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Whose Monster Is It Anyway?


Back in the dim and distant past of the mid-1990s I was a student at Staffordshire University, ostensibly studying for a degree in ‘Film, Television and Radio Studies’. (Never trust a degree with ‘Studies’ in its title; if it was a real academic subject, there would be an actual word for studying it.) Having long had a penchant for the Frankenstein story, I resolved to write my dissertation on Frankenstein films, which in those days involved considerably more than looking up stuff on Wikipedia or the IMDb.

      I can’t remember what I said in my dissertation, and although I graduated with a ‘Desmond’, my actual qualification was moot since I had already applied for, interviewed for and indeed started a job as Staff Writer on a brand new magazine called SFX. As it happens, I was just too late to cover the big-budget Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was released before SFX began. Although I did treasure a nice letter (this was very much pre-email) which I received from Kenneth Branagh’s PA during my undergraduate days. I published a handful of issues (which sold a handful of copies) of a fanzine called China in Your Hand, all about things Frankenstein-ian. Photocopied on the 5p-a-sheet copier in a newsagents near Stoke bus station, this thing could be worth a fortune one day. Though that seems unlikely. Anyway, I sent a copy to Branagh and had a nice, encouraging letter from his PA and that cheered me up.

      I haven’t seen Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in a dog’s age. I recall it being not bad, certainly better than its companion piece, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with its embarrassing miscasting of scenery-chewing Anthony Hopkins and surfin’ dude Keanu Reeves. Branagh’s film was heralded as an atypically faithful adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel, and certainly compared to any of the Universals and Hammers, that’s what it is, though it still takes some Hollywood liberties.

      A few years later, after I had left SFX and was freelancing, I was delighted to be asked by Fangoria-meister Tony Timpone to fly out to Slovakia and cover a Hallmark mini-series of Frankenstein. It was a baking hot summer in central Europe but I refused to loosen my tie as I wandered around the studio on the edge of Bratislava. I was there for a couple of days interviewing cast and crew for the Fango feature. These included Luke Goss - some people may think of Blade when I say that name, some may think of Bros - who was playing the monster. Tall and skinny but muscular (a physique which I put down to his status as a former drummer), he was well-cast and turned in a good performance on a good production which did actually manage to be faithful to Shelley in all important respects. The supporting role of Henry Clerval was taken by a young actor straight out of Cambridge University making his screen debut. He had the most amazing blue eyes and his name was Dan Stevens. I wonder what ever happened to him...

      If you’ve got three hours to spare, the Hallmark mini-series has recently been re-released on DVD in the UK and is well worth a gander. But anyway, the point of all this is that I have watched a lot of Frankenstein films over the years. The eight Universals, the seven Hammers, The True Story, The Real Story... everything from Frankenhooker to Frankenweenie. I have patiently sat through a whole bunch of films with obscure gag cameos (Dave ‘Darth Vader’ Prowse plays the Frankenstein Monster in one scene in the 1960s' Casino Royale) or passing references (a scene with the monster was cut from Macaulay Culkin-voiced animation The Pagemaster but survived in a spin-off sticker book). I’ve weathered all sorts of Frankencrap - from Santo and Blue Demon vs the Monsters to Frankenstein: The College Years - while searching for a few Frankengems. And I have come to one rather alarming and perhaps somewhat controversial conclusion, which is this: the problem with most Frankenstein films is the monster.

      Let me put it another way: in order for a Frankenstein film to really work as an adaptation - however loose - it needs to concentrate on Frankenstein himself. Pedants are fond of pointing out that ‘Frankenstein’ is the name of the creator, not the creation, and technically that’s true - although if you think about it, the creature is an ersatz son and therefore, if he has any family name it must also be ‘Frankenstein’. The point is that ‘Frankenstein’ is also the title of the novel; in full: Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. You remember Prometheus: fire-stealing fella who made a bad choice without considering the consequences, hence the comparison. The book is about Victor Frankenstein. And so should the films be.

      The 1931 classic and its direct sequel were very much about Henry Frankenstein (he had swapped forenames with Clerval for some reason). Colin Clive was quite a big star at the time, but Karloff’s performance (and Jack Pierce’s make-up) stole the show and as Universal Studios milked the franchise towards an udder-squeaking finale, the films became more and more about the monster while the Frankenstein family all-but disappeared from the series as the pictures descended into fun-but-daft monsterfests.

      Hammer of course strung their films around the Baron rather than his creation, although I suspect that was more to avoid comparison with the old American monochrome belters than because of any insight into the true themes of Mary Shelley’s work. Whether you generally prefer the Universals to the Hammers or vice versa, or indeed whether you enjoy both equally, it seems unarguable to me that judged purely as ‘Frankenstein films’, the Hammers win hands down. In particular the two best pictures, Revenge of Frankenstein and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, capture the true essence of the tale, ironically somewhat better than the nominal adaptation which launched the series. Even more ironic is that neither of them has what might be considered a traditional monster: Michael Gwynn in the former and Freddie Jones in the latter play their roles as victims more than threats - and that is very much in keeping with Shelley’s ideas. The crux of the story is not what the monster might do to Frankenstein, it’s what Frankenstein has done to the monster in creating him.

      Hopefully you can see what I’m getting at here. The story of Frankenstein is not about a monster, it’s not even about a man dealing with a monster, it is about a man dealing with the consequences of his actions. Dealing with the result of his arrogance, his hubris, his presumption (the very first stage production in 1823 was called Presumption, or the Fate of Frankenstein). This is the reason why Revenge and Destroyed work so well, more than the radical but simplistic Curse, the patchy Evil, the nasty and irrelevant Created Woman or the misjudged and disappointing Monster from Hell. (Feel free to castigate me for the adjectives; these are all merely personal opinions!)

      My reason for latching onto this idea this month was because of having watched three Frankenstein films which all worked brilliantly in their own way despite none of them having a ‘monster’ per se, instead going down the Revenge/Must Be Destroyed route of having a victim. One is The Frankenstein Syndrome which was shot as The Prometheus Project and retitled The Frankenstein Experiment for its UK release about three years ago. The hugely under-rated Tiffany Shepis gives one of her best ever performances (for director hubby Sean Tretta) as a scientist mixed up in illegal stem cell experiments. Scott Leet is the guard whose death provides unexpected material for the project and who then develops far beyond what anyone expected. Presumption, hubris, creation-as-victim, it’s all here. Pure Mary Shelley, without a monster in sight. In terms of its sheer ‘Frankenstein-ness’, Tretta’s feature is one of the most Frankenstein-ian movies ever made, far outstripping any gothic adaptation or sequel, however good any of those might be in their own right. It is also a cracker of a horror movie and thoroughly recommended.

      The Frankenstein Experiment was a surprise, but even more surprising was a picture which I picked almost at random a few months back while mootling around a few cut-price VOD sites (I may well write a blog soon on the fringes of VOD and how much better they are than mainstream stuff like Netflix or LoveFilm). The film, which isn’t even quite feature-length, is called Creep Creepersin’s Frankenstein. I had come across mention of Mr Creepersin and his surprisingly extensive oeuvre while cross-referencing the careers of cast members in Ivan Zuccon’s Wrath of the Crows (coincidentally, another of la Shep’s finest performances). Prepared to waste 75p on a piece of zero-budget garbage, I found instead a zero-budget masterpiece which - whether by accident or design - perfectly encapsulates the themes and ideas that Mary Shelley explored two centuries ago.

      I know very little about Creepersin except that he is also in a band and has made a bunch of similarly budget-free horror films, and nothing at all about actor James Porter except that he has made no other films and is presumably a mate of Creep’s. But the background to this film doesn’t matter, only what’s on screen (in this case, the screen of my ancient iMac). Porter plays Victor, a lonely, mentally unstable guy whose only social contact is with his pet rat Frankenstein and occasional rent-collecting visits from his landlady. He spends his days watching old horror movies (exemplified by conveniently PD clips from the likes of Carnival of Souls and Nosferatu) but he longs for human company. Inspired by tatty old copies of Frankenstein and Grey’s Anatomy, and taunted by the imagined ghost of his abusive mother, he resolves to make himself a girlfriend.

      In his pathetic version of reality, what this involves is murdering a young woman, dragging the body to his apartment and then - a masterstroke by Creepersin - drawing stitches onto her dead body with a marker pen. He then imagines her reanimated and taking tea with him, or at least a scratchy monochrome version of her, talking in intertitles just like Christine or Esmerelda in the silent Phantom and Hunchback which he has seen over and over again. In true Shelley-esque tradition, the creator’s presumed paternalistic control of his creation falls apart. The girl mocks her creator and would-be suitor, finding more in common with the sneering ghost of his mother. Creep Creepersin’s Frankenstein is bleak, grim, depressing and staggeringly impressive, a perfect example of how ultra-low budget films can, in true Frankenstein tradition, belie their own creation and take on a life of their own.

      The third Frankenstein film, the one which prompted the idea for this blog, is much older: last weekend I watched a double bill of Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula (for reasons which will become clear in due course). It’s nearly 20 years since I last saw ‘aka Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein’ (reviewing a VHS for SFX) and it’s even better than I remembered. And one reason is because, again, there is no ‘monster’, only a pair of victims. The film is about Udo Kier’s mad doctor (and his distorted, disturbed family) rather than the almost naked bodies lying in 3D in his lab. (I was also, incidentally, struck by the massive influence which Paul Morrissey’s film clearly had on the set designs for another off-beat Frankenstein movie made a year or so later, one that famously featured ‘lots of laffs and sex’...)

      It was while watching Udo assure his assistant that “to know death, one must fuck life in the gall bladder” that I realised how and why a film so overtly trashy can actually be more true to the spirit of its source material than a dozen gothic adaptations of the novel. Looking at contemporary reviews, Flesh for Frankenstein was dismissed by critics as utter dreck and I have no doubt that most people would feel the same about Creep Creepersin’s Frankenstein if they even knew it existed. But both films (and Tretta’s) catch the very Promethean spark that brought Mary Shelley’s story to life. For me, as an unabashed Frankenfan, there lies the magic.

 

 

 

 
 
 

 

MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.