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Halloween Advent: Frankenstein

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Classic chills that have endured nearly 80 years...

Frankenstein

It’s a fair rule of economics that if something sells, you should make more of it. Movie studios follow that rule, and when something does well at the box office, they follow it up with sequels and similar pictures. And that’s just what Universal Pictures did when Dracula played to sold-out houses. Carl Laemmle, Sr., head of Universal, hated horror movies, regarding them as 'B'-pictures, and not up to the standards of his studio. But he couldn’t argue with box office receipts, and he knew they had to give the public what they wanted. But what story could possibly be big enough to follow up Dracula with?

Frankenstein posterThat story would be Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, a tale of Victor Frankenstein, thrown out of medical school for his radical - and possibly blasphemous - experiments, involving re-animating the dead. In the end, he succeeds, but at a cost. The creature he creates goes mad, and runs away. However, he’s a sympathetic creature, not the monster of the movies, but misunderstood and child-like. The real villain of the story is Frankenstein himself, trying to be “God” in a sense. It works as a cautionary tale, presented at a time when medical science was heading into such areas. But at a time also when the country was in an economic depression, it would be difficult to film such a grand, sweeping story. The screenplay actually was adapted from several plays which were based on the original novel, cutting away much of the grand story, but leaving the core tale.

"Several states objected to the line 'In the name of God, now I know how it feels to be God!' right off the bat, feeling it was blasphemous (yeah, but they had no problem with a scientist making a man out of dead bodies)"

Making 'Frankenstein'In the film, Dr. Henry Frankenstein (played by Colin Clive) is a student who is kicked out of school for his ideas and experiments. This causes him to delve further into his practices, and begins haunting (pun intended) graveyards for body parts, as he plans to create a man, and give life once again to the dead. He is assisted by Fritz (Dracula's Dwight Frye, once again brilliant as ever), who helps him acquire the essential parts. Everything goes wrong, though, when Fritz is sent to retrieve the brain of a famous scientist. The brain is destroyed in the process, and Fritz, loyal but stupid, grabs an abnormal brain. Then, Dr. Frankenstein sets into motion the birth of his new creation, involving some very cool machines with Tesla coils, and the spark of life via lightning bolt.

The creature (played by Boris Karloff in his breakout role) lives, but is soon out the door and causing mayhem. The townsfolk fear the new member of the community, and soon have him locked up for killing a little girl. In the end, the creature is destroyed (or maybe not, as Universal hung on to him for seven sequels), and life can get back to normal for everybody.

Frankenstein, like Dracula, has become part of pop culture. The spooky castle, the elaborate machines with sparks flying, even Jack Pierce’s make-up for the monster. When you mention Frankenstein to anybody, young or old, they immediately think of Karloff with the flat top head, dead eyes, and electrodes in his neck. It was revolutionary for its time, and has lasted for decades as a movie classic. It has been referenced in books, movies, music, television programs, comic books, and even spoofed by Mel Brooks (Brooks actually used many of the machines and set pieces for his 1974 film Young Frankenstein). But where Dracula was gothic in nature, Frankenstein was inspired by the Expressionist movies of Germany. Dark shadows, looming set pieces, and crazy angles to give everything something of an off-kilter feel.

Boris Karloff as The MonsterThe movie was not without controversy. While being released pre-code, the re-release in 1937 cut several scenes due to the Production Code. The most notable was when the creature comes to life. Frankenstein yells his famous “It’s Alive”, which was followed by him yelling “In the name of God, now I know how it feels to be God!” Several states objected to the line right off the bat, feeling it was blasphemous (yeah, but they had no problem with a scientist making a man out of dead bodies – hypocrites). They covered the rest of the line up with a crash of thunder. They also cut a close up of a needle injection, a scene of Fritz tormenting the monster with a torch, and the scene of a little girl...

This famous scene is innocent and horrifying all at once. The creature comes across Maria, who is sitting by the lake throwing flowers in to watch them float. She invites him to sit with her and play. You see child-like joy on Karloff’s face as he helps throw the flowers into the lake. But then there are no more flowers, and the creature is unhappy. He then picks Maria up, and throws her into the lake, whereupon she drowns. The scene of him throwing the young girl into the lake was cut, and the next we see of her is when her father carries her back into the town, dead. Being of an imaginative nature, I can think of far worse things that might have happened by not showing the full lake scene, but that’s just me. All of these cuts have since been restored to the film.

"No matter what stories are out there, there was never a big hatred between Lugosi and Karloff, as depicted in Tim Burton's Ed Wood"

James Whale making 'Frankenstein'

There is also the famous story that Bela Lugosi was to play the monster, which is true. Lugosi even did a test screening for it, but refused the role because the monster didn’t speak. While the studio still wanted him, director James Whale took over, and immediately hired Karloff, who went on to play the creature for two more movies (Lugosi would eventually play the monster in a later sequel). But, no matter what stories are out there, there was never a big hatred between Lugosi and Karloff, as depicted in Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1995). While not overly close, the two did work together on several films, and always got on fine.

So sit down this Halloween, turn the lights off, and pop this movie in. Even with the amount of sequels and remakes, this one is the cream of the crop.


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