It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
— Mary Shelley, “Frankenstein”
The ghastly patchwork monster who haunts so many dreams is the inspired creation of 18-year-old Mary Shelley, who first published “Frankenstein” anonymously almost 200 years ago.
Little did she know that she was setting into motion a literary phenomenon that would serve as catalyst for countless imitations, adaptations and parodies in mediums known and unknown in her lifetime: stage plays and comic strips, musicals and models, television comedies and toys.
And, of course, movies. Lots and lots of movies, two of which will be shown as part of the Turner Classic Movies Event Series on Wednesday at Cinemark Tinseltown.
“‘Frankenstein’ has remained in print since 1818 because it is both a Gothic novel, which has never gone out of style, and because it is a novel of ideas that have become ever more relevant,” said David Thiele, assistant professor of English at the University of Mount Union. “It has the Gothic thrill of violating taboos and the charisma of a Satanic antihero in Dr. Frankenstein. It also has anxieties about the Scientific Revolution at its heart, anxieties about altering the natural order.”
Hollywood picked up on these thrills and anxieties early.
By the time Universal Studios filmed “Frankenstein” in 1931, the novel had already been adapted for the screen by no less a luminary than Thomas Edison, whose studio produced a silent version 21 years earlier.
Universal’s interpretation, however, under the control of visionary and eccentric director James Whale, established the benchmark for all future comparisons.
The adaptation keeps the basic kernel of Shelley’s tale, but adds plenty of ghastly flourishes. Young scientist Henry Frankenstein (played by Colin Clive) sequesters himself away from his loving fiancée (Mae Clarke) and university mentor (Edward Van Sloan) to conduct experiments of a most unethical — not to mention ghoulish — variety.
Not present in the original but prominent in the film are the hunchbacked assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye), and a mountaintop laboratory that is the site of Victor’s greatest triumph — and failure.
The centerpiece of Universal’s Frankenstein is, of course, the Monster itself. Played to perfection by English actor Boris Karloff, the creature never utters a line, yet still evokes both sympathy and horror as a creature stitched together from graveyard parts.
Nearly hidden beneath heavy makeup and prosthetics designed by Jack Pierce, Karloff lets his eyes do the emoting. By the film’s final reel, when villagers set a windmill ablaze in an attempt to kill the creature, audiences feel a mingled sense of relief that he is gone and outrage that his creator, who abandoned him, finds a happier ending than he deserves.
The original “Frankenstein” was such a success that Universal went back to the well for a second drink, a decision far less automatic in 1935 than in Hollywood’s later, sequel-happy years.
“The Bride of Frankenstein” reunites Whale and most of the original cast for a bigger-budgeted production. In the second edition of “Universal Horrors,” the definitive account of the studio’s horror years, authors Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas and John Brunas note that Karloff was saddled with 62 pounds of costume and makeup for his encore performance as the creature.
At least he gets several lines of dialogue, which would be parodied decades later in Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein.”
Elsa Lanchester secures brief but pivotal roles in the sequel. She plays author Shelley in an opening prologue and, later, the titular Bride herself. Lanchester’s teased-up hair, herky-jerky movements and alley-cat hissing are highlights of a film that many critics believe outshines the first.
In the years that followed, the Frankenstein monster cheated death time and again to return in sequels that were never the equal of Universal’s first two films. Karloff would play the creature only once more, in 1939’s “Son of Frankenstein,” although he would appear as an evil scientist in “House of Frankenstein” (1944) and, years later, as the grandson of the original Frankenstein — the scientist, not the monster — in “Frankenstein 1970,” confusingly released in 1958.
Fans of classic horror who want to meet the great granddaddy of modern-day fright franchise stars such as Michael Myers (“Halloween”), Freddy Krueger (“Nightmare on Elm Street”) and Jason (“Friday the 13th”) have an opportunity to see both “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein” on the big screen at Cinemark Tinseltown in North Canton in a unique double feature at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Wednesday. Along with both films, the NCM/Fathom Events, Turner Classic Movies and Universal-sponsored showings will feature a video introduction by TCM historian Robert Osborne.
For more information or to purchase tickets, see cinemark.com or fathomevents. com.
Originally published Oct. 17, 2012, in The Alliance Review.