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Frankenstein: The Most Human of the Monsters

Posted by Jeff Kirschner on February 16, 2016

No one asks to be born. Life is a gift to be cherished; there’s no debating that. But it’s a gift foisted rather than welcomed. We all come into the world the same way: kicking, screaming, mewling, and begging to be placed back into the warm, safe hearth that was our home for the prior nine months. Our circumstances differ, but our beginnings remain the same.

Then, as we grow and mature, we count on our loved ones for support and security until we feel strong enough to venture into the all-too-often harsh world on our own. Our experiences and encounters, as well as the relationships we forge, inform who we are and what we become. A rather facile description of life, granted, but this is not a dissertation on existentialism. Rather it’s a piece about my favorite movie monster, Frankenstein’s Monster.

Frankenstein poster

Movie monsters are many, but the one whom I’ve always related to the most is Frankenstein’s. Like all of us, Frankenstein (and for the balance of this piece, I will refer to him by the more popularly accepted nomenclature “Frankenstein” as opposed to the more accurate “Frankenstein’s Monster”) was brought into a world not of his own volition, but rather on the whim of his maker. The character was created by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in her 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and adapted into its most popular incarnation in James Whale’s seminal 1931 film Frankenstein. The character’s origins, mental acumen, physical appearance, and ultimate circumstances differ greatly from page to screen, and those differences won’t be explored here except to say that Shelley’s story was as much a philosophical and moral exploration of the perils of “playing God” and meddling with forbidden knowledge  as it was a Gothic/horror novel.

The film too touches on those themes, although much more subtly than in the novel. A line, uttered by Dr. Henry Frankenstein (an amazing Colin Clive) in the film immediately after giving birth to his creation, “In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God!” was deemed too blasphemous, and several states cut the offending line from prints of the film. But what is the act of birth if not “becoming god,” albeit very temporarily, by giving life where whence there was none? But what resonates more with me are the feelings of rejection, unwantedness, and unacceptance that the Monster (Boris Karloff, in one of the most iconic performances in film history, aided and abetted by the virtuoso creature design and makeup of Jack Pierce) experiences.

There is so much pathos in Frankenstein that it’s almost unbearable. Who among us has not felt, at one time or another, unloved, unwanted, unaccepted, misunderstood, lonely, ugly, rejected, different from the norm or unable to fit in to “natural” society? Frankenstein from birth to “death” (he did, of course, not really die and returned for the even-better sequel Bride of Frankenstein) experiences all of that. Thus, Frankenstein’s Monster makes for cinema’s ultimate outsider, and also the most human of all the monsters.

After Frankenstein is given life, brought like us all into a world he never asked to be a part of, Henry is discussing his creation with his colleague Dr. Waldman. Dr. Frankenstein mentions that his creation (for all intents and purposes, his son) has only been alive for a few days, and “Wait until I bring him into the light,” echoing the expectations that all parents have for their children. We then get our first glimpse of the Monster, and he’s as docile and innocent as can be. He obeys Henry’s command to sit, and it is then that he is given light. The look on Frankenstein’s face as he reaches into the sunlight for the first time is heartbreakingly beautiful, but he is quickly denied that simple pleasure. His hands even reach out in a pleading gesture for more. Sunlight, in this context, can easily be viewed as a metaphor for a parent’s love.

Frankenstein sun

Suddenly, Henry’s malformed assistant Fritz runs in bearing a torch and immediately screams in horror upon viewing the Monster’s “ugliness.” Frankenstein is soon subdued and chained and left to be taunted and whipped by Fritz, who’s probably happy to torment someone even more socially unacceptable than he is. Not knowing any better, and thus far experiencing only violence, Frankenstein kills Fritz.

Instead of understanding and protecting his son, Henry agrees with Dr. Waldman that Frankenstein should be killed. And thus the rejection begins. Henry’s creation has not lived up to his expectations and, hence, must be shunned. Frankenstein is quickly locked away in order for his monstrous appearance to not be seen by Henry’s father nor Henry’s fiancée, Elizabeth. The poor beast is then abandoned by the only parental figure he ever knew and is left to be experimented on by Waldman. Again, knowing no better as he has not been given anything remotely resembling love and acceptance, Frankenstein chokes Waldman and escapes into the world at large, well before his “maturity.” It’s a world he has never encountered before, nor one he is prepared for.

At this point we come to the film’s most controversial scene. Frankenstein has thus far been responsible for two deaths, but they can be justified as self-defense. Craving acceptance and companionship, Frankenstein finds a young girl, Maria, playing by the river. Instead of recoiling in terror, she takes the monster’s hand and asks him to play. Again, the look on Karloff’s face as Frankenstein smells a flower and feels acceptance for the first time is achingly beautiful and simultaneously heart-rending.

We all know how this ends. Frankenstein and Maria toss flowers into the river, and upon seeing them float, Frankenstein, in his naiveté, surmises that Maria would as well. He picks her up and tosses her into the drink. She does not surface. A cold-blooded murder this was not, and the look of sheer horror when Frankenstein realizes what he has done attests to that. He simply was never taught any better.

Nonetheless, this is the impetus for the villagers to shun the monster en masse and chase him through the village, torches in hand. Henry joins the lynch mob, the ultimate betrayal of a father to his son. Ultimately, the doctor and his creation meet and fight on top of a mountain and later a windmill. This is a fight for sheer survival on the part of the confused Monster, who still cannot comprehend why his father/creator hates him so. Ultimately, the villagers burn the windmill to the ground with Frankenstein still in it, thus erasing the village of the outsider, the reject, the one who does not fit in. Karloff’s screams as he’s seemingly burned and crushed to death are beyond mournful.

In a nice bit of irony, the ultimate outsider has, in the ensuing years, become an ingrained piece of the pop culture firmament, the Karloff/Pierce visage adorning everything from toys to postage stamps to loot bags to commemorative plates. Children every year dress up as the monster for Halloween, and when they stare in the mirror and view themselves made up in all the hallmarks of the character – the haphazardly stitched scars, the flat skull, the green skin, the oversized shoulders, the thick-soled shoes, the electrical bolts attached to the neck – perhaps they grin. But maybe they do so because what they are seeing staring back at them is not just a wonderful costume but, rather, a reflection of a monster that in some weird way embodies what it really means to be human.

The post Frankenstein: The Most Human of the Monsters appeared first on Dread Central.

Doctor Gash’s Top 10 Greatest Horror Movies… EVER! #7 – Frankenstein

Posted by Doctor Gash on February 21, 2013

Film #7 on Doctor Gash’s Top 10 Greatest Horror Movies… Ever! is a classic that was censored and scrutinized in its day for scenes of blasphemy and violence against children.

That’s right, today we may think of Frankenstein as just an old black and white monster movie, but upon its release in 1931, this movie was shocking.

Henry Frankenstein: Look! It's moving. It's alive. It's alive...It's alive, it's moving, it's alive, it's alive, it's alive, it's alive, IT'S ALIVE!
Victor Moritz: Henry - In the name of God!
Henry Frankenstein: Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God! "

We’ve been completely numbed to the power of Frankenstein. We’re hyper-exposed to The Monster as a cute, smiling Halloween staple, a clown (Herman Munster) and a character in children’s books (Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich by Adam Rex, for instance) and kids' movies (Kevin James' character in Hotel Transylvania and Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas is a female version of The Monster…and that is just two off the top of my head). But let's consider how this film was received when it was released over 80 years ago.

We can’t be swayed by what The Monster has become but rather simply remember what he is. He is a jigsaw corpse pieced together from random bodies, driven by a demented criminal brain, and reanimated by a mad scientist. The Monster is completely lost in a world that is foreign to him. He's tortured and cast aside by his creators…and then the monstrosity is unleashed upon the public with horrific results.

Doctor Gash's Top 10 Greatest Horror Movies... EVER! #7 - Frankenstein

Although society’s main image of the Frankenstein Monster is undoubtedly cartoonish and fun, we must remember that upon its release, this film was considered so extreme it was actually censored in some parts. You have to remember this was 80 years ago and the sections that were removed from some prints of the film could air on prime time network television these days, but at the time, they were intense. Fans of the film will not be surprised to learn that the most scrutinized scene was the one involving The Monster throwing young Maria into the lake when he misunderstood the game they were playing together. On some prints of the film the entire second half of the of that scene, from when The Monster realized he no longer had flowers to throw into the water, through the end was cut.

More surprising is the scene when Henry Frankenstein actually brought the creature to life. He became extremely excited and proclaimed, “Now I know what it feels like to be God.” As John Lennon learned, comparing oneself to a popular deity usually doesn’t go over very well with the general public. There was an uproar over that line in the film and in many prints it was drown out with a large thunderclap. Other scenes that were cut at times were Fritz’s sadistic glee while torturing The Monster with a torch and the actual needle injecting The Monster while the doctor was subduing him. Pretty tame stuff by today’s standards, but at the time some places considered too much for the public to handle.

As for the main characters, the maniacal nature of Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) fuels the emotion of the film, but the true strength is in the performance of Boris Karloff as The Monster. Rarely in the history of cinema has anyone delivered such a memorable performance without ever uttering a single intelligible word. Karloff does a brilliant job of conveying anger, fear, confusion and hate, without verbally expressing anything more than grunts and growls. And director James Whale did a legendary job directing the iconic film.

Perhaps the most thrilling moment in the film comes when the doctor pulls the cover away and reveals his creation underneath. Remember, all of us were already very familiar with the Frankenstein Monster before viewing this film, but can you imagine the reaction of audiences originally seeing Frankenstein who had no idea what to expect. You have to envy them. Certainly make-up artist Jack Pierce needs to be credited here, as he was the one who designed the ‘flat-head’ look to The Monster (Pierce also worked on Karloff’s Mummy and Lon Chaney’s Wolfman. Certainly an impressive pedigree).

As far as influential horror films go, perhaps no movie can claim a bigger role than Frankenstein. With shocking imagery and brilliant performances this classic no doubt deserves its place among the greatest horror films of all time.

Doctor Gash's Top 10 Greatest Horror Movies... EVER! #7 - Frankenstein

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