August 15, 2005

"To a new world of Gods and Monsters"

You may recognize the title of this as a toast given by Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein.

I haven't done a movie review in a while because I haven't watched many movies lately, and the ones I've seen have been unremarkable. But last week, thanks to my lovely wife, I scored a copy of Frankenstein: the Legacy Collection. I've been lusting after these since they came out, and I've already let Santa know that I expect the Dracula and Mummy sets for Christmas*.

But this isn't going to be a simple movie review, nor even just a review about the collection on DVD. Right now (and I may edit the heck out of this before I hit "publish"), this might best be described as a love letter to a dear old friend.

To many people, the term "horror movie" is interchangable with "slasher flick". I'm not a huge fan of blood and gore, preferring to be scared instead of grossed out (yes, I said that with a straight face, even though my movie collection contains more blood orgy's than the average).

Even within the horror genre there are sub-genres. Just as Dracula is the embodiment of supernatural evil and Alien has become the ultimate "creature" movie, Frankenstein's Monster is the ultimate monster character. Written by Mary Shelley** at the age of 19, the tale is less a horror story than a morality play about the consequences that result when man plays God.

Over time though, Frankenstein became a parody of itself. Mention the name and for most what comes forth in the mind's eye is a figure comprised of equal parts Herman Munster, Lurch and maybe Peter Boyle's comic portayal in Young Frankenstein. All fun, but none of them are even close to the original. Many people don't even recognize the original story when they see pieces of it in other movies (I give Van Helsing big points for being fairly true to the original in it's opening scenes). For instance, that brilliant bit in Young Frankenstein about the abnormal brain? Mel Brooks lifted that scene almost verbatim from the original movie, and most people never even realized.

The various stage versions of Frankenstein were very popular, and when the film was released in 1931 starring Boris Karloff, it became a huge hit.

The film is riddled with anachronisms and peculiarities, yet it retains its underlying believability because everyone acts consistantly within the story. The village is full of peasants named Hans and Karl, and led by a Burgermeister, yet everyone speaks with a very British accent. Somehow it works, and it's not until later that you think to yourself, "just where the heck was all that supposed to have happened?" The answer supplied by Universal Studios was "alternate reality", which neatly explains away all the inconsistancies.

Frankenstein's Monster and Maria

I was pleased to find that the original version had been restored. In 1931 and again in later years during each rerelease, censors insisted on editing out scenes deemed too intense or inflamatory for the mores of the day. Unfortunately, these cuts also altered the story in significant ways. Probably the most famous of these edits involved the scene where the monster encounters Maria. What moviegoers originally saw was the monster looking at the little girl through the trees at the edge of the lake, then later the father carrying the body of the drowned child. The restored version shows how the child was unafraid of the monster and they played together tossing flowers into the water to watch them float. Innocently, the monster then tosses Maria into the lake, thinking she'll float too. The result is still tragic, but the motivation is revealed to be completely different, even sympathetic instead of evil.

Without going into the story beyond that, here's a one sentence review of the original version of Frankenstein: See it.

So how does one go about creating a sequel worthy of a megahit? First, you convince the original director to come back, then you bring back as much of the original cast as possible.

Thus, becomes 1935's Bride of Frankenstein.

This followup may be even better than the masterpiece it reprises. Once again, the keystone of the story is man inpinging upon God's purview, and the consequences of doing so. Rather than just recreating the style and mood of the original story, Bride is more in every sense. More humor, more pathos, more irony.

Dr. Frankenstein is recovering from his final encounter with the monster he created when he recieves a visit from an old acquaintance. Dr. Pretorius was one of Frankenstein's professors at the medical institute, one who was a main inspiration and motivator for Frankenstein's experiments.

Doctor Pretorius introduces elements to his character that evoke Hannibal Lecter more than fifty years before that human monster appeared. He is brilliant, urbane, witty, magnetic and utterly amoral. He shows Dr. Frankenstein the amazing progress he's made in his own experiments, and blackmails Frankenstein into combining their talents to advance even further.

The Bride of Frankenstein

I won't give any more of the story here, suffice it to say that there are plenty of peasants bearing torches, rampaging monsters and spectacular electrical effects in the laboratory. That's for the those who haven't seen it before (or recently). There's so much more to the story though, including religious references that pushed the limits of what the censors of the day would allow. This is an incredibly rich movie experience, and I haven't even talked about the bride.

Once again, in one sentence: See it!

On to the DVD collection itself. There are three more movies in the collection that I haven't gotten to yet: Son of Frankenstein, Ghost of Frankenstein and House of Frankenstein, along with hours of theatrical trailers, movie poster archives, production stills from scenes edited out of the movies, short subjects and commentary by film historians for the two films I talked about above. This isn't filler, it's an amazing amount of additional material that really adds to the package. All total, you get two disks in the package, and the second disk is double sided. I've heard that there were problems with the early packaging that resulted in some damaged and unplayable disks, but the issues mentioned seem to have been resolved in my set. I'll let you know if I run into any problems.

Ok, bottom line for the Frankenstein: the Legacy Collection: Folks, this set runs less than $30.00, and it's well worth it!

Movie Trivia: In the opening cast credits, The Monster is shown with a question mark instead of Boris Karloff's name. This is a tribute to the very first stage production of Frankenstein's Monster performed in 1823 (that's not a typo), when the actor who portrayed the monster was credited the same way.

Quick, what were Dr. Frankenstein's and his assistant's first names? If you said Viktor and Igor, you were wrong. The correct names were Henry Frankenstein and Fritz.

Bette Davis was considered for the role of Dr. Frankenstein's fiance.

Many consider the first horror film to be a fifteen minute long version of Frankenstein done by Thomas Edison's film studio in New York in 1910.

*I'm not so interested in the Wolfman or Invisible Man collections, although I'll admit to being intrigued by the Creature from the Black Lagoon set.

**Mary Shelley was travelling as Percy Shelley's lover at the time***. Percy Shelley is now considered one of England's greatest poets, and they were visiting with Lord Byron, another extraordinary poet. During the visit they experienced a powerful thunderstorm, which inspired Lord Byron to suggest that they each write a ghost story. Frankenstein was the only story from the group to be published.

***Technically, she was still Mary Godwin when she wrote the story. Shelley abandoned his wife and two children to run off with Mary Godwin. Soon, in the same year that Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus was published, Shelley's wife committed suicide, leaving the way open for him to make Mary Godwin his wife.

Posted by Ted at August 15, 2005 04:31 AM | TrackBack
Category: Cult Flicks

Pretty cool stuff,Ted.Just a couple of months ago we got a bunch of new channels and one of them was the Fox Movie channel.The very first thing I watched on that channel was a one hour documentary on the movie Young Frankenstein.They where comemorating the 30th anniversary of the movie I think.
Also,speaking of Mary Shelly,did you every see the movie Gothic?

Posted by: Russ at August 15, 2005 08:43 AM

I so love this stuff, great post, Ted!

If my memory serves (usually it just soaks in the Booze) that Summer when Mary wrote Frankenstein, John Polidori was also present. He later wrote "Vampyre" which featured the first documented account of an aristocratic vampire, generally believed to have been based upon Byron.

Yeah, I know that is irrelevant, but that is what popped into my head after reading your post.

I've always found it intriguing that in a season-long informal writing contest between Byron, Shelly, and Godwin, only "Frankenstein" was published.

Posted by: BLUE at August 15, 2005 10:51 AM

Absolutely correct about Polidori, Blue! I didn't remember (or didn't know) about his connection with the vampire mythos, very cool. The fifth member of the group was Mary Godwin's stepsister.

Russ, "Gothic" was really strange. I might still have it on a VHS tape, but it'd be an old old old copy.

Posted by: Ted at August 15, 2005 11:39 AM

I was just wondering if you had ever seen it.From what I understand it was about the night that Mary came up with the idea for Frankenstein.They did that a lot.Strange?I reckon opium does that to ya'.

Posted by: Russ at August 15, 2005 04:25 PM
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