Archive for June, 2012


First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Rear Window (1954). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, from the story by Cornell Woolrich. Starring James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Raymond Burr, Thelma Ritter. 112 minutes. *** 1/2

Rear Window (1998). Directed by Jeff Bleckner. Screenplay by Larry Gross and Eric Overmyer, from the story by Cornell Woolrich. Starring Christopher Reeve, Darryl Hannah, Robert Forster. 89 minutes. **

Other Related Films:  Too many ripoffs and homages to count, among them Disturbia (2007), which is so similar to Woolrich’s story that the owners of the film had to go to court to get a ruling that they hadn’t violated Rear Window’s copyright.

This one’s an oddity, folks: a remake that was actually based on a breathtakingly brilliant idea for a variation on a movie that was a classic to begin with, that nevertheless utterly failed to live up to its promise.

The source was the short story “It Had To Be Murder,” by suspense great Cornell Woolrich, all about a man temporarily laid up with a broken leg who has nothing better to do while he heals than look out the window and watch the lives of his neighbors. As it happens, one of those neighbors has a murderous secret involving the sudden disappearance of his wife. Our hero gradually pieces together the clues – all predicated on his neighbor’s odd behavior, all of which has other potentially innocent explanation — and ultimately brings the malefactor to justice.

There is no girlfriend in the story, no great emotional character arc linking the mystery to a pivotal crisis in the hero’s life. It’s just something that happens to him, something that makes his brief existence as an invalid a little more interesting than it might have been otherwise. (Other Woolrich stories are more emotionally fraught: the failure of SOME great moviemaker to adapt his horrific stunner, “Momentum,” remains a mystery.)  The subsequent movies required more, and are in at least case significantly more satisfying.

rear-window_cartel

The Original

The 1954 version written by John Michael Hayes and directed by Alfred Hitchcock presents us with the case of one L.B. (nickamed “Jeff”) Jefferies (James Stewart), an international action photographer who is laid up in his rarely-used Greenwich Village after getting a killer photo of a race car wreck, which he evidently got from standing in the road while the twisted wreckage spun ass-over-teakettle toward him. (In a sense: serves him right). We gather from much of the dialogue about his activities, taking photos in hot spots around the world, that getting the impossibly dangerous shot is his specialty. The man is a danger junkie, now confined to a wheelchair and about to go crazy as he waits the last few days for his cast to be taken off. He’s an action hero reduced to inaction hero. He has nothing better to do than to look out the rear window and watch the lives of his neighbors.

The courtyard his tiny apartment overlooks is one of the great indoor sets in the entire history of the movies. It is a complete, living neighborhood in and of itself, comprised of a number of different buildings of different design, overlooking a central area where the inhabitants have carved out flower beds and little patches of lawn. There’s even an alley, through which Jeff can see the street, and passing cars. For the 112 minutes of the movie, the action never moves from this place, except to pull deeper into Jeff’s apartment where he has conversations of varying import with his visiting nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), his old war buddy Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey), and his socialite girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly), who is pressing him for further commitment.

The first thing to note here is that this is a guy who honestly cannot decide whether he wants to be married to Grace Kelly. This is a plot point that has appalled friends I’ve shown the film. But some men do flee domesticity, and one of the grand, subtle jokes of the vast multi-layered tableau that fes Jeff as he looks out his window and spies on the outside world is that every single life he spies upon presents him with another possible future, depending on whether he says yea or nay to Lisa. There’s the pair of ardent honeymooners, pulling down the shades and initiating an implied marathon love-making session that seems to go sour after only a couple of days; there’s “Miss Lonelyhearts,” the miserable woman stuck in a particularly miserable and increasingly despairing singlehood; there’s “Miss Torso,” the good-time party gal who always has men hanging around and represents the erotic opportunities Jeff might enjoy if he ever lets Lisa go; there’s the middle-aged couple with the little dog, who every night drag their mattresses out to the fire escape and snore away in relative comfort, all sense of passion gone; and finally, there’s the Thorvalds, whose marriage has turned toxic, and who have so little to say to one another that they’re almost always visibly in separate rooms, framed by different windows. It’s worth noting that nowhere in this slice of life are there any children. Children would fall outside the metaphor, which is like all great dramatic metaphors felt without any particular effort to underline it. What Jeff sees is very firmly the face of Jeff’s dilemma.
  
The second thing to note here is that all of these spied-upon characters have an arc of sorts, played with perfect modulation as the drama in the Thorvald apartment – where the much put-upon husband (Raymond Burr) appears to have offed his wife – takes center stage. Almost all of them pay off. So does the drama in Jeff’s apartment, where in between banter with Stella and romantic complications with Lisa, he resists and then embraces his obsession with Thorvald’s apparent crime. It’s a marvelously layered film, with comedy and relationship drama and even questions over the creepiness of Jeff’s activities all braided together in a tapestry of remarkable design. These days, some viewers may find it requires patience. But it rewards that patience. I don’t think it has a single dull moment, and key among its best attributes is the way the clues to Mrs. Thorvald’s murder don’t just pile up in some facile way, but at times offer competing explanations, and reasons to turn away.

Nor is Jeff given a free ride on the moral issues. His voyeurism – hardly asexual, but certainly bored – is criticized by everybody in his circle, and the movie takes delight in using this to indict the audience. The moral issues are so nuanced that it is even possible to feel sorry for Thorvald, after everything Jeff has put him through in order to prove his case. Thorvald is not an evil man, per se; just a very unhappy, very weak, very trapped one who has done a horrendously evil thing, and when he confronts Jeff (who he presumes to be a blackmailer) with an anguished, “What do you want from me?”, that one line is likely the most empathetic moment of Raymond Burr’s career.

But then all the performances in the film work at an equal level. It is among the best films of James Stewart’s career and one of the best of Grace Kelly’s. Even the supporting players across the courtyard inhabit their roles with grace and a deep sense of humor.
 
It’s very nearly a perfect film, and though it’s been imitated a dozen times, it’s hard to think of any wrinkle that would even stand a chance of improving on it.

Enter Christopher Reeve.

The Remake

The sad but stirring twist in the life of Christopher Reeve is so well known that it need not be recapped here; suffice it to say that I concur with author Brad Meltzer’s take on the man, that he achieved fame by playing the indestructible Superman and greatness standing in the mortality of all of us Clark Kents.

I don’t hold with the popular wisdom that Reeve was never great on screen except as Superman; I would argue that he was pretty damn chilling as a sociopathic playwright in Deathtrap, and pretty damn good a couple of other times. He was certainly no liability in Remains Of The Day opposite Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. performed in front of the camera on several occasions following the terrible accident that made him a quadriplegic, and was therefore a natural when somebody hit upon the startling brainstorm of casting him as the lead in an updated Rear Window. Why wouldn’t it work? Jeff in the original is pretty damned vulnerable as a man of action who has been sidelined by a mere broken leg; how much more helpless will his character be, when he cannot move a muscle under his shoulders, and requires live-in help just to get a cup of water when he wants one? Wouldn’t that ramp up the scares even more?

This is not a unique idea. As it happens, there is an entire subgenre of what we’ll now call “handicap thrillers,” involving physically impaired characters who must overcome their limitations in order to overcome the evil intentions of various murderers and thugs. Among them: the terrifying Wait Until Dark, which starred Audrey Hepburn in the adaptation of the Broadway play about a “world champion blind woman” terrorized by gangsters searching for a cache of drugs in her apartment;  See No Evil, which pit a blind Mia Farrow against another murderous plot; and Mute Witness, about a woman who…well, you can figure out the rest. There are even other thrillers featuring lead characters in wheelchairs. Hell, thriller writer Jeffery Deaver has written a pretty damn terrific series of novels about his quadriplegic forensic scientist Lincoln Rhyme, one of which was made into an unfortunately not-very-good movie with Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie.

The inherent claustrophobia of Rear Window should have worked wonders with the predicament applied to a quadriplegic, and with a quadriplegic we all loved in the lead.

And this much needs to be said: in spurts, Reeve is terrific. He always excelled at the dazzling smile during an emotionally vulnerable moment, and has several opportunities to pull off that trick here. Throughout this film, he has scenes that play off the heartbreaking realities of life as a one-time vital person reduced to immobility, including one where he regards a closet teeming with clothes that he will likely never wear again. Early scenes, with him in the hospital bleakly wishing he was dead, are downright painful to watch, in light of our certain knowledge that Reeve lived those moments and felt those feelings.

But – and boy, do I feel like a heel for advancing this case – he also sabotaged this movie’s effectiveness as a thriller from the get-go.

The problem is that, by the time it was made,  Reeve was quite rightly an advocate for spinal cord research, and for state-of-the-art medical treatments for people with spinal cord injury…and as such, acutely aware that this movie, by far his most substantial acting role after the accident, was the best place to advocate for his cause. So he made demands, and nobody involved with the production had the heart or the good sense to say no to him. So it begins with him in the hospital, features him declaring that he will walk again someday, and includes scenes of him undergoing arduous physical rehabilitation to triumphant music long before he even gets to the apartment where he will observe the murder across the way.

This is absolutely fine if you’re making an issues drama of the challenges faced by quadriplegics, less fine if you’re making a thriller – a short TV movie, no less – where all these scenes take time and bleed tension from the story you’re supposed to be here to tell. Another problem arising from this is that, as a result of all this can-do spirit, the character he plays is exactly the same at the beginning of the movie as he is at the end; he doesn’t rise to the occasion, and he doesn’t learn about himself. His character arc is a straight line.

The story might have worked better if Reeve had been a despairing recent quad who imagined he had little to live for, for most of the film, and was brought back to some interest in life by his engagement with the murder scene across the street…a natural plot development given how many quads attempt suicide in the early years of their disability – but such attention to emotional realities, or at least dramatic ones, would have interfered with his personal mission to make this a hidden advocacy film.

Reeve’s advocacy harmed the film in another way. At the time, he also said he wanted to show the kind of tech available, to aid quadriplegics in living fulfilled lives. So there’s a lot of that, in his character’s home: including voice-activated computers that control the lights, the elevator, the phones, and so on. His character has an attendant in residence at all times, a fulfilling career with partners who respect him, and a beautiful woman who by the end of the movie will fall in love with him. This is all nice stuff to have. It doesn’t replace a functioning body, but it makes the transition to a disabled life as easy as it can be. So what we have, here, is quadriplegia as Christopher Reeve lived it – which, while it functions as drama, is absolute death when it comes to a film of suspense. Imagine he was a quad of more modest resources, living on disability, in a cramped space with only limited assistance – and THEN suspected that a murder was taking place across the street. This guy can afford to set up surveillance equipment, just in case he misses anything – and, by the way, unlike the original film’s protagonist, whose voyeurism bothered his nurse, his girlfriend, and his cop buddy, this guy’s video cameras are treated as cool stuff by almost everybody concerned. The voyeuristic aspects never receive substantive criticism.

Time hasn’t been kind to the concept, either. In 1954, the rarity of air conditioning – a factor in other Hitchcock movies discussed here in the past– meant that it was perfectly reasonable for the residents of a middle-class apartment complex to live their lives in full view, playing out entire dramas in view of their windows. In 1998, it doesn’t make nearly as much sense…especially since the Hitchcock provided a far more spacious courtyard with apartments set at varying angles and not the direct-line-of-sight posited by this movie. Also – as any thriller writer will tell you – the invention of the cellular telephone has been absolute hell on plotting, and its inclusion in the remake is no exception. Too, the killer here is a one-dimensional designated asshole, not nearly as interesting or as oddly sympathetic as Raymond Burr was in the original.

Finally, there is no wonderfully complex courtyard across the way: just a single dull edifice that fills Reeve’s line of sight and offers him what amounts to a collection in television sets in the form of conveniently-placed windows. There is no comparison to what we were given in  1954. It’s flat, in every sense of the word.
 
This was not Reeve’s worst remake of a notable film: his last movie as a fully-abled man was a terrible version of Village of The Damned, and we will someday cover his participation in a truly unfortunate version of The Front Page. (It was called Switching Channels, and he played opposite Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner.) All we can say of this one is that it just didn’t work.

The View From The Apartment

1954 version, an undisputed classic. 1998 version, a missed opportunity.

*

And now, I watch from cover as the wife engages in sinister activities…

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Rear Window (1954). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, from the story by Cornell Woolrich. Starring James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Raymond Burr, Thelma Ritter. 112 minutes. *** 1/2

Rear Window (1998). Directed by Jeff Bleckner. Screenplay by Larry Gross and Eric Overmyer, from the story by Cornell Woolrich. Starring Christopher Reeve, Darryl Hannah, Robert Forster. 89 minutes. **

Other Related Films: Too many ripoffs and hommages to count, among them Disturbia (2007), which is so similar to Woolrich’s story that the owners of the film had to go to court to get a ruling that they hadn’t violated Rear Window’s copyright.

I so wanted to like the 1998 rethink of Rear Window.  I mean come on it had Superman starring and proving he just might really be.  Besides, the original was really showing a few grey hairs (not just the one’s previously claimed by Jimmy Stewart). But, alas, it was not to be.

In 1954, and even up to the mid 70’s, it may have been commonplace for someone to become a temporary voyeur via injury or illness.  Boredom had fewer releases than today, little television, no computers or video games.  Books were limited at most libraries by budget and distance to said library.  And most magazines came out monthly, so a long convalescence had a lot of downtime.  So its believable that the Stewart character could easily start watching his summertime neighbors and playing mind games with himself.  Its even possible that those same folks might not notice him watching, or could pass it off as just a friendly guy at his window.  Creepy neighbor watching became the meme much later.

The things I find totally unbelievable for that time or EVER, is that any straight man, whether injured or not, rich or poor, or whatever, could have Grace Kelly in her most gorgeous state, throwing herself at him (and wantonly at that) and he can resist and actually ignore her!  PUHLEEZE!  Dude didn’t have a broken leg, They were feeding him large quantities of saltpeter.  Next, the home nurse never insists he leave the apartment, just cleans him up and lets him hobble about his two rooms.  Six to eight weeks in solitary confinement?  Is that doctor recommended?

Now, how about that remake?  I can believe that architect Christopher Reeve has enough cash reserve for all the wondrous toys both medical and electronic he buys after his accident.  I’m sure he had much better access than the average newly paralyzed patient and just figured he could walk back into (so to speak) his job and most of his old life.  Ummm…  ??? How?  Most of his firm’s partners would attempt to block him from anything to do with the job or the public and claim it was for his own sake. 

Now, how about the crux of each thriller, the supposed murder of the neighbor’s wife.

In both films the murder is based on the supposition that a disappearing wife meant a murder had been committed.  Neither is proven conclusively, but both disabled leads taunt the murderer into a full on attack.  In the 1954 film, I honestly believe that Jimmy Stewart, hobbled or not, had a fighting chance against Raymond Burr. Not so with Chris Reeves.  How could he?  His ability to defend himself was purely run and hide.  he couldn’t draw a gun or knife on his attacker, he could only call 911 if that.  The suspense was only if he could breathe long enough for help to arrive.  In other words, uhh, no really.

So, to sum up.  1998 had a good try at an update, but needed less disability to keep the suspense alive.  1954 needed a leading character who wasn’t wearing a giant “L” on his forehead for the whole film.

The Worm In The Apple

Posted: June 26, 2012 in Uncategorized

A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

Okay, folks, so here’s a case of my common sense and my professional knowledge trumping the emotional reaction the local media would like me to have.

The warmhearted news story teased by the local TV report involved “the youngest professional author in the United States.”

After the commercial, we are gushingly introduced to a nine-year-old girl who likes writing stories more than anything. She h…as published several books of short stories available in stores in South Florida. She certainly does seem to have the creative bug. She says she would rather write than do anything else with her life. I know the feeling.

We are then provided a few sound bites from her supportive Dad, who says that his daughter was always into writing and that when he saw she was getting scary good, he wrapped up one of her manuscripts and sent it to a publisher. The rest is history.

The little girl reads from one of her story books, a single line – it is impossible to imagine local TV sitting still for more – that with that single line establishes that something is wrong with this picture. It’s about a little boy who is “the most unique” little boy the narrator has ever met.
Ouch. But okay. She’s nine. Maybe she’ll get better. We move on.

The report concludes with a close-up of one of her books. It’s from Publishamerica.

Ahhh.

Folks, I really don’t want to get too cruel about this. It’s absolutely terrific that this little girl has the creative urge and that her father encourages it. It is even better that he has done the exhaustive legwork and gotten her opuses into a handful of local stores. You won’t find me being cynical about any of that. More power to them. I’ll buy that over enrolling the kid in beauty pageants. It’s cheaper, for one thing.

But it doesn’t take very much knowledge to find the worm in this apple, and shatter the feel-good illusion. I happen to know that Publishamerica pays a token one dollar advance. It more than makes up that money by selling copies of the book printed on demand to any friends or relatives who want any. No doubt this book is a best-seller among grandparents and indulgent uncles. Publishamerica, who will **take anybody**, counts on that.

This girl has done the equivalent of sing “Happy Birthday” in an arcade karaoke booth which spits out a burned CD. Which is fine. But if she’d done that, she would not have local TV news representing her as a local singing sensation. Instead, she wrote some books, is indulged in this by relatives willing to buy copies, and is represented by local TV news as being a professional author and a publishing sensation. To anybody who knows anything about publishing, the story is transparently an illusion…but this was no doubt NOT perceived by the vast majority of people who watched the report.

She is not a “professional writer.” The report is fiction.


A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

Look.

It’s this simple.

Every movie is like every work of art is like every diamond in that it contains flaws, often necessary flaws.

CASABLANCA, for instance, entirely depends on the importance everybody imparts to the “letters of transit,” legal documents that are never asked for, and that the Nazis could have freely ignored by saying fuck it and dropping Victor in some alley in the dead of night. CITIZEN KANE depends on a newspaper launching a full-scale investigation of last words a dying tycoon spoke when he was alone, that nobody else was present to hear.  DIE HARD depends entirely on Hans Gruber not announcing that he will kill one hostage every thirty seconds until John McLane gives up. Flaws. Undeniable flaws. Flaws that ultimately don’t matter, but flaws nevertheless.

The nearly-universal drubbing people have been giving PROMETHEUS has prompted some plaintive responses from people who liked the film, who implore us, “Can’t I just like it? Why do you insist on ruining my enjoyment with your critical disdain?”

Answer: first of all, if your enjoyment is ruined with our critical disdain, your enjoyment is more fragile than you think, and it says something that your visceral reaction to the film is being harmed by what people say about it afterward. Maybe that pain in your head is sensible criticisms striking home, and the scales falling from your eyes.

Second: there’s nothing wrong with having the courage of your convictions. I like any number of films with an overwhelmingly negative critical consensus; I either think the critics and the audiences missed the boat, or I find other attributes that trump legitimate criticisms. It doesn’t mean I’m right and everybody else is wrong, though it can. It can also mean that my own opinion is completely off. It most often means that we’re looking at different facets of the whole and valuing them differently — the “Well, I know it makes no sense whatsoever, but the visuals are awesome” argument, that indeed works very well for this particular movie.

Third: if you are asking everybody else to indulge you by completely shutting off their own critical capacities in order to coddle your enjoyment of the pretty pictures: no. absolutely not. Complete abdication of all critical capacities and standards, as long as the pictures are pretty and the stars are photogenic, is in large part how we got all the way from the era of classic Hollywood filmmaking — *any* of those eras, in that there have been more than one — to what, for the most part, faces us now.

If you liked PROMETHEUS, you had a good two hours. Fine. Nobody hates you for it. They may think you’re screwed in the head because of it, but they shrug and move on to the next movie to argue about. In the meantime, the rest of us have the right to be vocally appalled by a setup that defies common sense, characters who consistently do the stupidest possible thing, a screenplay that seems to have failed at the premise level, and the most hackneyed of science-fictional revelations treated as if they’re unbearably mind-blowing. Me, I *did* love the visuals and *did* love the ending where Elizabeth decides she wants nothing more than to pursue the Architects to the end of the universe, because she damn well deserves answers…so, no, I don’t judge the film a total loss. Just a near-total one.

And I don’t think I’m being out of line when I want my movies to be of sufficient quality that I don’t walk away feeling conned, afterward. I want brain candy in addition to eye candy. I want an emotional experience. I miss, deeply miss, and still occasionally get, the sensation that I’ve just seen something brilliant. Given how many millions are being spent to give me that experience and how much I’m asked for in order to get my ticket, it’s really not too much to ask for.

I say to those of you who think we should just shut up and accept what we get that the solution is not to learn how to shut up and accept what we get. 


Quick Explanation: From time to time, venerable properties already covered in this space will be remade again, prompting additional thoughts. This essay is hereby updated to cover Danny Boyle’s filmed stage version.

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Frankenstein aka Edison’s Frankenstein (1910). Directed by J. Searle Dawley. Written by J. Searle Dawley, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Augustus Phillips, Charles Ogle, Mary Fuller. 16 minutes. **.

Frankenstein (1931). Directed by James Whale. Written by Frances Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort, from the play by Peggy Webling and novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, John Boles, Mae Clarke. 71 minutes. *** 1/2

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Directed by Terence Fisher. Written by Jimmy Sangster, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court, Robert Urquhart. 83 minutes. ***

Frankenstein aka Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994). Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro, Helena Bonham Carter, Ian Holm, Tom Hulce, John Cleese. 123 minutes. ** 1/2

National Theatre Live: Frankenstein (2011). Directed by Danny Boyle. Filmed Play by Nick Dear, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. Approximately 2 hours. ****

Other Versions and Sequels: Too many to list, including a large number of sequels to both the 1931 and 1957 versions, TV-movies, breakfast serials, sitcoms like The Munsters and parodies like Young Frankenstein and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

*

Even if you know better, the first image to leap into your mind is almost certainly the wrong one.

Somebody says “Frankenstein,” and before you can remind yourself that Frankenstein was actually the name of the irresponsible (not necessarily “mad”) scientist, you flash on the image of the creature first embodied on film by the actor who was, in the opening credits at least, listed only as “?”: a hulking, flat-faced, walking corpse with bolts on his neck and a primal aversion to fire.

People persist in calling the guy with the clodhopping boots and dialogue that consists of a large number of variations on “Urrrrrrhhh!” Frankenstein, even after sequels like Son of Frankenstein (1939) took pains to include scenes that – showing a fair degree of irritation on the part of the screenwriters – explained the elemental difference to the audience one more time.

It’s probably a losing battle. To the public at large, the monster stitched together from various scavenged corpses will always have a name that sounds Jewish.

In truth, though, the nigh-total colonization of our collective imaginations by the 1931 version of the story, even among those of us who have never seen it and only know the various ways in which its central image has been echoed and repeated all the way down to the present day, the makeup first worn on-screen by one Boris Karloff is no more definitive a portrait of Frankenstein’s monster than any other. Mary Shelley, the remarkable teenager who first told the story, did not describe him in exhaustive detail. She simply wrote that he was about eight feet tall, horrific in appearance, and possessed a withered, translucent, yellowish skin that barely concealed his musculature and blood vessels. In the novel, as in several later versions, its unparalleled ugliness is what drove Frankenstein to suddenly come to his senses and flee in revulsion, leaving his creature to wander the earth alone, be treated with hatred and fear wherever it went, educate itself through a remarkably convenient encounters with books, and ultimately hate the man who brought it into existence only to abandon it; but having provided us with a modicum of description, Shelley then leaves the rest to the reader’s imagination, trusting us to envision a horror more personal than any we ever could.

This is of course not an option for moviemakers, who may tease the monster but must ultimately show him to us, ultimately giving us the opportunity to grow used to his grotesque features and perhaps grow to love them. In 1931, when Boris Karloff first appeared on screen as the monster, first backing into the room and then turning around to reveal his horrid visage, some audience members passed out in fright. By the time this essayist grew up in the 1960s, the same makeup formed the face of bumbling, loveable Herman Munster, in a sitcom suitable for small children. The Karloff version and its sequel used the decreasing impact borne of familiarity to fine dramatic effect. Others took an entirely different tack. The differences are remarkable given that they all started with the same source material, which to date has never been interpreted with complete fidelity.

“Edison’s Frankenstein” (1910)

The 1910 version was not, as some fanciful accounts would have it, “directed by Thomas Edison.” It was produced at a studio owned by Thomas Edison, whose company briefly produced films to go along with its motion picture cameras and projectors. An actual Edison-directed Frankenstein would be an interesting artifact; perhaps it would consist of backdated blueprints the company could use in a patent grab. Full-length motion pictures still lay in the future, thanks to the new technology’s status as toy and the widespread belief that nobody would ever sit still for any movie much more than ten minutes long, so the story is told in broad strokes, with acting that largely consists of outstretched hands and extreme pantomime, giving modern eyes the impression that nobody in these early films ever said anything unless they wanted to proclaim it to the heavens.

Thanks to the volatility and low life expectancy of silver nitrate film, as well as the blind belief by early dabblers in the form that the art was disposable and that any films that had completed their theatrical runs could be burned for their silver content, this nevertheless important artifact was considered lost for decades, before it turned up in the hands of a private collector. It still shows the ravages of time, unfortunately, but it can be followed with a little close attention. Here, for your pleasure, we imbed the entire epic.

Because the images no longer possess the clarity they once did, we also provide this still of Charles Ogle as the monster.

Looking back on this film a full century later, it is very possible to find grounds for laughter. The acting style is only part of it. For instance, Frankenstein’s letter to his beloved is downright funny to modern eyes, especially his tight-assed signature, “Frankenstein.” (Elizabeth must swoon.) But despite its crudeness, the film is clearly still capable of evoking chills and magic, even today. That scene of the monster’s creation, a brilliant early special effect, was accomplished by burning a wax figure of the monster in a furnace and then showing the footage in reverse. As a result, it seems to congeal, the pieces coming together out of thin air (or someplace far more terrible), and joining a human form that is neither born nor stitched together, but somehow, terribly, summoned. And its pathetic death, an outright rejection of its plans to disrupt Frankenstein’s wedding that attaches an additional level of the fantastic with its disappearance inside a full-length mirror, possesses a wan pathos that was only exceeded by the next, and still most famous version.

James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931)

You’ve got to say one thing about the James Whale version: as infected as some of its key sequences have been by all the parodies and homages it has seen since, it still possesses a remarkable power, most notably in this key scene that was considered so horrific in 1931 that it was soon cut from all theatrical prints and was not permanently restored for decades.

The version this essayist always saw on WPIX, growing up, was also the only one that most people my age got to see for years: it ended with a remarkably clumsy cut, just as the monster (Boris Karloff) reached for poor little Maria, and cut away to happy Henry Frankenstein’s wedding preparations. The rationale behind this was that the drowning of the little girl was far too horrific for any audiences to ever want to sit through. (Think of that in the age of Hostel, and marvel.) One effect of the cut is, of course, that the audience is then free to imagine a fate far more horrific than anything that was shown on-screen in the first place. You could even, if you choose, imagine violations greater than a mere tragic accident, at the hands of an overpowered infant who never meant the little girl any harm.

It is worth noting that by the time this scene takes place, Karloff’s monster has already committed two murders: one of Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant Fritz (played by Dwight Frye, who was deeply typecast in roles like this), and one of Frankenstein’s old mentor Doctor Waldman (Edward Van Sloan). The careful exposition about the accidental use of an abnormal brain aside, both occur after the monster has been abused, imprisoned, chained, and terrified. He is an infant, trapped in a world he cannot understand, and lashing out because Frankenstein, the irresponsible fool, has never made sure that the sadistic Fritz can be trusted not to torment the seven-foot-tall powerhouse with lit torches. But now? Treated with warmth by somebody too innocent to know that she should be afraid, he is charmed; he is delighted; he shows that he is capable of responding to kindness. The drowning of the little girl is an accident no more malicious than a three-year-old spilling a glass of milk, and the censors who cut out the terrible moment in order to protect the audience’s sensibilities also robbed those audiences of one of the greatest moments of Boris Karloff’s career: the creature’s bereft, despairing horror upon realizing what it has done.

Placing this scene after the two prior murders has the effect of also underlining the terrible thing Frankenstein has done. Everybody who watches the movie understands that the monster is a monster, but also knows that it has a soul, and that is soul is in pain, and that Frankenstein has done it a tremendous disservice by making every possible error he could, after successfully bringing it to life.

(Nor is this a narrative accident. James Whale’s far superior sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, provides the same lesson by allowing the monster – again, after a murder or two – to encounter another innocent capable of treating him with kindness, this one an aged blind man who delights in the arrival of a vagabond who can benefit from his hospitality, and wisdom. In that movie, the monster is so moved by the first real warmth he’s ever felt from a human being that he weeps. This is naturally ruined by the arrival of sighted relatives who can see what the new houseguest looks like, but again, the lesson is clear: the so-called monster is not unambiguously evil, but a powerful, untamed child who probably deserved much better from the life Frankenstein bequeathed him.)

As for the story itself, it’s told with remarkable narrative economy. We open with Frankenstein already deeply involved in nasty business that includes the robbing of graves. Ten minutes in, we know that he’s up to nefarious doings, and what that involves. Twenty minutes in, we know that he’s virtually abandoned his fiance in order to pursue his madness, and we know that he’s about to start to create life. Thirty minutes in – after a creation scene that has never been equaled, not in all the years that followed – the monster is alive. Having only seventy minutes to tell your story in has some advantages, in the same way that a short story provides advantages over a big fat novel: your story needs to eschew the fat. The climax begins, plays out, and is over in ten minutes, wonderfully effective and startling to those of us living in an age when the final battle between hero and villain involves a battle’s worth of explosion and about ten or twenty reversals. (Which are rarely as effective as this film’s brief moment of chilling eye contact between creature and creator, through the machinery of the old windmill.)

This is not the same thing as saying that oddities didn’t arise as a result of some of the shortcuts.

For instance, there’s Elizabeth, who’s played by Mae Clark, the same actress who got mashed by James Cagney’s grapefruit. Frankenstein allows her and Doctor Waldman into his lab, to witness the birth of his creation. This is in large part so Colin Clive’s Frankenstein, overacting wildly to modern eyes, can provide them (and through them, us) with an explanation of what he has done. Okay; so she sees the monster’s birth. The movie glosses over the point so deftly that it’s possible not to notice, but we never do find out what she thinks of her beau’s “accomplishment.” Is she proud? Disgusted? Horrified? No; as far as we can see, she remains fixed on her number one priority, getting her guy out of that lab so the wedding can go ahead as scheduled. This is one focused bridezilla. Later on, Frankenstein discusses the monster’s doings with other people who know that he’s responsible – while four family servant girls, who always appear on screen together as if they’re joined at the waist, stand within earshot hearing everything that gets said. That, doctor, is no way to safeguard a dire secret. The happy ending, with Frankenstein and Elizabeth enjoying a happy tete-a-tete while his proud father beams, is unlikely in the extreme, and becomes even more unlikely with the sequel.

Still, these are small nits. James Whale’s Frankenstein is one witty and stylish piece of work, that is still deeply entertaining today, and deserves its central place in the pantheon of cinematic Frankensteins. It spawned an immediate sequel that is itself a classic and then a handful of others that, for the most part (the Abbott and Costello outing being the biggest exception) followed the law of diminishing returns. The main problem with those sequels is that, though they abandoned the original, human Frankenstein to follow the various further misadventures of the monster he created (as played in subsequent years by Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, and Glenn Strange), it abandoned the early canny handling of that monster’s mistreated soul, as well as the ability to speak he picks up in Bride, and reduces him to a mere lumbering brute, who can be trained to obediently kill on command but is never again the deeply betrayed figure he is in those first two outings. By the third film, Son Of Frankenstein, he is only a McGuffin.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Few actors have had as deep and as lasting an impact on fantastic film as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who entered the genre working for Hammer Films in the 1950s.

Cushing played Doctor Frankenstein in one long-running series of films and Professor Van Helsing in another; he was also Sherlock Holmes, an early Doctor Who and, in Star Wars, the coldhearted son of a bitch who orders the Death Star to blow up Princess Leia’s home world.

If anything, Christopher Lee established an even more remarkable resume, playing Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, Kharis the Mummy, Sherlock Holmes, Mycroft Holmes, the Devil, Death, James Bond’s enemy The Man With the Golden Gun, Rasputin, Dr. Fu Manchu, the murderous swordsman Rochefort in the best Three Musketeers movies, Willy Wonka’s father, the evil wizard Saruman from Peter Jackson’s Lord Of the Rings movies, and Count Dooku from the lamentable Star Wars prequels. He also had a hilarious cameo in something called The Stupids. Trust me.

Both are on hand for The Curse of Frankenstein, which began Hammer’s own long-running series of Frankenstein movies. It was a series that followed a fascinatingly different course from the Universal franchise; the monster lives and dies (and lives again and dies again) in this first film, but is no longer a factor in the handful of sequels. Instead of following the further misadventures of the monster as the Universal films did, these sequels all follow the further adventures of the Baron, who not only persists in his experiments after the first time they lead to disaster but each time persists in continuing to make the same elementary mistake, which is to say constantly leaving his creations unattended and thus constantly inviting the disaster that always ensues whenever one wanders off. You would think the guy capable of discerning the one common factor that led to all of his life’s greatest fiascos, but you’d be wrong.

He’s also a far different interpretation of the character than anything the movies have shown before. He’s a bastard. He has no real feeling for any human being but himself, has no problem with committing murders to keep himself well-stocked in body parts, also has no problem with forcing his attentions on women, and – indeed – may be a sadist as well as sociopath. In this film, he murders an elderly savant just to gain access to his brain, and in another scene deliberately locks his pregnant mistress in a room with his murderous creation just because that’s the easiest way of dealing with her threats of blackmail. Subsequent films have him committing crimes just as nasty. In short, it can be said that this series is not about the Frankenstein monster, but about the monster, Frankenstein. The remarkably slow-learning monster, Frankenstein.

The closest the series comes to an actual adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel, this film takes the form of an extended confession as a haggard imprisoned Frankenstein (Cushing), who is awaiting the guillotine for an initially unspecified crime, tells a priest about his experiments and how they came to ruin. At the end, he goes off to his execution (for the murder of that luckless mistress), without any independent verification outside the flashback; it is very possible to interpret the entire story as the delusion of a common murderer rendered mad by guilt. I prefer to believe that the story is true, especially since it sets up the sequels, but your mileage may vary. Either way, the dramatic arc is the movie-length battle of wills between Frankenstein and his mentor and partner Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart), who early on revolts in horror and spends the rest of the movie alternately calling Frankenstein mad and begging him to stop.

It’s good stuff, as far as it goes. But one thing’s for sure. If the story is indeed supposed to be objectively true, nobody in it acts the way a human being acts. Once he sees disaster coming, Krempe passionately begs Frankenstein’s cousin and fiance Elizabeth (Hazel Court) to leave the house and never come back; he doesn’t explain why, probably to avoid horrifying her, but after some initial anger at him for ever making such a impudent suggestion, she continues to show a level of warmth and affection toward him that seems downright odd coming from any betrothed woman who finds herself nagged about breaking it off by a guy who’s supposed to be her beloved’s best friend. Every woman I’ve ever met would take their guy aside and say, in confidence, “I want you to know that your best friend’s a real creep.” As for Krempe, who storms off in righteous disgust after the monster has already committed a murder, he later returns for the wedding party with a big smile on his face, and nothing but polite interest when his estranged friend Frankenstein tells him that there’s something in the lab that he really ought to see. (And you thought this version’s Frankenstein was a slow learner.)

Cushing’s performance covers a magnitude of sins, even though he’s easily a quarter of a century too old to be playing the driven young genius established by the young boy played by another actor who first hires the already-adult Krempe to be his teacher; by the time Cushing takes over the part, Frankenstein somehow seems to have not only caught up with Krempe in age, but leaped right past him to the point where he’s by now by a couple of decades the older man. (The age issue isn’t nearly as much a problem in the sequels, where it really doesn’t matter that much how old Frankenstein is.) Alas, Christopher Lee is not nearly as good as Cushing, here, because, for the most part, he is not given a character to play. His monster has some moments where it is as put-upon as the Karloff version, but for the most part, he’s a shuffling corpse, who kills reflexively, because he can. Encountering his own version of what is now a recurring theme, the blind man, he just up and kills the guy: not because he’s threatened, not because he’s angry, but because killing is what he does. He kills Frankenstein’s mistress just as reflexively. There is no pathos to play; again, he’s just a McGuffin. This is not fatal to the film, because it happens to be about the Baron, not the monster. But at a mere 83 minutes, the movie isn’t so long that it couldn’t have shoehorned in a few scenes where the monster demonstrated a soul of his own. Frankly, the character deserves it. (His one-sided malice is more forgivable if you buy the interpretation that the entire flashback with the monster is only a function of Frankenstein’s delusions, but, even so: in any movie, the story you’re watching is the story you’re watching, even if it’s only supposed to be a dream sequence.)

One minor point of interest: the film includes a moment where Peter Cushing peers through a magnifying glass, spectacularly enlarging his eye. He also does this a couple of times in his appearances as Sherlock Holmes. This is no doubt the source of the gag in the Zucker Brothers comedy Top Secret! where a much older Cushing also peers through a magnifying glass and lowers it to reveal that his right eye actually is that grotesquely enlarged. It’s a film-buff joke as well as a funny sight gag. Just thought you ought to know.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

Despite the existence of a TV-movie called Frankenstein: The True Story, which a surprisingly large number of people who haven’t read the novel take at its word and defend as an accurate adaptation of the Shelley novel (apparently operating under the assumption that Shelley really did write about a Frankenstein monster who came out looking beautiful, and only gradually rotted in both mind and body), there has never really been a major filmed version that adapted her story with anything approaching fidelity.

This one doesn’t, either. It comes damned close for most of its length, up to and including Elizabeth’s murder at the monster’s hands…at which point it departs radically from the text and throws in a twist that really should have worked better than it did.

Part of the problem is its extended length. In eighty-four years, the changing grammar of cinema has increased the acceptable length of a feature film from just over ten minutes to more than two hours; and that really is fine, but coupled with the film’s mission statement of honoring Shelley, it does spend an awful lot of time on framing material, including the arctic expedition stuck in the ice and the discovery of a dying Dr. Frankenstein, who tells the Captain his story. After that it goes on to detail Frankenstein’s childhood, the death of his mother in childbirth, his declaration of love for his foster sister Elizabeth, his entry into medical school, his interest in unorthodox medicine, his friendship with Henry Clerval, and so on. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, but it does delay the actual creation of the monster for a long time, and Kenneth Branagh’s direction takes what should have been Masterpiece Theatre material and treats it with palpably desperate energy, that includes swooping cameras and some of the most intrusive soundtrack music you have ever heard in your life. Had he let the material alone, it might have bored some members of the audience…but as it happens, the desperate over-the-top style alienated even more.

Things pick up a little bit with the creation of the monster. Branagh, who didn’t just direct but also starred as Frankenstein, got a lot of flack at the time for running around with his shirt off – a touch that was largely regarded as narcissism – but one’s got to admit; it does communicate the character’s frenzy. Still, we then get to the problematic birth scene…which culminates in Frankenstein and his creation flopping around, for what seems forever, on a floor soaked with his experiment’s shiny amniotic fluid. It’s not scary. Some people regarded it as horrifying, and others thought it hilarious, but the audience I saw it with groaned throughout.

The monster is played by Robert De Niro, who was at one point one of the greatest actors alive (even if he now seems to have used up his entire bag of tricks); but though he’s been rendered hideously scarred with canny makeup, the result is not that he looks like an unnatural monster, but like a hideously scarred Robert De Niro. Once he has his first actual conversation, with this movie’s gentle blind man, the distancing effect of the monster makeup is completely spent; in subsequent scenes where is seen from a distance, it almost disappears completely. This, alas, extends to the actual universe of the film. The very first thing the monster does after it escapes from Frankenstein’s workshop is run from a mob; and it’s worth noting that the mob chases him, not because he killed anybody, or because they’re horrified by his appearance, but because they think he’s a sick man, spreading cholera. In short, this is a movie where the Frankenstein monster can pass as a run-of-the-mill ugly guy.

Further developments including the murder of Frankenstein’s younger brother, the framing of Justine, the monster’s confrontation with his creator and his offer to go away if Frankenstein builds him a mate, all play out as they do in the novel, and, for a time, the movie works at the level it needs to. (It’s too bad the opening hour doesn’t.)

That is all before we get to the part that is original to the film, the part that you may consider one of the worst scenes in any Frankenstein movie to date, or one of the best; Frankenstein finds his murdered bride and, for what may be the first time, does what Frankenstein would do, create a new monster using her as spare parts, in a doomed, mad and desperate attempt to get her to live again. Only, hideous as she now is, she might now be more suited for the monster than the doctor.

The scene that results is horrible, hilarious, awful and wonderful at the same time. It is not the Frankenstein of Mary Shelley, but the Frankenstein that might have been made by Stuart Gordon; and though some people will never talk to me again because I said this, I confess to adoring it. The problem is that it simply doesn’t fit anything that came before. It belongs to a campier Frankenstein, a Frankenstein that Kenneth Branagh did not think he was making. If the entire film had been played at that level, he might have had something.

When we return to the icebound ship in the far north and Frankenstein concluding his confession only to die, and after that to the monster hollering, “He was my father!”, it’s all deadly anticlimax, there not to finish the story in any way the audience cares about, but to delay the closing credits. There’s very real genius in the film, but unfortunately, the whole fails to work.

National Theatre Live: Frankenstein (2011)

This brings us to a splendid oddity stretching this blog’s usual definition of “film” — a filmed play by Nick Dear, directed by Danny Boyle and shown in select theatres, internationally, for premium prices. It is very much a stagebound production, with every attribute that implies: i.e., stagecraft that includes gas jets, a turntable, and trap doors, allowing the introduction of sets and a range of locations that include everything from elegant drawing rooms to drafty old scottish castles. As Dr. Frankenstein and his unnamed monster we have two fine british actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, who on stage alternated the two roles, nightly — a splendid stunt that was duplicated by the two versions of the show available in cinemas, which also alternated showings. We saw the one with Cumberbatch as the monster and consider it the best version of the story ever filmed; we assume the Miller-as-monster version to be just as good, but can only swear to Cumberbatch.

One geeky aspect to the casting is that both Cumberbatch and Miller both play updated modern-day versions of Sherlock Holmes in TV series running concurrently (Cumberbatch in BBC’s splendid SHERLOCK and Miller in American TV’s ELEMENTARY, not yet premiered as of this writing). So there’s that. There’s because of this also a nice geeky triviagasm involving just how many actors known for playing the great detective have also been important to various versions of the Frankenstein tale: not just Basil Rathbone, who was one of the two or three most identifiable players ever to perform as Holmes but also a Doctor Frankenstein in one of the Universal sequels, but also Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Gene Wilder (who, admittedly, only played Holmes’s smarter brother). Now we have Cumberbatch and Miller to add to that. Impressive.

Of the play, we report that it’s even more faithful to the Mary Shelley novel than the Branagh take, with one marvelous bit of streamlining that actually adds to the telling, and one innovation not found in Shelley that accomplishes the same. The streamlining is the innovation of beginning the story at the moment when the monster, naked and infantile and pathetic, claws its way from the membrane of the artificial womb where he has been kept. The story provides us with a Frankenstein who at first appears only long enough to reject his creation and then disappears for most of the play’s first half, while the creature staggers alone and afraid through a world that hates him on sight. This is actually kind of brilliant, because pretty much everybody knows who Dr. Frankenstein is, and the pre-creation part of the story often lies like a turd on screen; this way, we get to experience the plight of the forsaken creature, as he learns about the world around him, acquires an education, becomes articulate, and finally works his way back to his maker, seething for revenge. He is as far from the rather soulless creation played by Christopher Lee as one can imagine. As he says, he has a legitimate grievance.

We will note also that in structuring its adaptation in this manner, the play begins with a scene that Branagh’s handles much the same way, but renders ludicrous: the monster’s birth. Branagh’s has the newly-born monster flopping around in goo, at considerable length, and it’s dire; he doesn’t accomplish anywhere near the level of horror and pathos he’s going for, but instead accomplishes slapstick. This version goes on for even longer with the newborn creature twitching and writhing and attempting to stand and gradually achieving some spastic level of control over its body. We’re talking long minutes, here. An eternity. It’s a war that ends with the creature finally, at long last, achieving enough muscular coordination to stand up — and it hits where it’s meant to hit. It’s pathetic and horrifying and riveting, a brilliant bit of physical acting that pays off utterly. By the time this monster stands up, we know him; by the time he learns to speak, we love him; by the time he confronts Frankenstein, he’s a murderer, but he’s also unquestionably the figure who’s been most cruelly wronged. Karloff’s version gives us some of this, but not nearly as much as this one. It’s devastating.

The innovation, a brilliant one, is that the play actually (and finally) has a purpose in mind for Elizabeth other than being threatened, killed, or turned into a monster herself, one that doesn’t actually contradict Shelley. In the novel, Frankenstein bursts into the honeymoon chamber to discover that his love has been murdered by the monster — but he doesn’t see what transpired between them, beforehand. The implication is that the monster just terrorized and killed her. In this version, forewarned by the creature that he’s repulsive, she shows him compassion, makes peace with him, offers him friendship, and promises that she will use her wifely influence to make sure that his creator does right by him. She doesn’t say any of this out of fear. She says it because these are the gestures that come naturally to her. It is absolutely breathtaking, a new wrinkle on a classic that is both totally true to that classic, and previously unsuspected by anybody…and it culminates in the tragedy we know only because the monster, who knows and appreciates that she’s sincere, cannot let go of his own bloody vow of revenge. This scene, alone, would earn this production a place as one of the great Frankensteins of all time.

The Doctor’s Notebook

1910 version, a fascinating artifact from a distant time, with some touches of pure genius. 1931 version, a permanent addition to our shared visual language. 1957 version, a flawed but entertaining visit. 1994 version, a misshapen creation with moments of pure genius, and moments of unbelievable awfulness, stitched together to create an unnatural whole. 2011 version, a masterpiece.

And now, the wife declaims toward the Heavens as she flips the third switch…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Frankenstein aka Edison’s Frankenstein (1910). Directed by J. Searle Dawley. Written by J. Searle Dawley, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Augustus Phillips, Charles Ogle, Mary Fuller. 16 minutes. **.(Only based on the techniques used at the time)

Frankenstein (1931). Directed by James Whale. Written by Frances Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort, from the play by Peggy Webling and novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, John Boles, Mae Clarke. 71 minutes. ***

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Directed by Terence Fisher. Written by Jimmy Sangster, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court, Robert Urquhart. 83 minutes. *1/2

Frankenstein aka Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994). Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro, Helena Bonham Carter, Ian Holm, Tom Hulce, John Cleese. 123 minutes. ***

National Theatre Live: Frankenstein (2011). Directed by Danny Boyle. Filmed Play by Nick Dear, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. Approximately 2 hours. ****

Other Versions and Sequels: Too many to list, including a large number of sequels to both the 1931 and 1957 versions, TV-movies, breakfast serials, sitcoms like The Munsters and parodies like Young Frankenstein and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

So, here we are, readying ourselves for the Father’s Day guilt-a-thon, and we decide to review films retelling the tale of the worst of all dead-beat dads. Great timing on this one Adam!

The 1931 Frankenstein is one of those films that became an integral part of every American childhood whether they had seen it or not. Halloween was bombarded with it, kids played run away from the monster, and as Adam has pointed out, even our breakfasts digested it. The images from the Whale version are iconic and yet soooo wrong. Did any film version come close to capturing the look and feel of the novel? Well yes and no, but that’s film in a nutshell.

To begin at the beginning, and I truly mean the beginning, The 1910 Frankenstein is a masterpiece of ingenuity. The imagination used to create the images is amazing considering the youth of the medium. However, storytelling has been around since man began to communicate and this doesn’t even come close to the story told in the book. This version is a bad game of telephone played by children being deliberately vague. It deserves its place in film history (as do the early Wizards of Oz films) for the mere fact of being the first, not for being a great film.

Then, we get to the 1931, James Whale directed Frankenstein. Is this truly a great film? Not really. Again, the story deviates vastly from the source, and much more attention is paid to the look than the plot. But, come on, lets face it. Who is the face we place with the Creation? In this version we have the Doctor (hmm gives me an idea, but that can wait for another time) creating his child in front of an audience, just to prove himself sane. Once he completes the task, he turns away in disgust and even joins in the quest to destroy the creature he created. Why? because he’s an irresponsible child, too spoiled to realize that he is the one who must take responsibility and care for this being. His idea is to take the easy way out and destroy the evidence, thus ridding himself of all guilt. Yea, bury the broken vase deep in the garbage and Mom will never notice. Good job Herr Doktor! Oh and spoiler alert, All is well in the end. Right!

The next on our list is the awful Hammer film The Curse of Frankenstein. I feel that the makers of this film should have just said “Hey guys, we were told this story, but can’t really remember much , so we’re gonna make it up as we go.” Here we have the names and some of the basics, but now we have Frankenstein as a rich orphan, set on creating life with no background motivation other than He wants to do it. This guy is sleazy. He has his way with a servant girl, all the time knowing he is going to marry his “cousin”. He not only rejects his creation, he actually imprisons the creature and trains it with torture. Of course, in this film, he has no father to teach him how to be a Dad. His father figure is busy being a friend to seemingly keep his cushy position. After all, he was hired by the master to be his tutor giving him room and board and a salary (we assume) and this goes on past adulthood, would you easily give up that gig? Ok. so the creature gets loose, does the killing thing, is killed, resurrected and killed again. Frankenstein the man is declared an insane murderer and supposedly sent to his death. The end. But this is about life eternal, so of course death(as in superhero comics) is never forever. Thus , we have the sequels (or series) of the Hammer legacy.

The Kenneth Branagh version heels closer to the source material, actually including the pre and post creation scenes. I actually feel that this is the best of the films we viewed for these essays, but still a weak sister for all its pedigree. While there is nothing glaringly wrong with the film, it just doesn’t feel satisfying. The look is right, the script good enough, even Branagh’s direction (mostly of himself) is not too far over the top to kill the feel. But this film left me wanting another try. The changes made didn’t weaken the story. This was only the second time I had been exposed to an intelligent version of the creature on film. (I recommend seeing the TV movie Frankenstein the True Story to give a fair comparision).

Can Hollywood film this parable without overblowing it, or underplaying it? This is a story that deserves a really great retelling, and the 20 year cycle is coming soon (see the filmography and dates of release). Anybody wanna try that?

OK, so Hollywood didn’t quite take the challenge but the Brits did, kinda.

See, in 2011, the British National Theatre, as part of their “LIVE” series filmed the stage play of Frankenstein.  Directed by Danny Boyle and starring Benedict Cumberbatch (yes his real name) and Jonny Lee Miller (aka Angelina Jolie’s first husband).  The leads alternated roles nightly as the doctor and his creation, so the series filmed it both ways.  Skillful in both art and sales.  Double the audience and ticket sales out of sheer curiosity.  Wow!  If the production hadn’t been so incredible it still would have had a bit of a following just on the sheer audacity.  But, the play holds true.

Here we have two remarkable actors ripping through these characters and actually fleshing out, what had been heretofore bare bones caricatures.  Even the previous best attempts left me wanting more, but not here. The writing, by Nick Dear, pares down the slow moving intro and thrusts us straight into the abandonment and horror of the creature lurching into this world alone and unwanted. He also gets the story moving without the interference of side tales and heightens the death of Elizabeth to more than just a simple ruse, but now a true sacrifice for the cause. 

The technicians and craftspeople on this team were superb.  The sets were constructed as minimalist as possible, while still conveying all we as an audience could need  for our interpretation of place and time.  But the cast is truly the crowning achievement here.  They all play the roles as if these are the freshest of characters, giving new energy and strength to these well known roles.

All in all, this is the most magnificent pair of films to ever grace the name of Frankenstein.  I would deign to name them the Shakespearean Frankenstein duo.

On PROMETHEUS

Posted: June 18, 2012 in Uncategorized

A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

So here I am on this cavernous, shadowy, derelict alien space ship, having just been exposed to this hologram depicting the fate of the original crew: running in absolute buckfuck terror from *something* that has clearly gone horribly wrong. I have gotten separated from my own crew, which has bugged out, and am now in some kind of storage chamber filled with drums that have reacted to the presence of intruders by leaking a black, gooky, clearly organic substance. I see tiny wormlike creatures swimming around in that goop. I take a closer look and one of those worms rears up, revealing a neck that flares like a cobra’s, and a horizontal mouth that looks a lot like a fanged vagina. It is at this point that I beam, “That’s cute!” and bend over to take a closer look. Because, you know, that IS the smartest possible thing to do in this situation. Stick your face closer to the vagina cobra.

Can you imagine what would happen to the average science-fiction movie crew if they wandered into ANY of the familiar everyday spots of our own civilization? Like behind the counter at the supermarket’s deli counter? They pass the machine with the tray that moves back and forth across the spinning blade, chirp, “That’s interesting!”,  and move their hands across the blade to see what’s up with that…