“It’s Inescapable” — Two Hundred Summers Ago Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein
By Stuart Mitchner
Gene Wilder’s recent death has revived Young Frankenstein — not that Mel Brooks’s classic 1974 travesty of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) by way of the James Whale/Boris Karloff film (1931) needed reviving. You could stop strangers on the street in Princeton or any university town anywhere and soon find someone who could quote you a favorite line or describe a favorite scene. Even so, for all those who have not already revisited the 1974 film, it will be shown again on October 5 in a special one-night-only presentation in more than 500 theaters nationwide, with a “live introduction” by Mel Brooks.
A Bizarre Course
What takes Young Frankenstein to a level beyond the gags is Gene Wilder’s kindly, horny, out-of-it Dr. Frankensteen. While a stranger on the street may not be able to name the actor who played the monster (Peter Boyle), no one is likely to forget his loving, fatherly creator. In the new Rutgers University Press book, Monstrous Progeny: A History of the Frankenstein Narratives, there’s an image of a blissed-out Wilder cuddling his “emotionally needy creation”; his expression is the other side of rhapsodic, he might be Chopin caressing the score of a nocturne or listening to the music of the spheres. Co-authored by Lester D. Friedman and Allison B. Kavey, Monstrous Progeny may be the most thorough exploration of the bizarre course the Frankenstein myth has taken since Mary Shelley conceived it 200 years ago this summer. Besides tracing the stagings and filmings through the years, the book looks at “laff riots” like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, biological mutation movies like The Fly, reanimation films (Re-Animator and sequels), cyborg films (RoboCop), robot movies (Blade Runner and A.I.), and more.
“Frankenstein is inescapable” — so begins the concluding chapter’s “quick tour around the cultural landscape” that includes comic books, children’s books, pornography, poster art, action figures, Halloween masks, U.S. postage stamps of the Karloff monster, an image of the Niagara Falls House of Frankenstein, a Franken Berry cereal box, monster family sitcoms like The Munsters with Fred Gwynne’s gently goofy reprise of the monster’s familiar face. According to Monstrous Progeny, “so immensely popular do these images remain that Universal Studios copyrighted and trademarked them.” Replicating them too closely could lead to a lawsuit. You need permission from the studio to incorporate the “green skin, flat-top head, scar on the forehead, bolts on the neck, and protruding forehead.” The multitude of products licensed by Universal includes “everything from Halloween costumes to toys to mugs to throw pillows to model kits to iPhone 6 cases to pluggable fragrance dispensers to mouse pads.”
Little Did I Know
I’m a living example of how “inescapable” Frankenstein is, having been married for almost 50 years to the eldest daughter of the director of I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, which I saw (little did I know) at a Bloomington Indiana drive-in with Blood of Dracula, another creature feature directed by my future father-in-law, Herbert L. Strock.
Humor and horror tend to go together, if not quite as neatly as love and marriage. When a friend and I went to that drive-in double bill, we didn’t expect to be frightened. We could scare ourselves just by talking about Indiana farm boys sucked screaming into the beyond by alien beings. All we wanted was to be amused, diverted, relieved of the trauma of terminal boredom, for spring in Bloomington in the late 1950s could drive young men mad. That night we relieved our boredom by watching Gary Conway play a muscular t-shirted teen-ager who appeared perfectly high-school-harry normal except for a hideously mutilated face that made the Phantom of the Opera look warm and fuzzy. While we found it a bit odd that the creature’s creator (Whit Bissell) came off as a dull, smooth-talking Brit without a British accent, we gave him points for keeping a dumb-waiter-like device in his laboratory: slide it open and down below is a pit where lives the crocodile who makes a meal of Dr. Frankenstein’s nosy fiancee and eventually dines on the doctor himself, leaving nothing but a white lab coat.
Although I Was a Teenage Frankenstein was panned by “most mainstream critics,” according to Monstrous Progeny, it has achieved cult status among online horror aficionados who praise it for “combining tacky cheap thrills with a surprising amount of wit and intelligence to make it a first-rate drive-in experience.” As was often said of Strock’s work, “no one has ever done it better for so little money.” If nothing else, the film contains one of the most quotable statements in the genre. When he’s trying to get his creation to talk, Bissell’s Dr. Frankenstein says, “Speak! I know you have a civil tongue in your head because I sewed it back myself!”
None of the Frankensteins ever truly frightened me, perhaps because the story and imagery were so pervasive in the culture, an old-world phenomenon as American as apple pie. By the time I saw a television rerun of the Karloff Frankenstein, I’d already hit 100 on the fear monitor watching the original 1951 production of The Thing, which reduced the audience at the Princess Theatre in Bloomington to hysterics, screaming not laughing, so much so that the projectionist actually had to stop the film until everyone quieted down.
Most of my early moviegoing took place in the era of the Saturday matinee where cowboys outnumbered monsters, at least until the day the management at the old Harris Grand, just up the street from the Princess, snuck one of the Lon Chaney Jr. mummy movies into the mix, probably The Mummy’s Curse (1944), making the walk home, even in broad daylight, a fearful business for a seven-year-old. The image of the Mummy stalking the night in creepy cerements haunted my dreams, waking and sleeping, for years, or at least until The Thing came along.
The prologue to James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, which shows Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron in Byron’s lavish villa chatting about Mary’s book of horrors, ends with a sly, fetching Mary (Elsa Lanchester, who also plays the Bride) setting the stage for the sequel. This amusing period introduction is based on what must be the most famous of 19th-century back stories, along with Coleridge’s account of waking from an opium dream to write “Kubla Khan.” As Shelley puts it in her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, it all began with a ghost-story-telling diversion suggested by Lord Byron at his Lake Geneva villa during “a wet ungenial summer” of “incessant rain.” While “the illustrious poets … annoyed by the platitude of prose, speedily relinquished the uncongenial task,” Mary took it seriously. “I busied myself to think of a story, — a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror — one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name.”
Shelley found what she was looking for after she and the others had been discussing experiments in which “a piece of vermicelli” preserved in a glass case “by some extraordinary means … began to move with a voluntary motion …. Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvinism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.” In bed that night she saw “with shut eyes, but acute mental vision … the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together … the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.” Finding it “supremely frightful … the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world,” she imagined the artist “would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken,” hoping “that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench for ever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life.”
There was no quenching “for ever” of the creation Mary Shelley dreamed up 200 years ago on that dark and stormy June night in 1816, “the year without a summer.”
Of all the incarnations of the Creature, the closest to the original is played by Rory Kinnear in the Showtime series, Penny Dreadful, which ended after three seasons this past June, the bicentennial month of Mary Shelley’s dream. The authors of Monstrous Progeny find John Logan’s series to be “the most innovative reformulation of Shelley’s novel” in its “reiteration and expansion of the basic Frankenstein narrative nestled within a mélange of Eastern and Western myths and occult superstitions blended with generous helpings of sex, violence, gore, profanity, and death.” Kinnear’s damaged, white-faced, Wordsworth-quoting character is the poet at the heart of an extraordinary series.