The Good, The Bad,
Cinema has always been fascinated with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the Monster it spawned; but is Kenneth Branagh’s latest version the deﬁnitive one? Alan Morrison chases the horror icon back to its
. literary roots.
n the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God.’ Henry Frankenstein’s blasphemous cry, as his creation jolts into life in James Whale’s classic movie echoes around his castle laboratory. But having overstepped his mark and ventured into the realm of Things Mankind Should Not Know, the young baron found himself to be an early victim of ﬁlm censorship, reduced in most prints to repeating ‘lt’s alive! It’s alive!’ with the wild- eyed fervour of the original mad scientist. And yet this one excised line is closer to Mary Shelley’s original vision of monster and creator than anything else in this or almost any other ﬁlm adaptation of her novel.
Few literary characters have been so shamelessly exploited throughout the history of cinema as Frankenstein (original name Victor) and the Creature. In fact, for about half the world it’s the shambling, hideous mass of regenerated tissue who’s called Frankenstein, not the man who gave it life. The moral and psychological searching of Mary Shelley’s novel has been superceded by a far more potent world ﬁlled with hunchback laboratory assistants called Ygor, insane doctors, screaming mid-European villagers and pompous burgermeisters; a world which boasts, at its centre, the most memorable horror icon of all — a lumbering giant with bolts in his neck and a squared-off head.
The famous Boris Karloff incarnation was more the creation of Jack Pierce, Universal Studios’ chief make-up artist, than either Victor Frankenstein or Mary Shelley. His design was a work of genius: Karloff ’s immobile expression could be made to look at times menacing, at times sweetly innocent, depending on how the shadows flickered on his face. ‘I ﬁgured that Frankenstein, who was a scientist but no practising surgeon, would take the simplest surgical way,’ Pierce reckoned. ‘He would cut the top of the skull straight across like a pot lid, hinge it, pop the brain in, and then clamp it on tight.’ Mary Shelley’s pained, articulate Creature could never be seen in the same light again.
The ﬁrst of Universal’s Frankenstein movies, made in 1931, was primarily a cash-in on the
surprise box ofﬁce success. a few months earlier, of Tod Browning’s Dracula. Throughout the 19th century. stage adaptations of Shelley’s novel had thrilled audiences, while a short, made by the Thomas Edison Film Company. had given the Creature his ﬁrst screen outing in 1910. Other creation myths fed into the Universal production, notably the German series of Golem ﬁlms, based on the old Prague legend of a man moulded from clay.
Universal’s Frankenstein was a huge hit with the public, rescuing the studio from a financial pit and hastening a sequel, 1935’s superior Bride 0f Frankenstein, with the same director and main stars. Karloff donned the guise once more, in Son Of Frankenstein (I939), before passing the bolts on to Lon Chaney Jr, Bela Lugosi and Glenn Strange, as the Monster became something of a comic prop pitted against anyone from Dracula to the Wolf Man to Abbot and Costello.
De Niro’s Monster is a patchwork of dead flesh and bloody scars - a terrifying apparition, but still sympathetically human.
It took Britain’s Hammer Studios to send another charge of life through the story, adding a splash of garish colour to The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957). Jack Pierce’s make-up was under copyright, so Hammer had to come up with its own designs for the Monster as it too embarked on a diminishing series throughout the 60s, drawing upon the talents of a stock cast with Peter Cushing at the helm. By the 705, the horror genre was linked in unholy matrimony to soft core sleaze, and the low budget exploitation ﬁlmmakers were quick to jump on the bandwagon with productions that ranged from the cringingly embarrassing (Blackenstein and his square Afro) to the seriously perverted (Andy Warhol’s 3-D Flesh For Frankenstein). The story was spoofed in the shape of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, while television staked its claim with Herman Munster and The Addams Family’s Lurch. By the 805, the gore had gone wild with the blood-splattered corpse revival of Reanimator and countless others.
And what of Mary Shelley in all of this? Ken Russell’s Gothic (1986) rediscovered the story behind the story, cooking up a wild concoction of literary passions as she, her stepsister, the poets Byron and Shelley, and ‘Dr Polidori live out the night in 1816 when the vision ﬁrst came upon the teenage novelist-to-be. But it has taken
And The Ugly
until 1994 and a ﬁlm directed by Kenneth Branagh before the novel itself has been faithfully brought to the screen.
Mary Shelley’s novel is not about a murdering monster. It is about the refusal of a parent to recognise his responsibility to his child, and that child’s subsequent burst of revenge on his creator — in this light, perhaps Cohen’s It ’s Alive trilogy, Cronenberg’s The Broad and Burton’s Edward Scissor/lands are Frankenstein’s true descendants. It is also — remembering that Mary’s mother had died giving birth to her, and that she herself had ﬁve pregnancies in eight years, with only one child living to adulthood - about the horrors of procreation, the revulsion of childbirth. Years before Robert Louis Stevenson manifested man’s duality in Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, Shelley had written a powerful psychological depiction of the dark, destructive monster in man and the great potential for love and learning in the most monstrous of beings.
Mary Shelley ’s Frankenstein, with Branagh as Victor and Robert De Niro as a complex, sympathetic Creature, has a ﬁrm grasp of the novelist’s intentions. When it departs from the book, it improves upon it. The Monster is the offspring of youthful ambition and dangerous knowledge, its messy birth in a ‘workshop of ﬁlthy creation’ echoes human labour. The ﬁlm’s visual power inspires moments of horror and awe, capturing the overwrought spirit of the Romantics rather than the bleak Gothic gloom that cinema usually pastes onto the story: this is the ﬁrst cinema adaptation to open and close the narrative amidst the desolation of the Arctic, underlining the coldness of heart in Frankenstein’s rejection of his “son”. It also develops the role of his intended bride, Elisabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), bringing her closer to the stronger will of Mary Shelley than the traditional genre screamer.
The book — and Branagh’s ﬁlm — touch on important moral, philosophical and theological dilemmas. Mary Shelley wrote a story about the obligations of the creator when modern science was in its infancy. Perhaps, in our post-atomic age, as we meddle with genetic engineering and build computers that think for themselves, it’s time to blow the dust off her pages and begin to read again. Then, when we think of the cliché of the Monster’s outstretched arms, we’ll realise that they’re not grasping for an unsuspecting peasant’s throat, but reaching out for affection like a new-born Child. O Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein opens on Friday 4 November. The Illustrated Frankenstein Movie Guild by Stephen Jones is published by Titan Books, priced £9.99.
The List 4—17 November 1994 7