Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Frankenstein Month: Wrap-up

After spending last month writing about 32 different takes on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, I'm still impressed with how much potential there is in Shelley's timeless, brilliant novel and the various ways it can be interpreted. Even if many of the movies I wrote about are less than great (or downright terrible), they all capture something inherently creepy and unsettling about the story, and the best of them also tackle its still-complicated moral and philosophical quandaries. Here are my picks for some of the highlights of the movies I watched.

Best Frankenstein: Peter Cushing in the Hammer series. The quality of the six Hammer Frankenstein movies starring Cushing varies, but his performance as Baron Frankenstein is always a highlight, bringing a mix of arrogance, menace and erudition to the character. Cushing's Frankenstein drifts pretty far from the original conception of the character, aging and taking on new scientific projects, but he always embodies the zeal and ambition that define Frankenstein. Honorable mentions: Colin Clive in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein; Boris Karloff in Frankenstein 1970; Gene Wilder in Young Frankensein; Raul Julia in Frankenstein Unbound.

Best monster: Boris Karloff in Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein. This is an obvious choice, but the truth is that there just aren't many great performances as the monster; most movies present the creature as an inarticulate brute, which doesn't offer actors much to work with. Karloff did a lot to establish that precedent, but even his grunting, lumbering creation has some soul, especially compared to the actors who took over for him in the later Universal movies. For better or worse, this is the version of Frankenstein's monster that will forever be remembered. Honorable mentions: Michael Gwynn in The Revenge of Frankenstein; Michael Sarrazin in Frankenstein: The True Story; Clancy Brown in The Bride.

Best bride: Jane Seymour in Frankenstein: The True Story. There aren't nearly as many examples of this character to choose from, partially because she's not actually in the original novel (Victor Frankenstein ultimately refuses to create a mate for the monster). But ever since James Whale made Bride of Frankenstein, the character has become an important part of the series mythology, albeit often as an end to the story. But Seymour shows up for a decent stretch of the three-hour Frankenstein: The True Story, and she makes for a unique kind of monster, completely articulate and intelligent and with a cold sort of sociopathic motivation. It's not the kind of performance usually associated with Seymour or with the bride character, and it invigorates the movie at just the right moment. Honorable mentions: Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein; Patty Mullen in Frankenhooker; Helena Bonham Carter in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Best assistant: Bela Lugosi in Son of Frankenstein and The Ghost of Frankenstein. It may be a stretch to call Lugosi's Ygor an assistant, since he spends much of his time bullying the descendants of Baron Frankenstein in his two appearances in the Universal movies. But in many ways he established the template for the simpering assistant to Frankenstein, another character not in the original novel but now an integral part of the mythology. In movies that are inconsistent at best, Lugosi's performance is the best thing about them, embodying the completely unhinged, gleefully homicidal maniac that Frankenstein himself is often not allowed to be (or at least must hide away). Honorable mentions: Paul Muller in Lady Frankenstein; Arno Juerging in Flesh for Frankenstein; Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein; Shane Briant in Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell.

Best blind man: Gene Hackman in Young Frankenstein. The blind man, for some reason, is one of the smaller elements of Shelley's novel that filmmakers frequently take on even when they deviate significantly from the story in other ways. It's a simple, direct way to demonstrate the extreme reactions to the monster's mix of grotesque appearance and open, childlike nature, and it provides for an easy moment of drama when the family sees the creature that their father/grandfather has befriended. Most of the blind-man characters in the Frankenstein movies are fairly anonymous, but Hackman makes his version into one of the funniest and most memorable parts of Young Frankenstein by playing it mostly straight, even as he comically batters and bruises the poor unsuspecting monster.

Best line: You would think that "It's alive!" would win this hands down, but I have to go with Flesh for Frankenstein's immortal "To know death, Otto, you have to fuck life ... in the gall bladder!"

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