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Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Undying Monster (originally published 10/04)

The world's most famous horror story reportedly began as a contest. George Gordon Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, two of England's most celebrated Romantic poets, had been swapping ghost stories with Dr. John Polidori, Byron's physician, and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who was Shelley's lover and later his wife. The foursome agreed that each would write an original ghost story to see who could come up with the most terrifying tale.

The rest, as they say, is history. The ghost story contest culminated with the publication of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus." Today that story is the basis for another, more elaborate competition. Ever since Boris Karloff made the monster his own, filmmakers have compulsively returned to this endlessly fascinating tale, striving to leave their own distinctive mark on it.

The newest entrants in the contest are the Hallmark Channel and USA Network, each of which premieres this month a made for cable incarnation of Victor Frankenstein's troublesome progeny. Although they'd probably rather I didn't, I thought it might be useful to look back at some of the earlier versions in whose shadow these latecomers have chosen to stand. For a sampling of the many impressions the undying monster has left on world cinema, look for these titles on home video.

"Frankenstein" (1931). Might as well start off with the all-time classic. Along with the Bela Lugosi version of "Dracula" (1931), this film kicked off the Universal Pictures horror movie cycle that kept that studio dominant in the genre up through the forties. Colin Clive is all cockiness and coffee nerves as Frankenstein, while Dwight Frye gives one of his patented eccentric performances as Fritz, the creepy lab assistant. They were great, but they never had a chance. It was Boris Karloff, acting through pounds and pounds of makeup, who clomped off with the picture in his back pocket. The king of horror movies had been coronated.

"The Curse of Frankenstein" (1957). In the late fifties, the dominance of the horror film genre once held by Universal passed to a British studio called Hammer. Interestingly, the Hammer cycle began just as the Universal cycle had, with an adaptation of "Frankenstein" and an adaptation of "Dracula" ("Horror of Dracula" in 1958). They even introduced a pair of actors who would dominate the genre just as Karloff and Lugosi had at Universal: Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The interesting thing about the Hammer Frankenstein films is that they shrewdly shifted the emphasis from the monster to Victor Frankenstein himself. Cushing played him as an utterly cold and ruthless megalomaniac, who was nevertheless adept at the social graces, appearing quite civilized on the exterior. Lee appears as the monster in "Curse," but in later films of the series other actors are used as Frankenstein acquires fresh corpses for his experiments. It is he, not his creatures, who carries over from one film to the next because it is he, not his creatures, who is the monster.

"Frankenstein" (1973). When his television series, "Dark Shadows," became successful, producer Dan Curtis decided to become the new Hollywood horror maven. He commissioned remakes of all the warhorses of the genre including, of course, Mary Shelley's classic. I believe he actually started the now common practice of insisting that his version would be the first to be faithful to the novel. It wasn't, of course, but it did come much closer than previous adaptations. Bo Svenson as the monster actually gets to speak in complete, grammatical sentences.

"Young Frankenstein" (1974). Mel Brooks's parody of the Universal Frankenstein series deserves to be mentioned here because it isn't just a mindless spoof. Brooks clearly loves the original films and understands what made them work. His film is all the funnier because he took great pains to echo the visual style of the originals, even to acquiring some of the original laboratory equipment props from Kenneth Strickfaden, who had stored them in his garage since the thirties.

And that's only part of what Hallmark and USA are up against. Since the early thirties, the image of the Frankenstein monster has been used in every way imaginable, from Herman Munster to Frankenberry cereal. Though I wish them luck, I'm afraid they're going to find that it takes more than a little lightning jolt to breathe new life into the old boy nowadays.

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