Universal Horror: Frankenstein



Say it and an image immediately pops into people’s heads. The flat head, the electrodes in the neck (that everyone mistakenly calls bolts), the green skin, the heavily lidded eyes, and the lumbering movement.

And not one bit of that description appears anywhere in Mary Shelly’s original novel.

No, you can thank the 1931 motion picture for the popular image of the Frankenstein monster, and for cementing him as an icon of our culture.

To be fair the movie is also largely based on a stage play version, written by Peggy Webling.

One of the challenges in attempting to review this film is to separate it from the very pop culture it spawned.

The movie has an interesting opening. A well-dressed man steps out from behind a curtain. Speaking directly to the audience he warns them that what they are about to see may shock and horrify them.

Then we go to credits. I’ll be honest; I’m not sure what is up with the credits. Behind the title of the movie is the top half of someone’s head and beams are shooting from the eyes. The next part where the cast and crew credits are shown have a swirling kaleidoscope of eyes.

There are two interesting notes in the credits. First is that the monster gets fourth billing and is billed as being played by “?”. These credits are given again at the end and “?” is replace by Boris Karloff.

The other odd credit is “Based on the Novel by Mrs. Percy B. Shelly”. I have not found any reason that Mary Shelly was referred to this way. I have to assume it was just the casual sexism of the 1930s.

I’m not going to do a scene-by-scene break down, so here is the summary:

The first part of the film details Dr. Henry Frankenstein’s efforts to create life by building a body from recent corpses and animating it by way of a new wave length of energy he has discovered. Once he succeeds, the film details the struggle of the Doctor with this new life he has created, and his creation’s attempt to understand the world he has been born too.  This spirals out of control as the creature becomes violent due to abuse at the hands of Frankenstein’s assistant Fritz. Tragedy ensues leading to the monster’s demise and the Doctor nearly dying himself.

So let’s start with what works. And the first thing I want to point out is the performance of Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein. I think this role gets glossed over often, due to everyone focusing on Karloff’s performance as the monster. But the movie is as much about Henry as it is the creature. He is a man obsessed, but the foundation of what he is doing is sound. Clive has a great speech shortly after the creature is brought to life about scientific exploration and how its boundaries need to be pushed if anything is to be achieved. However, he has moments that show he is not as well hinged as he wants others to believe. He has bouts of mania and despair. A more modern film would probably come right out and say was suffering from bipolar disorder. While a little over the top for modern tastes, for the era it was a really good performance. His lines “It’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive” and “Now I know what it feels like to be God” are classics, and often quoted. This performance set the precedent for all film mad scientists that would come after.

Another stand out is Dwight Frye as Fritz, Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant. If Clive set the mold of the Mad Scientist then Frye set the mold for deranged lab assistant. While the level of Henry’s obsession is a slow burn at first, that something is not right with Fritz is clear from the beginning and has nothing to do with his physical deformity. Frye portrays Fritz’s madness well, and walks a fine line in playing big yet never going over the top. Every Igor that followed owes Fritz a debt.

And of course you have Karloff as the monster. There is a reason that this role became an icon.  Aided by the amazing make up work of Jack Pierce, Karloff portrayed the creature to perfection. The creature is both innocent and menacing. Karloff wanted to make sure that there was more going on than just a lumbering beast and he succeeded. There is a reason the creature is often portrayed as the good guy in many of the stories and adaptations that followed, and it all goes back to Karloff.

You also have a fine performance from Edward Van Sloan as Henry’s mentor Dr. Walden (he also played the well-dressed man at the opening warning to the audience), who is horrified at what Henry has done, and yet can’t resist the fascination of the science, and a decent performance from Marilyn Harris as the little girl who befriends the monster only to be killed because the creature doesn’t know how strong it really is.

A lot of credit for the success of the movie has to go to director James Whale. His pacing keeps the audience’s attention even 80 years later.

But not everything holds up.

Mae Clarke as Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth is a throw-away part. Her whole purpose in the movie seems to be to worry about Henry and in turn to have him worry about her.  While the subplot of their wedding helps drive some of the action, she is not a compelling character.

But even worse is Frederick Kerr as Henry’s father Baron Frankenstein. He is basically a blustering old fool. He adds little to the plot, and at best seems to be comic relief.

The Baron also brings up another point that does work now.  Just where the hell is the movie set? In the original novel it was Switzerland, and the movie has hints of this, but it might also be Germany. That would be great but the various characters have a wide range of accents. I’m sure it comes down no one carrying about the accents that much. But if you think about it for a minute it is just weird.

The sets are another issue. Specifically several outdoor scenes are clearly filmed in-studio and you can see streaks on the back drop.

There was also the tacked-on happy ending. It is pretty clear that originally Frankenstein was going to die at the hands of his creation. The studio was not happy with that and had a final scene added that showed Henry convalescing with his father doddering about. In fairness, this scene left the door open for the sequel which many feel is a superior film.

The legacy of this film more than makes up for the short comings I have presented. As I said before, the image of the monster from this movie has become iconic.  Every Frankenstein’s monster that has come after is compared to Karloff’s. Also many of the trappings we associate with the story were started here. Nowhere in the Shelly novel is the means of the monster’s creation detailed. But the use of electricity has become common due to the films influence. The same is true of the lab assistant. In the novel, Frankenstein worked alone.

I would also argue that the misunderstood monster came from here. Early scenes with the creature show that it was not inherently aggressive, and that it even wanted a connection with its creator. It was abuse from Fritz and the revulsion of Dr. Walden that made it lash out. Even the death of the little girl was not intentional and clearly upset the creature greatly when he realized she was dead.

And again, Dwight Frye’s Fritz set the tone for the horror film henchman. You see this from Ygor in Son of Frankenstein to Willy Lomas in Dark Shadows and even Riff Raff in the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The same is true of Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein. It’s not even worth listing them all. Look at a crazed or obsessed scientist in any move since and you will see echoes of Clive’s performance.

Another influence is in the torch-wielding mob. This has become as much a staple as the gothic castle. And speaking of gothic castles, while this movie did not originate that, it was the first use of the castle thunder effect, and that trope it did start.

I think it also needs credit for kicking off the career of Boris Karloff. His contribution to film and television is significant, and had James Whale not seen him in the Universal commissary, we would have never had him as the narrator of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Finally, this movie is what truly kicked off Universal Horror. Even though Dracula came first, it was Frankenstein’s success that proved to the studio that there was an ongoing audience for horror.

Speaking of Dracula, next time we delve into the Universal Horror vault, we will take a look at the 1931 film with Bela Lugosi.



I can’t believe it’s not Superman

With the release of the movie Chronicle I am pleased that a cliché was avoided. Not that the movie is free from them, let’s face it, it is a found footage movie, but there is one I am glad it avoided. (At least I think they did, I haven’t had a chance to go see it yet. I know “Bad Fanboy”)

It’s a movie riffing on superpowers and superheroes where the characters powers are not based on Superman.
Think about it for a minute, name a superhero movie not based on a pre-existing superhero property where the hero’s powers were not basically Superman’s. Seriously the only one that I can name off the top of my head is the Toxic Avenger and I’m not sure he counts.
When I say Superman based I am talking about the following specific powers:
Super strength
Other powers will often be present as well, but those three seem to be universal.
I’ll admit that there are a lot of superheroes in comics have these powers and are not considered rip offs of Superman. Rogue of the X-men, the Martian Manhunter, and Thor spring immediately to mind.
But most of the characters I am talking about are clearly taking their cues from Superman.
Now to be fair Superman is a cultural icon and the first image to enter people’s minds when the term superhero is used.  But all that tells me is that a lot of screenwriters are lazy. (Let’s all pretend to be shocked). So I guess for most people not immersed in geek culture Superman is synonymous with superhero.
And in most cases these portrayals are exploring ideas that you couldn’t with Superman himself. Superman is the paragon of superheroes. He is confident, noble, and humble. Often these pastiches are exploring ideas that would not fit with those qualities.
Most often you find the story to be about an ordinary person leading an ordinary life suddenly finding themselves with superpowers.
In the sixties you had two competing TV comedies, Mr. Terrific and Captain Nice, which had heroes who gained temporary powers based on a secret formula.  While similar ideas both had different execution. Mr. Terrific worked for the government who supplied the super pills that only seemed to work on him. Most episodes had his powers run out at the worst possible time. Captain Nice was a police scientist (no one said forensics back then) who invented a formula that gave him powers. Most episodes were about him needing to get to his formula in order to save the day. The other big difference in these shows was that Mr. Terrific was awkward with his powers, where Captain Nice could handle them, but was stuck with a ridiculous costume his mother made.
Moving on to the eighties and you had the Greatest American Hero, about a school teacher given a superhero costume by aliens that gave him superpowers. Like Mr. Terrific he had poor control over his abilities. The appeal of this show was the buddy cop aspect provided by his FBI friend/partner.
All these shows while having some fun with the everyman superhero idea suffered from the same problem, a problem that all TV shows featuring a super powered hero, be they from a previous license of not, suffered from. Almost none of the antagonists had superpowers. So really none of them ever really had a comic book feel to them, but more of a superhero in the real world vibe.
Movies didn’t always fare much better. You had parodies, like The Return of Captain Invincible. This was a movie where a hero from the 50’s is disgraced and becomes an alcoholic bum. He is found and has to clean up his act in order to save the world from his arch enemy. It was low budget fluff, even if it did have Christopher Lee as the bad guy.
There was a terrible Italian movie called Puma Man. Yes, Puma man.  His powers were Puma based yet somehow they still made him a Superman Pastiche. His powers were even of extraterrestrial origin. If you heard of this one at all it was because Mystery Science Theater 3000 got their hands on it.
In 1993 there was Meteor Man, which sadly really wasn’t more than Greatest American Hero with an all-black cast.
More recently there was Hancock with Will Smith. To the writer’s credit instead of having a movie about an everyman with powers, it went with “What if Superman was a drunken asshole.” What was nice was they did dig a bit into the characters psychology to given him a reason for being that way and made it a redemption tale.
And there are certainly exceptions. The Incredibles for example was more of a riff on the Fantastic Four.
Sometimes Warner Brothers, who owns DC comics, thinks that these shows get a little too close to their copyright for comfort. For example WB sued over the Greatest American Hero. Ultimately lost as the court felt the character wasn’t close enough to Superman to warrant a violation, even with nearly the same powers.
Of course there are the non-powered heroes, but that could be a whole article on Batman pastiches. (And probably will be)
Will we see more Superman pastiches in the future? I don’t see why not.  Until then I think I will get out there and see Chronicle.

The Smallville Smackdown

This week it was announced that DC entertainment will release a weekly digital comic called Smallville Season 11.
I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence.
Be thankful I haven’t launched the Fanboy News Network video series yet, I would have been yelling.
So why would I be yelling about a continuation of Smallville? Well let’s go over the reasons.
First, while I assume that if you read this blog you know what Smallville is, just in case you don’t here is the quick recap. The show is about the Life of Clark Kent between his freshman year in high school and his assuming the identity of Superman. It lasted 10 seasons. The mantra of the show was “No Flight, No Tights.”  
Ok on to the ranting.
Frist thing that springs to mind: Smallville already lasted five seasons too long. Seriously the idea was to show the events that lead Clark on the road to becoming the greatest hero of all time. The first four seasons were ok. It was never stellar Television. It was Superman as seen through the lens of Dawson’s Creek. It had two things going for it, a sense of destiny as we know how the two main characters would turn out, and the performance of Michael Rosenbaum as Lex Luthor.
Of course those early seasons had their issues too. Chief amongst them was the miscasting of Kristen Kreuk as Lana Lang. She had no chemistry with series lead Tom Welling. This would not have been so bad except that they cast Allison Mack as Chloe Sullivan, a character that had an unrequited crush on Clark. Mack had tons of chemistry with Welling, making Kreuk’s lack of it jarring.
The point here is that at the beginning you had an ok show that did surprisingly well in the ratings. And that may have been its curse. By season five the show had really run its course, but for CW it was doing great ratings so it was renewed. And they kept renewing it.
Maybe if the story had advanced it would not have been awful, but merely bad. But “No Flight, No Tights” meant they had to keep Clark as not quite Superman. What ended up happening was an amazing hack job of the Superman myth that made most fanboys rage. What was worst is that every now and then they actually had something good, like Geoff Johns love letter to the Golden Age with his JSA episode. But mostly it was crap that went on five years past its expiration date.
The final season was particularly bad in that it started out like most Smallville seasons, but part way through someone in the writers’ room must have woken up.
“Oh crap, this is the last season, we should take the Clark Kent character we have developed and shoehorn him into the personality from the comic books.”
I’m not kidding. It was the 9th episode of the 10th season that Clark Kent started wearing glasses. And was the 13th before he started with the mild mannered nerd persona. Like people who know him before would not figure out that the Clark Kent they knew for years was Superman.  I think it would ended up like being the Saturday Night Live Sketch with the Rock as Clark Kent where everyone know he was Superman and just humored him.
 A lot of this could have been forgiven, if they had nailed the series finale. If they gave us that rousing moment when Clark Kent became the Man of Steel and defeated the villain becoming the champion he was meant to be.
That would have been nice.
But Smallville had a history of unsatisfying season finales and I guess they saw no reason to make the series finale any different.
It was a two hour finale, and when Clark finally confronted the bad guy there were 14 minutes left in the episode. In that time the following happened:
·         He learned to fly
·         He defeated Darkseid, one of the most powerful entities in the DC Universe, by flying through him
·         He went to the Fortress of Solitude and got the Superman Costume.
·         He saved the airplane Lois Lane was on.
·         He flew in the sky and pushed a planet away from Earth.
·         Then there was an epilog.
And in none of that was there ever a clear shot of Tom Welling actually wearing the Superman costume. The rumor I keep hearing is that Welling, who was also a producer on the show, refused to wear it. I guess he felt that he should never fully been seen as Superman. What it did was leave the audience feeling cheated.
10 year build up with no pay off.
So now, I assume due to the success of the Buffy Season 8 and 9 comics DC feels they can give us this pay off.
I have an idea. If you want to see Clark Kent at the beginning of his career as Superman read the current run of Action Comics. At least they are going about it honestly.
For me the big mystery is why I watch that damn show for all ten seasons.
The only answer I can come up with is that I am such a comic fanboy that since It was something related to Superman thus I was obligated. 
Or maybe some part of me knew that one day I would write a geek culture blog and I would need to know the shows history to really tear into it.
I’m going with that last one. It makes me feel better.

The Ultimate Crossover: The Wold Newton Family

 MythsAs long as there has been fiction one of the favorite tropes has been the crossover, characters from one set of stories meeting characters from another. Sherlock Holmes matching wits with Count Dracula, Allen Quartermain and Captain Nemo teaming up to repel an invasion from Mars, Rick and A.J. Simon teaming up with Thomas Magnum to take down a con artist. There is a desire to see interaction between these characters. And it is not just the realm of fan fiction that these happen. The examples I used above were from various published or produced works.

But there is one person who took the crossover idea to a new level, Philip Jose Farmer. In 1972 Farmer wrote Tarzan Alive. This novel was a biography written as if Tarzan had been a real person. This alone made it an interesting book as Farmer attempted to reconcile several of the inconsistencies in the Tarzan novels, such as claiming the apes that raised him were not actually apes but something closer to an African species of Sasquatch.  Towards the end of the book and in his follow up the next year Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life Farmer formed the basis of what would come to be known as the Wold Newton Family. This concept would be an attempt to tie Victorian and Pulp era heroes together in one great shared universe.

The concept takes its name from a real world event. On December 13th 1795 a meteorite fall just a few miles away from the small Hamlet of Wold Newton in Yorkshire, England. It was the first intact meteorite to be found in England and of great scientific interest.

What Farmer did was to take this event and use it as a jumping off point. According to Farmer when the meteorite struck two coaches were nearby carrying a group going on holiday at a county estate.  Due to some unknown effect of the meteorite’s landing the people in the coaches had their DNA altered leading to their descendants being extraordinary individuals.

Amongst the passengers were the following:

John Clayton, the third Duke of Greystoke, and his wife, Alicia
Sir Percy Blakeney, (the Scarlet Pimpernel), and his second wife, Alice Clarke Raffles
Dr. Siger Holmes and his wife, Violet Clarke Raffles
Fitzwilliam Darcy and his wife, Elizabeth Bennett
Sir Hugh Drummond, and his wife, Georgia Dewhurst
George Edward Rutherford, and his wife, Elizabeth Cavendish
Honore Delagardie and his wife, Philippa
Sebastion Noel, a medical student of Dr. Holmes
The coachmen were Louis Lupin, Albert Lecoq, Arthur Blake and Simon MacNichols

You may have notice some familiar sounding names in there.  The idea from here is that the descendants of these individuals would be great heroes and villains.

An example is the family of John Clayton. Clearly he is the grandfather of Tarzan, but as it turns out Doc Savage, James Bond and even Fu Manchu can claim him as an ancestor.

Sebastion Noel’s family line includes Professor James Moriarty (who for a time went by the alias Captain Nemo), Dr. No, and Lex Luthor.

Sir Percy’s family includes the Shadow. Sir Hugh’s family has Bulldog Drummond, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and Captain America.

I could go on but why don’t you go here and here to look at the vast family trees involved.

Here is a good time to point out that Farmer may have started this, but others have picked it up. It has become a literary game. People will go in and try to find connections to bring new characters into the Wold Newton family. Originally it was just Victorian and Pulp era characters but it has expanded to include modern characters from novels, TV, movies, video games and comics.

Example:  Indiana Jones is a Holmes as is his nephew, Daniel Jackson of Stargate SG-1. In what should surprise no one Lara Croft was one of his students.

Additions have been made that incorporate Star Trek, Lovecraft’s Mythos and Doctor Who.

And the monsters, oh the monsters.

The amount of detail some people have gone to in order to include the Universal Monsters is truly amazing.

There are chronicles for the families of Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr. Jekyll.

Conceits are created to explain different versions of the characters. For Dracula the idea is introduced that he could turn a person and then imprint his mind on theirs (a process he called soul cloning). Since the process was not exact it could explain differences in how the character acts in different stories.

For Frankenstein you have the idea of the family having an obsession that carries from generation to generation.

And then there are the attempts to tie things together. Let’s look at the story of the creature created by Frankenstein’s Great-Grandson Frederick Frankenstein, which you will all know from the movie Young Frankenstein. According to Wold Newton Elizabeth, the fiancé of Fredrick who fell in love with creature was in reality named Lilith and was the daughter of one of Dracula’s soul clones. When Van Helsing’s organization the League of Anti-Diabolists learned of their attempt to lead a peaceful life they stepped in to help, hoping to see if monsters could be rehabilitated. They were moved to America along with Lilith’s father and given guardian ship of a young orphan named Edmond who was infected with lycanthropy.  A league member Marilyn Krough was placed with them to observe their attempts at domestication. The creature adopted the name Herman. Thus they became the Munsters.

Try to tell me that is not a cool concept.

One more I really like.

Henry Jekyll’s formula did not work with way he thought it did. All it did was trigger his latent Therianthropy. This is a trait he would pass down to his offspring, many fathered as Mr Hyde. His decedents would include Bruce Banner and Ben Grimm.

I’m sure many of you have noticed similarities to both Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula series. Both authors have stated that the Wold Newton Family was an influence.

And all this just scratches the surface. You can spend hours going over all the details people have added to this particular academic exercise. Go here for the best web site resource I know of. Also check out the book Myths of the Modern Age which is a collection of articles edited by Win Scott Eckert.

Now all we need to do is figure out which family tree Gibbs from NCIS belongs in.