October 26, 2013
Last Halloween, I’d asked a few Nervous Breakdown contributors to share their favorite terrifying movie scenes, and D. R. Haney was among them with his contribution from Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I, on the other hand, had picked the tunnel scene from Willy Wonka, which I explain so you understand why I like collaborating with Duke. My brain grows three sizes bigger by association. He’s like a cinematic moral compass for which true north is James Dean. And this year for Halloween, Duke and I decided to discuss the classic tale that produced another old-school Hollywood icon.
HANEY: Do you remember your introduction to Frankenstein? Was it a story that had particular impact on you as a child?
HAWKINS: They must have shown the James Whale Frankenstein on network television every October, in the same way they’d show Edwin Marin’s A Christmas Carol every December. I remember it being this big event because there were only four channels in my household at the time (two without a static scroll), and what else were we going to watch? Chico and the Man? So I’d seen glimpses of it in previous years before I’d actually sat down to watch the entire thing when I was maybe seven or eight. Informed by those early glimpses, I’d imagined, with much delight, that it’d be horrifying. But as it turned out the only horrifying thing about it was the way the monster was maligned. He just wanted to hold the sunshine! He didn’t know Maria wouldn’t float! He was just misunderstood! And Fritz was asking for it. What an asshole. And your introduction?
HANEY: Well, I first watched the James Whale movie when I was nine. There was a television show called Sir Graves Presents, limited to two markets, Detroit and Washington, D.C., and we just managed to receive the D.C. channel where I grew up in central Virginia. The show would start with a panning shot of a no-budget cemetery where its vampire host, Sir Graves Ghastly, emerged from his coffin to crack jokes while introducing the day’s horror movie, and during intermissions, he would return to perform skits, sometimes as other characters, including the Cool Ghoul, who was the ghost of a beatnik, or something like that. I think the show aired on Saturday afternoons, originally, but then it moved to Saturday nights at eleven or eleven-thirty, and it was a big deal for me to stay up to watch it, since I had to go to church in the morning. Well, one Saturday night Sir Graves showed Frankenstein, and I remember being especially struck by the scene with Maria—that and the one where her father, in a state of shock, carries her muddy body through the streets. I recently saw the movie again, and those scenes still stand out.
But, aside from the James Whale movie, the Frankenstein monster was always just there, you know what I mean? I had nightmares about him when I was three or four, and I would wake and go to my parents’ room and say, “Can I sleep with you? Frankenstein is going to get me!” There was something about his walk, with his arms outstretched and those oversized boots, that really scared me. Also, the jagged scar on his forehead—that bothered me more than his flat skull or the bolts in his neck.
HAWKINS: He was just there, wasn’t he. He was everywhere. And of course it’s the Whale interpretation of him that became so prevalent in pop culture: the bolts, the blockhead, the scar, the walk. Henry Frankenstein (as Victor is renamed in Whale’s film) calls the creature “Frankenstein,” which also stuck. That’s something Mary Shelley doesn’t do in the novel, but the creature is in a way an extension of Victor—both transforming into monstrous beings, both hell-bent on revenge. In the silent film adaptation you introduced me to, the creature literally transforms into Victor’s mirror image in the penultimate scene, which is such a striking moment. And when I was considering my introduction to Frankenstein, I’d first thought of his appearances on Merrie Melodies and Scooby Doo and The Monkees. I’d thought of the goofily galumphing Herman Munster. So it’s surely more honest to say that even before my proper introduction, Whale’s Frankenstein iconography had already reached me in slapstick forms devoid of terror. I would have loved to have been terrified by that scar and that Karloff half-snarl. Then again, odd things terrified me back then, like the way caterpillar feet plucked free from the window screen when my sister captured them, and things that were meant to be terrifying never were. Which is also to say I was a weird kid, perhaps the true root of my affinity for Whale’s monster.
HANEY: I was also a weird kid—hell, I’m a weird adult—and, as I’ve written before, weird kids often identify with movie monsters, or they do if they know they’re weird. I did and I didn’t. I knew that other kids, and even some adults, thought of me as weird, but I regarded myself as unusual in the tradition of great artists and scientists. That certainly helped to justify my routine tantrums: I’m a genius, and geniuses throw tantrums! At the same time, I thought I was deeply normal, and it was weird to me that people thought of me as weird.
Bear in mind that I was a preschooler when the Frankenstein monster scared me. He no longer scared me by the time I saw the Whale movie. I wasn’t scared by horror movies generally. I was just fascinated by monsters, and particularly by the classic monsters of Universal: Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, the Mummy, and so on. I didn’t care much for Godzilla or King Kong. I preferred my monsters on a human scale. Also, my favorite monsters tended to be products of the Romantic imagination—atavistic reminders that, no matter our scientific and technological advancement, we can never escape the irrational. Of course that’s something I couldn’t have articulated as a child, but I do think it was a factor. I was drawn to the ancient world, the primitive world, which seemed much more interesting than the mechanized modern world.
Of course Frankenstein is literally the product of the Romantic imagination. The story of how of Mary Shelley’s novel came to be written is better than the novel itself. What work of fiction can outdo Lord Byron and Percy Shelley trading wits at a party where they decide to write ghost stories, and Shelley’s girlfriend and later wife, all of eighteen, conceiving of a ghost story that’s still being read 200 years later?
HAWKINS: Right! And you’ve mentioned to me elsewhere that Frankenstein’s monster is unique in that he isn’t a creature readily found in legend or folklore, like vampires or werewolves. Sure, Shelley cites the inspiration of Prometheus and one could draw parallels to the golem, but the articulate, intelligent creature formed from dead bodies and urged into being through science is all hers. And she does something extraordinary, I think, in stripping her story of any fantastical or supernatural elements in favor of science. In an era when there were still people debating spontaneous generation, it wouldn’t have taken much for the monster-creation scenario to seem plausible. To that end, most of Volume I is spent building Victor up as a bookworm, a devotee of the “natural sciences” from a young age, a feverish researcher. His scientific advancements allow for the creature, which, in 1818, allowed for realism.
The film adaptations seem to struggle with how to make the creation scene seem just as believable for contemporary audiences, thus the variations (usually on the theme of electricity). Notable, for its kitsch value, is Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in which Branagh’s ripped, golden-coiffed Victor facilitates a giant shaft, attached to a giant sack, ejaculating giant sperm/eels to zap the creature into being. Actually, this visual didn’t strike me as so overtly sexual until I showed the clip to a group of students at an all-girls Catholic school and it was suddenly so obvious my face flushed every shade of red in the visible spectrum by the time I’d reached the DVD player to shut it off. My closest friends have nicknamed me Demura for a reason. You have no idea the courage I had to summon just now to type “ejaculating giant sperm/eels.”
HANEY: I assume you didn’t summon it from a bottle. That’s where I’ve found courage many a time, and I would require a lot of it to endure Branagh’s Frankenstein adaptation. While we were discussing our collaboration here, you sent me a clip of the sperm/eels scene, and I was like, “Hey, why is Thor running around a nineteenth-century laboratory?” Then I remembered that Branagh went on to direct Thor. Clearly, his Frankenstein was foreplay for his Thor. I hope, Demura, that doesn’t cause you to blush.
HAWKINS: I’d require liquid courage to endure the entirety of Branagh’s Frankenstein again. I love that guy. He really is a fine actor (and competent director) when he’s at his best, but his Frankenstein is a mess. Its highbrow attempts to be truer to the source material (De Niro’s monster speaks, Victor works in isolation) are quickly undone by nonsensical aberrations from the source (Victor creates the “bride” from Elizabeth’s dead body for himself, monster Elizabeth commits suicide by fire).
HANEY: In terms of the monster’s creation, the most faithful screen version of the novel may be the first, the silent film you mentioned earlier, which was shot in 1910 at the Thomas Edison Studio in the Bronx. Victor is seen, alone, mixing a concoction in a bowl—a pinch of this and a dash of that—then emptying the bowl into a steaming vat, and—voilà!—a monster rises from the steam. It’s like making instant bisque, and none of the ingredients are identified, just as the novel is necessarily obscure about Victor’s “recipe”; Mary Shelley has him sidestep it in decorous language of this sort: “With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.” There’s some talk earlier in the novel about harnessing the power of lightning, but lightning isn’t cited as one of the “instruments of life” that can “infuse a spark of being” as it does in, probably, every Frankenstein movie after James Whale. It makes poetic sense: the essence of life is electric in movies, a medium known in its infancy as “electric theater.”
Another Whale addition is Fritz, the lab assistant whom you rightly call an asshole, and his inclusion underscores an unspoken concern of the novel: “…scientific man’s desire to abandon womankind and find a new method of procreation that does not involve the female principle.” So writes David J. Skal in his book The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, and Skal continues:
The [Frankenstein procreative] impulse is thus autoerotic (“With my own hands!” as Dr. Frankensteins are usually fond of saying, all the time wringing them in glee—or is it guilt?) and/or homoerotic—life created with the help of male assistants (often cowering dwarves who are seen sticking their heads through portals and trapdoors, who spill precious concoctions, “fuck things up,” etc.).
That’s Fritz: a “cowering dwarf” who “fuck[s] things up.” He drops the “normal” brain marked for the monster and replaces it with a “criminal” brain, which accounts for the monster’s violence—as if his utter alienation weren’t motivation enough! Plus, he’s tortured by Fritz. Why? The movie doesn’t say, though we surmise that, finally, there’s someone lower in the pecking order. As for “scientific man’s desire to abandon womankind,” the novel illustrates its implications by concluding in the North Pole, where Victor has pursued his creation far beyond the warm touch of woman. I didn’t fully understand why the novel concluded in the North Pole until I read the Skal book, which I frequently recommend. As a matter of fact, I recommended the book to you, and you actually bought a copy. I’m not used to having my recommendations followed!
HAWKINS: Neither am I, and you watched The Monkees “Monstrous Monkee Mash” when I recommended it. Bless your heart! As we say in Texas. So, what a strange thing that the film company of Thomas Edison didn’t consider electrical origins. I love the monster bisque approach, though. Primordial soup gone awry. And I think by “criminal brain” you meant “Abby Normal” brain. Maybe we can get around to Young Frankenstein, one of my favorite movies from childhood starring Gene Wilder, aka the man I thought I’d marry (didn’t I say I was a weird kid?), but for now I’ll comment on another aspect of that arctic setting.
Branagh’s Frankenstein ends up with Walton on the ice-locked ship as per the novel, and it’s in this chilly desolation that we have the brief convergence of three painfully isolated characters: Walton who longs for a like-minded friend on his expedition to the far reaches, Victor who has lost everyone he loves at the hands of his own creation, and the monster who is such an abomination of nature he has no place in it. De Niro, by the way, plays the creature unsympathetically, like a mangled Max Cady. But that moment in the novel in which the (more sympathetic) creature is sobbing over the body of Victor, all hope for acceptance obliterated, that moment, for my inner weird kid, is sheer horror.
The one chance the monster ever had was in the creation of another of his own kind, his Eve, and Victor destroys the would-be bride before she even takes a breath. Right at the monster’s feet. And he does so because he suddenly fears that the two creatures will spawn a demon race. If we go with Skal’s reading here, we might say Victor refuses to cede procreative power to the monstrous female. If we’re talking Branagh’s Victor, well, procreation is something only his giant monster-making phallus should do. And of course we get to see this Eve take a few steps in Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (played by Elsa Lanchester, who also plays Mary Shelley in the opening scene, oh the layers of meaning!).
HANEY: Yes, when I saw Bride of Frankenstein as a kid, I was perplexed by Elsa Lanchester’s dual roles. I knew the author of the book was Mary Shelley, but I had never heard of her husband or Byron, who likewise appear in the Bride prologue to help remind the audience of where the first movie left off, as legendary poets are apt to do. “Would you like to hear what happened after that?” asks Lanchester as Mary. “I’m all ears,” says the actor playing Byron. Meanwhile, the real Byron, spinning in his grave, triggers an earthquake.
But, seriously, I think Bride had a greater impact on me at nine than the original Frankenstein. I cried when the monster was taken in by the blind man, his first and only friend; and the movie’s climax, when the monster’s Eve, as you call her, comes to life and rejects him, is a highlight of horror history, with that haunting score by Max Waxman and Lanchester’s staccato movements, which she modeled after geese, and Jack Pierce’s visionary makeup, including the streaks suggestive of lightning bolts in the bride’s electrified hair. Pierce, with input from Whale, also created the monster’s look in the 1931 Frankenstein, producing one of very few twentieth-century screen characters still identifiable in the twenty-first century. Bela Lugosi’s Dracula is another, though I doubt that many contemporary kids could name Lugosi or Boris Karloff, who brought a pathos to the monster that’s never been equaled, even when other actors, among them Lugosi, played him in Jack Pierce’s makeup. Of course, they played him in inferior films, none of them directed by Whale, but I still think Karloff’s success in the part was due largely to Karloff.
Shelley’s monster is an orphan with the history of deprivation that’s become a cliché of criminal profiles, and as you say, he’s intelligent and articulate, so that he can plead his case and draw sympathy. He almost never has that capacity in movies, where, apart from those with Karloff, sympathy seems beside the point. For instance, from the late fifties to the early seventies, Hammer Film made a series of Frankenstein movies, each with a different monster closer in spirit to Leatherface or Jack the Ripper than Karloff’s monster. These impulse killers are inevitably destroyed, causing Victor, usually played by Peter Cushing, to start anew in the sequel. Whale’s Victor (who was probably renamed Henry because Victor, of course, means victorious) is redeemed by love and marriage after realizing that God’s work should be left to God, but Cushing’s Victor has no qualms about playing God; he’s cold and ruthless—a psychopath cranking out psychopaths. But the lurid violence of the Hammer movies is what I like about them—that and their lush color and the retro factor. I imagine them as double features at the drive-in. Friday and Saturday only: The Evil of Frankenstein and The Brides of Dracula!
HAWKINS: And that particular pathos you mentioned was apparently Karloff’s idea. According to James Heffernan in “Looking at the Monster: Frankenstein and Film,” Whale had wanted Karloff’s monster to violently throw Maria into the river and Karloff suggested it be a tender encounter resulting in an accidental drowning. I have to say, though, the monster’s certainly more fun as a drive-in double feature psychopath. No gray areas to feel conflicted about. No wretched creature on whom to project your worst fears of rejection and alienation. But never is the monster more fun than when he’s hoofing it in a tux onstage beside Wilder’s Frederick Frankenstein, chiming in on “Puttin’ On the Ritz.”
HANEY: Young Frankenstein was ruined for me by people acting out the best bits before I’d seen it. You can guess the result: when I finally saw it, I didn’t find it as funny as I expected. Fun, yes, but laugh-out-loud funny, no, alas.
Every classic horror movie has been spoofed ad nauseam, but Frankenstein has been especially attractive to satirists, with the monster’s cloddishness and the doctor’s feverish megalomania. Versions of both characters appear in numerous animated shorts from the thirties, forties, and fifties—you already mentioned Bugs Bunny—and the Frankenstein skit was a constant of television variety shows, that extinct genre. Even Universal, the home of the franchise, played the monster for laughs in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. By then he had been milked dry of horror appeal, executives must have figured, and that went for their other star monsters, who were also featured alongside Abbott and Costello, Universal’s star comedians.
My favorite Frankenstein parody is The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Tim Curry’s Frank N. Furter may look like a transvestite vampire, but in fact he’s a transvestite scientist who’s building a bride—a male bride for himself. Rocky Horror could only been made in the glitter-rock early seventies, though its cheeky pansexual decadence derives from Weimar cabaret, and to see it now is to realize how staid and rigid we are in the twenty-first century. Also, Tim Curry is flat-out brilliant in the kind of performance that usually goes unrecognized by awards committees. But that’s true of Boris Karloff’s performance in Frankenstein. Fredric March’s Oscar for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an anomaly.
HAWKINS: Young Frankenstein is one of those things that might be hard for me to truly judge because I saw it as a kid and I’m still aping it’s best bits (“Walk this way!”). But I can tell you whenever I teach Shelley’s Frankenstein I show Young Frankenstein clips to students and find I’m the only one laughing. The soundless, tears-welling-up laugh. Just me.
And of course the ultimate jokey, milked-dry-of-horror Frankenstein creature has to be his incarnation as a sixties sit-com patriarch on The Munsters. If it’s funny to see him in a soft-shoe routine, it’s even funnier to see him as Joe Suburbia muddling through TV-family shenanigans in his platform boots and bolt-screwed neck. In a weird way, Fred Gwynne as Herman Munster makes an indelible impression for some of the same reasons Boris Karloff had in Whale’s films, though to far different affect. Like Karloff’s, Gwynne’s makeup was tailored to his unique features, allowing for that human connection, for that pathos in Karloff’s case and that personality in Gwynne’s. And, as you’ve told me, acting through makeup takes a particular talent. They keep trying to reboot The Munsters, and they keep failing at it. Probably because it was too schlocky to begin with, but most definitely because Gwynne is irreplaceable.
As for the equally irreplaceable Tim Curry …. I have no idea how The Rocky Horror Picture Show didn’t blip onto my radar until my early twenties. The first time I saw it, my friend had rented it because it was Halloween and we thought Rocky Horror was going to be something like Creepshow. I really wish I could be that surprised by a movie again.
HANEY: I wasn’t that surprised, since I had heard a lot about it by the time I saw it. But I’m not that huge a fan. Rocky Horror is a relic of my midnight-movies youth, though I never dressed in costume or did the Time Warp, and I like it now mainly because of Tim Curry.
One underappreciated aspect of The Munsters is the way it reflects the America of Ellis Island, which still lived in memory when the show was current. Many young Americans of the sixties had heard their grandparents or even their parents speak of “the old country”—for the Munsters, the old country is Transylvania—and just as few Ellis Island immigrants could afford higher education, so that they worked at trades or in factories, the Munsters are maintained by Herman’s low-level job at a funeral parlor. Herman’s vampire father-in-law, meanwhile, is a retired vaudeville magician and garage inventor, though in his case the garage is a dungeon clearly based on the Frankenstein lab, and he’s as much a mad scientist as he’s an inventor. Grandpa Munster is Count Dracula and Dr. Frankenstein combined!
I was going to say that the mad scientist—a stock character of old movies, starting with Frankenstein—has disappeared, but on second thought, I’m not sure that’s true.
HAWKINS: Well, there’s Dr. Heiter, the mad surgeon, from The Human Centipede films, which I guess you could say is an evolution of the Frankenstein story itself.
HANEY: I haven’t seen The Human Centipede, but to cast a wide net, any character who misuses science or technology is in the mad-scientist tradition, and there are bound to be many such characters in movies now. On the other hand, most Hollywood movies are now made for audiences in their teens or younger, and those audiences don’t have much, if any, ambivalence about technology, so maybe there’s no such thing as going “too far” in the mad-scientist way. Robot slaves? Hybrid animals? Computers that “feel”? Cool! Where can I, like, get one?
Frankenstein is a book you teach, right? Does it raise any questions of the “What does it mean to be human?” type for your students? Without your prompting, I mean.
HAWKINS: Not necessarily in those terms, though they often express surprise that the monster is more human than they’d anticipated. This is something, out of curiosity, I like to keep track of every semester I teach Frankenstein—what they focus on, where their sympathies tend to fall, what pre-formed knowledge of Frankenstein they bring to their reading of the novel. Usually, when I ask, only a few say they’ve read the novel before, and even fewer have seen any of the Frankenstein film adaptations (most have seen The Human Centipede). One thing they all know before digging into the novel is the image of Whale’s Frankenstein monster. The fact that Whale’s is the ubiquitous Frankenstein is fascinating to me (though we’ve already touched on Karloff’s role in that). But it’s also fascinating that filmmakers keep returning to this tale. I, Frankenstein releases this January, and there’s some talk about revisiting Frankenstein in a broader effort to bring back Universal’s classic movie monsters, for example. Why do you think Frankenstein, in one form or another, endures?
HANEY: Well, Hollywood fears risk, so it seeks proven commodities: remakes and sequels of blockbuster movies, and adaptations of hit novels, plays, and television shows. Of course, there aren’t many hit novels compared to the past, and the theater is kind of hobbling along as well. In fact, Broadway, with its endless revivals, has become more like Hollywood in recent years. Anyway, on the simplest level, I think Frankenstein keeps getting recycled because everyone has heard of it, and that suits producers and audiences alike. I’m consistently struck by the timidity of today’s audiences. They stick to what they know.
On another level, the Frankenstein story is an early vision of technological man that’s still relevant after 200 years. It’s very possible to go too far, though we don’t always agree as to where the line has been crossed and we may not know until it’s too late. But we push ahead blindly because that’s what we do, trusting that science and technology will protect and save us, and works like Shelley’s Frankenstein are there to warn of the potential consequences. What is it about that particular story? I would guess it’s the characters. I haven’t read much science fiction, but it may be that no characters have ever dramatized the stakes of “progress” as clearly and purely as Victor and his creature.
What do you think?
HAWKINS: Yeah, I think that’s right, and I would add that not only is it a failure of science unchecked but a failure of human goodness as well. Science might have formed the creature, but it’s rejection that makes him monstrous. I wish one of these movie reboots would finally get Shelley’s Frankenstein just right. And I wish it could star James Dean.
HANEY: You know, I never thought about it until now, but James Dean, the chronically alienated epitome of teen angst, would have been ideally cast as the monster in a Frankenstein remake. As a matter of fact, he once played the monster in a school play called Goon with the Wind, and I understand he did his own makeup.
HAWKINS: Not bad! In the words of Mary Shelley: “His countenance bespoke bitter anguish, combined with disdain and malignity.” I imagine Dean’s was the most convincing monster to ever drag his platform boots across a high school stage.
D. R. Haney is the author of a novel, Banned for Life, and a nonfiction collection, Subversia.