, Lord Byron, Dr John William Polidori and Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont spent the summer at Lake Geneva. Stormy weather and the boredom of isolation led to an amusement by which each would (theoretically) write a supernatural tale with which to scare the company. Only two fulfilled their role in the pact; Polidori wrote The Vampyre and Mary produced Frankenstein; or, A Modern Prometheus (as it would be known when her tale grew into a novel and was published in 1818). The story of that notorious summer has been filmed several times. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) includes a sequence referencing it, while Ken Russell’s typically eccentric Gothic (1986) gives it full attention, as do several others.
Later, Mary Shelley described a dream she claimed was the inspiration for the story:
I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world (introduction to the 1831 edition of the novel).
This theme — of the scientist who usurps God’s prerogative as creator and is punished for it when his “unnatural creation” turns on him — is the one that is most frequently attached to the Frankenstein tale: know your place in the divine scheme or else. However, this is, in many ways, an over-simplification, emphasized in the second edition of the novel through various additions to the text. Originally, the horrors caused by the Creature could more correctly be attributed not to the hubris of Frankenstein’s success in creating life, but rather to his failure to take responsibility for his work. After all, it is after he is overcome with horror and rejects the Creature that it truly becomes a monster and vows revenge upon him.
The story was filmed early, as Frankenstein, in 1910, directed by J. Searle Dawley (view it here: http://www.archive.org/details/Frankenstein_628). An extremely popular stage adaptation was the inspiration for the most famous movie version, James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). In this, which remains an effective piece of cinema and an undoubted classic, it is Boris Karloff’s subtle and emotional performance as the monster that stays in the memory. Continually the dialogue tells us that it is the attempt to usurp God’s role that is the problem, but we see the desperate loneliness and despair on Karloff’s heavily made-up face and empathise with the monster as it seeks revenge on the one who made and then rejected it.
So successful was this film that it inspired Universal Studios to produce a whole run of Frankenstein films. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) followed, again directed by Whale. Most commentators consider this the greater of the two — in fact, one of the great movies of American cinema. Subsequent films in the “series” offer diminishing returns. They are: Son of Frankenstein (US-1939; dir. Rowland V. Lee); Ghost of Frankenstein (US-1942; dir. Erle C. Kenton); Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (US-1943; dir. Roy William Neill); House of Frankenstein (US-1944; dir. Eric C. Kenton); and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (US-1948; dir. Charles Barton). The last of these represents the beginning of the end of the second great period of horror cinema, as the multiple-monster mash-up approach (in itself a desperate move to redress falling audience numbers) gave way to treating the monsters as objects of humour rather than horror. It should be said, however, that this particular film still works remarkably well, with its canny blend of comedy and horror.
In these Universal Frankenstein films, the consistent element is the monster — firstly played by Karloff and then less successfully by others, including Bela Lugosi (who, in a fit of ego-driven miscalculation, had refused the role first up on the grounds that the monster had no dialogue, only grunts), Lon Chaney Jr and Glenn Strange. The impact of the “interfering with God/nature will destroy us” theme was gradually lost to the demands of franchising as the story became increasingly clichéd, though the generic scifi monster films of the 1950s readily took the theme to heart.
In the late 1950s when Hammer films started their successful foray into cinematic horror — and in the process dragged the whole horror film industry out of the doldrums – the story they started with was Frankenstein. At this point the focus moved away from the monster. As they couldn’t obtain permission from Universal to use the now-iconic make-up design of the famous Karloff version, Hammer were forced to concentrate on the good doctor himself (played by Peter Cushing) rather than on his creation. The Doctor therefore becomes the monster.
The director of the series was Terence Fisher (on all but the third), and his Frankenstein films, taken as a whole, represent my favourite variant on the novel. The films are: Curse of Frankenstein (1957); Revenge of Frankenstein (1958); The Evil of Frankenstein (1964); Frankenstein Created Woman (1967); Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969); and Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1974). Without Fisher’s input The Evil of Frankenstein feels like a ring-in, though as directed by Fisher’s cinematographer Freddie Francis it is competent enough. Hammer also made another Frankenstein film, The Horror of Frankenstein, in 1970 (directed by Jimmy Sangster), but it is a darkly humorous variant that is not related to Fisher’s “series” at all.
Generally, it’s Hammer’s Dracula films that get the kudos, but in my opinion, the Frankenstein films are Fisher’s greatest achievement, particularly when taken as a sequence rather than as individual works. There is a definite development that takes place, with Dr Frankenstein himself as the central protagonist/antagonist. His love-him/hate-him character is developed as the series progresses — with the relative moralities being explored and themes of class structure and responsibility high on the agenda. Often Cushing’s Dr Frankenstein is seen as a man out of his time, misunderstood and hounded by the ignorant, and conservative, scientific community. He is up against a particular (and failing) social ethos – a class system based on aristocratic privilege – that is fighting for its life, though what he offers in return is an utterly pragmatic and amoral power structure that is equally self-serving and in the end self-destructive: he represents the modern scientific worldview that replaces the old feudal one. In one of the films he even becomes his own creation! It is all fairly dark.
The last film (Monster from Hell) was finished mere weeks before the director’s death and really does represent a pessimistic view. The fact that it is set in an asylum and that the only sympathetic characters are a young deaf-mute woman who is gang-raped by the inmates and exploitatively destroyed, and the monster, who helps her and is literally torn to bits by the mob, says heaps about what Fisher felt as regards the moral possibilities inherent in the modern world.
At any rate, these films were the beginnings of the modern horror film and set the basis for what was to come.
There was a rush of great (and greatly bad) exploitation horror films based on Frankenstein in the 1970s and 1980s — often Italian. One of the best is Andy Warhol’s Flesh for Frankenstein (1973), directed by Paul Morrissey according to the credits, through really it was Italian exploitation master Antonio Margheriti who did the deed. Filmed in 3D, no less, it’s real “liver-in-your-lap” stuff (as one critic described it), and totally immoral.
There have also been assorted rather bizarre variants featuring the Frankenstein character, with Frankenstein and/or his Creature in the old West, such as Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (US-1966; dir. William Beaudine), and I Was A Teenage Frankenstein (US-1959; dir. Herbert L. Strock), which uses the monster as a metaphor for socially conditioned teenage acne … um, make that angst … and its attendant traumas, and lots of others, right up to the present. I have to mention Frankenhooker (US-1990; dir. Frank Henenlotter), in which a young man whose girlfriend has been killed by a lawn mower, scavenges bits from hookers — who die through ingestion of a sort of explosive form of cocaine – in order to re-build her, and ends up creating a Frankenstein monster with a strong sexual appetite and street-walker clothes (as well as stitches). Another oddity is Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, which started life in 1984 as a short animated film about a boy and his re-constructed dog and is currently in production as a full-length film, due in 2012.
Like these, many films don’t actually remake the earlier films or offer versions of the novel, so much as riff on the most iconic elements of them. The Monster Squad (US-1987; dir. Fred Dekker), for example, a entertaining horror-comedy pastiche from the 1980s, re-envisioned all the universal monsters (including the Creature from the Black Lagoon) — in a film in which the monster teams up with a gang of kids to defeat Dracula’s world-conquering ambitions. Van Helsing (US-2004; dir. Stephen Sommers) does something similar, though a lot less successfully.
One of the most bizarre referencings of Frankenstein is in Frankenstein Conquers the World (Japan-1965) by Godzilla director Ishirô Honda) [aka Furankenshutain tai chitei kaijû Baragon] and its sequel, War of the Gargantuas (Japan-1966) [aka Furankenshutain no kaijû: Sanda tai Gaira] (also by Honda). These are daikaiju eiga, Japanese giant monster films. The premise is this: A Nazi ship carries the still-beating heart of the monster to Hiroshima for study toward the end of the War, just before the Bomb is dropped. In the ruins, post-Bomb, the heart is eaten by a scavenging vagrant kid, who subsequently gets bigger and bigger and escapes into the backwoods. Eventually he grows to the size of Godzilla (thanks to all that mutagenic radiation) but retains his passing resemblance to Frankenstein’s monster. Fantastic!
One Dr Who episode directly draws upon the Frankenstein story, The Brain of Morbius. In this Tom Baker story, a renegade Time Lord scientist is building himself a new body from the corpses of unfortunate space travellers who happen upon his planet. The four-part story is very gothic and very dark, with a definite Hammer horror vibe. It was “banned” from being screened on Australian television during the show’s ordinary, children’s time-slot.
Homages to Frankenstein are often homages to the 1931 Frankenstein film rather than to the story itself. Mel Brooke’s Young Frankenstein (1974) is essential viewing for its referencing and loving parody of the Universal film tradition of Frankenstein, while TV series such as X-Files and more recently Fringe are willing enough to pay their dues. The X-Files episode, “Postmodern Prometheus”, filmed in lovely black-and-white, is a thorough tribute to the Universal film tradition, but also (as the title suggests) explores some of the novel’s moral/ethical issues.
Several TV mini-series/telemovies have attempted to extend the book itself. One of the best is Frankenstein: The True Story (1973), which concentrates on the doppelgänger aspect of the tale (you know, the monster is the doctor or a reflection thereof). Another is The House of Frankenstein (1993), which takes a sort of modern corporate slant – Frankenstein meets Dallas, as it were. Dean Koontz recently tried to get a Frankenstein series going, but failed and turned his proposal into an often decent book series instead.
And there’s always The Rocky Horror Picture Show: “In just seven days I’m gonna make you a man”…
Direct remakes and direct references to Frankenstein abound even to the present, though that doesn’t really encompass the totality of its influence. Science fiction films that depict robots, cyborgs or mutants turning against their creators — or which deal with themes of scientific responsibility — often carry more than a passing resemblance to Frankenstein. The Colossus of New York (US-1958; dir. Eugène Lourié), in which a scientist moves his friend’s mind into the body of a huge robot in order that his knowledge should not be lost, is a prime example. But to list even the most significant would keep us here all day. Enough that in an age where real scientific research can earn the epithet “Frankenscience”, the Frankenstein story still carries not just cultural importance but also a warning that the central issues of the story are more vital than ever.
Frankenstein forces us to ask the question: are our creations inevitably monsters or are the negative consequences of positive research a reflection of our own failure to take proper responsibility for its development? After all, who in the end is the real monster, Frankenstein or his creation?