Posts Tagged ‘John Cleese’

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.