Out of My Mind: Frankenstein – Some Assembly Required

I want to address something right off the bat.  There has been a long argument over the years on whether the creature in these stories should be called Frankenstein or Frankenstein’s Monster.  I can see valid arguments for both cases, but I ultimately side with calling it Frankenstein for two reasons: it gives the creature an identity outside of just being “the creature”, and saying “Frankenstein’s Monster” is a bit of a mouthful.

In the original stories, the monster was never referred to with either name.  In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, the creature is only ever referred to as a monster.  This is also the most intelligent version of the creature, but he never even gives himself a name.  He does at one point confront Doctor Frankenstein and state that he should have been the Doctor’s “Adam”, but this name was never made official.

Unlike with Dracula or any of the other Universal Studios monsters, Frankenstein is a totally unique creature.  Apart from being a…Frankenstein, I guess…there are no other ways to describe the creature.  Multiple films and books describe Frankenstein as being made from the parts of the dead, but you can’t really call Frankenstein an undead creature.

Apart from being hideous, Frankenstein’s only real characteristics are his strength and toughness.  Multiple books and films have Frankenstein surviving things that no human could possibly live through.  That always made me wonder if the doctor put in some kind of armor plating or something, since otherwise the monster should be just like a regular human being.

The book starts with kind of a confusing narrative device.  The story is told from letters that a sea captain is writing to his sister.  There are a few pages dedicated to his mission to explore the arctic, when he comes across a scientist.  After they bring the scientist on board, he proceeds to tell them his entire life story.

There are two prevailing themes in the book.  The first is the typical “science gone wrong” theme that is common to the science fiction genre.  This makes sense, since Frankenstein is usually described as the first science fiction story.  The second theme is one of family, specifically of the neglectful parent and the harm that neglect can bring to everyone involved.

The book version of Frankenstein is both the most intelligent version of the monster, and the most sympathetic.  After he was abandoned by the doctor, the monster taught himself how to survive.  Later, the monster actually teaches himself how to speak…whatever language they speak in the book…by eavesdropping on a local family.  The monster doesn’t actually go on his first rampage until this family rejects him.

When the book version of the monster finally confronts the doctor, he actually only wants the doctor to create a mate for him.  Granted, he threatens to kill the doctor’s fiance if the doctor refuses, but it still goes to show that he only wants someone in his life the won’t reject him the same way that everyone else has.  The doctor starts making a mate for the monster, but then he destroys the would-be bride when he realizes two things:  just because the female monster was an outcast doesn’t mean that she would accept being tied down to the male monster, and any children that the two would have could be just as bad or worse.  The monster, of course, retaliates by killing the doctor’s bride shortly after their wedding.

The novel ends with the doctor telling how the sea captain how he had pursued the monster to the arctic.  Later, the doctor dies from exposure, and the sea captain and his crew actually see the monster.  The monster actually mourns the death of the doctor, and presumably lives the rest of his life in the arctic.

While the book version was intelligent and tragic, the movie versions were pretty much just big dumb brutes.  In the 1931 film Frankenstein, the monster is portrayed as more childlike, but also more brutish.  The only thing that he seems to be afraid of is fire, which may or may not be a reference to the original novel’s references to Prometheus.  The film version never learns to speak (at least, not in the first film), and never shows any of the insight that the book version showed.  The movie is still good for what it is, and I still recommend watching it if you haven’t seen it, but the book is definitely more thought-provoking.

Unlike with the Dracula films, the makers of the Frankenstein films actually did a better job of trying to keep in continuity with the previous films.  While we do see situations at the end of each film that might cause Frankenstein’s death, the actual death is never shown.  This gave the filmmakers room to explain how the monster survived from one film to the next.

The next film in the series was Bride of Frankenstein.  Like in the original novel, the doctor is forced to create a bride for the monster.  In this case, it is another doctor that forces Doctor Frankenstein to create the bride instead of the monster himself.  There are many nods to the original novel in this film, such as how the monster learns to speak.  This was also the first, and last, appearance of the Bride of Frankenstein in the Universal Studios films.  Oddly enough, the Bride seems to be a staple figure in modern “Monster Mash” films.  My guess is that she’s the only female monster that anyone remembers, so she gets put in as the token female of the group.

The third film was called Son of Frankenstein.  Despite what one might think, the title actually referred to the son of the doctor.  A sinister hunchbacked man named Ygor convinces the young doctor to revive the monster.  Incidentally, this is where the concept of the “Igor” character comes from.  The previous two films also had hunchbacked characters assisting the doctor, but they not called Igor.  Once the monster is revived, Ygor somehow manages to convince the monster to kill those that wronged Ygor in the past.

The fourth film was definitely the most bizarre of the series.  Ghost of Frankenstein has Ygor convince another son of the doctor to revive the monster yet again.  This time, Ygor actually manages to trick the young doctor into putting Ygor’s brain into the monster’s body.  This actually ends up badly for Ygor when the monster goes blind due to Ygor and the monster not having the same blood type.  I’m not sure how scientifically accurate that is, but it does have the kind of karmic twist that most science fiction of that era seemed to have.

The rest of the Universal Studio films that Frankenstein appeared in were crossovers:  Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and of course, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.  In each of these movies, Frankenstein was portrayed as a (mostly) mute monster that relied on his brute strength and toughness.  He usually ends up being used by a mad doctor, only to turn on the doctor at the end of the movie.

There was also a Hammer Horror series of Frankenstein films, but these films actually followed the doctor.  In each of these films, the doctor would create a new monster that would terrorize the populace until it died near the end of the film.  It’s also worth noting that the Hammer Horror series are some of the few films where the doctor is portrayed as a villain.  In most adaptations, the doctor has a much more sympathetic portrayal.

Frankenstein’s role in the “Monster Mash” films is typically that of the “dumb muscle”.  He tends to only have one or two words of dialogue in these films, with the rest of his dialogue being various grunts and moans.  By contrast, the Bride of Frankenstein (when she appears) tends to be much more intelligent and have much more dialogue.  Any time Doctor Frankenstein appears in these films, he tends to be the leader of the group of monsters, and I have never understood why.  It also just occurred to me as I was writing this post that a lot of “Monster Mash” films take more characters from the Frankenstein franchise than any other film.

Tomorrow, we will discuss the last of the big three monsters from the Universal Studios lineup, The Wolf Man.



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