Sunday, October 09, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'I Was a Teenage Frankenstein' (1957)

With its concerns about the dangers of unchecked scientific experimentation and its focus on a monster created as a byproduct of that experimentation, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein actually fits in very well with the themes of 1950s sci-fi B-movies. And after low-budget production company American International Pictures had a hit with I Was a Teenage Werewolf (starring Michael Landon!) just a few months earlier, it made sense for them to grab another public domain monster and repeat the same formula for I Was a Teenage Frankenstein. This is a drive-in cheapie aimed at a teen audience, although the title is a bit misleading, since the movie's actual Frankenstein (that is, the scientist who creates the monster) is a middle-aged man, and the monster he creates is the teenager (or, really, a 20-something man playing a teenager). Also, for a movie supposedly targeting teen culture, Teenage Frankenstein features very little depiction of actual teens. The monster spends the majority of his time locked in a lab, and he never gets to go to a sock hop or a soda fountain or engage in any other stereotypical activity of 1950s teenagers.

Mainly the movie is about its incredibly arrogant, amoral version of Frankenstein, here presented as yet another descendant of the original (referred to as Baron Frankenstein, in keeping with the Universal movies). This film's Professor Frankenstein (he's given no first name, and at one point when the cops are questioning him and ask his name, he simply answers "Professor Frankenstein," so maybe his first name is Professor) is played with maximum camp by character actor Whit Bissell, easily the best thing about the movie. Like Peter Cushing's Frankenstein from The Curse of Frankenstein, released just a few months earlier, the professor has no qualms about committing murder to further his own scientific ends, or sometimes seemingly just because he feels like it. After his theories on the revival of dead tissue are laughed off by his colleagues, he walks right up to the scene of a car accident (conveniently directly in front of his house) and carries off the corpse of a dead teenager. The excuse for making the monster a teenager is some vague hand-waving about younger parts being more malleable (which makes a degree of sense), but Frankenstein's glee at procuring teenage flesh (he later shamelessly raids the bodies of teenage athletes killed in a plane crash) is kind of hilarious.

The movie on the whole isn't quite campy enough to be consistently entertaining, and Gary Conway is a bore as the monster, who looks like a normal young man aside from his deformed face (which has a sort of melted appearance that reminded me of the Toxic Avenger). But Bissell's Frankenstein is a delightfully over-the-top sociopath, who casually blackmails a fellow professor into becoming his assistant, treats his fiancee with comical disdain (at one point he writes her a blank check so she can buy herself an engagement ring) and keeps an actual alligator in a tank below his lab (somehow?), to which he feeds surplus body parts and, later, the bodies of people he decides to kill. And yet it's the monster who's the subject of a manhunt, when he escapes and ends up killing a teenage girl, seemingly just by pushing her.

When the monster breaks free of his restraints and kills Frankenstein at the end, it's more of a triumph than a tragedy, but the victory is short-lived, as the monster himself quickly ends up dead thanks to shocks from a conveniently placed electrical board. The movie suddenly switches to color from black and white as the monster dies, but the monster's demise is so abrupt that it doesn't have the visceral impact that the stylistic change seems meant to represent. The poor clueless assistant (supposedly a physics professor!), who spent what seems like half of the short movie running a very long errand, is the only one left alive, but nobody, especially him, has learned anything.

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