Happy Halloween!! It's been a while since my last Wayback Movie Review (and even longer since the one before that), so I thought I would celebrate All Hallow's Eve by snarking on a classic of horror genre. Thanks to all who voted in my poll earlier this month. Of the five candidates, one film was the runaway winner, with twice as many votes as its nearest contender (i.e. 2 votes versus 1). In celebration of its 80th anniversary, we present Universal's 1931 film, Frankenstein.
Before the film proper begins, one of the company of actors comes out from behind the curtain to warn the audience: "We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein.... I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you. Or, the Hayes Office and/or your local censorship board may have chopped it down to a tepid mess. In any case, enjoy."
Following the credits, we are shown a graveside funeral scene, being observed from a not-quite-discreet distance by a pair creepy, wild-eyed ghouls. These are our heroes: Doctor Henry "Hank" Frankenstein (or "Hankenstein," as his frat brothers called him), and his loyal assistant, Fritz (who, years later, would serve as inspiration for Marty Feldman's character, "Freyetz"). They wait until the graveside service is over and all the mourners have moved on, and then wait some more as the groundskeeper grabs his shovel and fills in the grave. Once done, the gravedigger pauses to light his pipe, and just as the audience starts pining for the excitement of the opening monologue again, he finally gathers up his tools and moves off.
Now, at last, we start things moving forward with... the unburying scene! Hank and Fritz dig their way down considerably less than six feet, and prop the coffin up. Hank pats the casket and says, "He's only resting" -- presumably after a prolonged squawk while pining for the fjords. Hank and Fritz put the casket on their cart ("No, I still don't want to go on the cart!") and start wheeling it back to the laboratory. Along the way, they come across a gallows, and Hank tells Fritz to climb up and cut the body down. Fritz, still covered in fresh cemetery dirt, is suddenly squeamish about getting too close to a dead body. (Though in fairness, Hank had told him the casket was filled with jellybeans and gumdrops.) Fritz finally relents and shimmies up to cut the corpse down, but for naught, as Hank declares the corpse's brain unsuitable because the neck has been broken. Gosh, who would have predicted that the guy who had been hanged by a noose would end up with a broken neck?! But Hank is very, very exacting about his brains. Oh, yes, only the very best brains can be used for a Frankenstein monster. But where to find such a brain?
Why, in a pickle jar filled with formaldehyde, of course! Thus the scene shifts to Goldstadt Medical College, the finest medical school in all of Germstriazerlandvannia. You can tell this is a top educational institution because (a) the lecture hall prominently features a bouncy human skeleton on a bungee cord, and (b) all the future doctors studying here titter madly when the skeleton is set a-bouncing. Here, Professor Waldman is teaching about normal and abnormal brains. "As you can see," he lectures, "there are several very obvious physical differences between the normal and abnormal brain. Why, even if these two jars weren't clearly labeled, anyone with the most basic knowledge of neural physiology could spot an abnormal brain a mile away!"
Waldman dismisses class, and once the room is empty, Fritz climbs in the window and comes down to the front of the hall. He accidentally sets the skeleton bouncing again, but he manages to keep his shit together, and to grab the first brain. He's about to make a clean getaway, which apparently upsets Chuck Barris, because a gong then sounds from somewhere off screen. The noise startles Fritz and causes him to drop the brain jar like a little girl into a pond. Reluctantly, he goes back to grab the other jar, hoping against hope that it will pass Dr. Frankenstein's scrutiny and his very exacting brain criteria.
Then, in an effort to completely derail the horror plot, we cut to a scene between Hank's fiancée, Elizabeth, and her platonic friend, Victor. Elizabeth has asked her close and platonic friend to come over because Hank has been away for four months working on his mysterious experiments, and has only now sent her a letter. "I've read this over and over again," she tells Victor platonically, "but they're just words." Victor refrains from telling her that most letters are made up of words, and instead lets her know that he ran into Hank recently, and he acted oddly then as well. Victor, being a good platonic friend, volunteers to go see Hank's old med school professor to help put Elizabeth's mind at ease. Elizabeth tells her handsome unmarried male friend how swell she thinks he is, and Victor tells his beautiful female friend who has not felt a man's touch for four months how swell he thinks she is. Then they platonically shake hands at the door before Victor heads off. Elizabeth pauses for a moment after he leaves, then decides to join Victor. Platonically, of course.
The two go to the medical college and meet Dr. Waldman. "Herr Frankenstein troubles me," he tells the platonic couple, oblivious to their wary glances at the human skulls and jars of preserved organs that line the walls of his office. "The bodies we use for dissecting were not perfect enough for him, and so he left the university to work unhampered." Elizabeth, completely unfazed by the suggestion that her fiancée is out hunting "perfect" human corpses, asks the doctor to join her and Victor to talk to Hank. Waldman hesitates, but Elizabeth flashes her big beautiful eyes at him, and he agrees to join her threesome. Platonically, of course.
Meanwhile, Hank and Fritz are preparing the lab in anticipation of the approaching lightning storm. They go through one final test of the machinery: electrodes spark, ribbons of electricity arc between conductors, and the machine that goes ping! goes ping! Just as they decide everything is ready, there's a knock at the door. "What's that?" Hank asks. Fritz runs to the lab door, listens, and announces, "There's someone there!" Well, thank you, Captain Obvious Spinal Deformity. Hank tells Fritz to tell them to amscray, whoever they are. So Fritz goes to the front entryway and opens the little lookout door to see the trio of visitors.
"It's Doctor Waldman, Fritz," the old man says. "We need to see Dr. Frankstein."
"Nobody sees the great and powerful Frankenstein!" he answers. "Not no way, not no how!"
Fritz slams the little door, proud of the job he's done. Then Hank sticks his head out the upper floor windows, and sees that his fiancée and her two platonic male traveling companions standing out in the rain. So he runs down the stairs to, passing right by Fritz, and lets them in. "Oh, sure, make the hunchbacked assistant look like the asshole," Fritz mutters to himself. Hank tries pleading with Elizabeth and the others to leave, insisting he cannot have anyone intrude on his experiment. "What's wrong with you, Hank?" Victor asks. "Have you gone mad? Or are you just too chicken to let us in your lab?"
Hank turns to glare at him, lip twitching, and says, "Nobody... calls me... chicken!" before leading them all into his lab, with Fritz trailing behind muttering, "And now look who's an even bigger asshole..."
Hank leads them all up into the tower, making them sit in the laboratory's reception area. (Surprising there should be three guest chairs here, given Hank's aversion to visitors. Even more surprising, all the magazines are up to date.) Hank takes the opportunity to reminisce with Dr. Waldman: "I learned a great deal from you at the university, about the violet ray... the ultra violet ray, which you said was the highest color in the spectrum. You were wrong."
Waldman shrugs. "Yes, well, I'm an anatomy professor; what the fuck do I know about the electromagnetic spectrum? Frankly, any lecture I gave during Oktoberfest should be taken with a huge grain of salt..."
Hank continues, claiming to have discovered, beyond UV rays, the First Great Ray, which brought life into the world. He now intends to harass that Great Ray and turn it on the body he's stitched together from stolen corpses. His visitors are all stunned speechless by Hank's ignorance that X-rays, discovered in 1875, are the next highest form of radiation after ultraviolet, and so can only watch in disbelief as Hank and Fritz fire up their equipment and hoist the body up through the hole in the roof. Outside, Bishop Pickering is playing the best round of golf in his life, and just as he misses his final putt, they lower the body once again. Everyone watches as the right hand of Hank's creation twitches.
"It's alive," Hank observes.
In the wake of this unprecedented and soul-shaking demonstration, Elizabeth and Victor decide to go to visit Hank's father, the Baron Frankenstein, in order to avoid telling him anything about it. Which is just as well, because the old man isn't so concerned about which laws of God and man his son may or not be mocking, but the fact that his timing is so inconvenient. The wedding of the Baron's son is to be the biggest celebration the village has seen in years, and the Burgomaster is particular keen on having it happen on schedule, in order to distract the citizenry from his recent "no toys" proclamation. Frankenstein Senior accuses Elizabeth and Victor of hiding something, and draws his own conclusion that Hank is bumping uglies with some little strumpet up in his romantic, creepy hideaway. "No, there's no woman," Elizabeth tries to assure him. "It's just him and his close friend, Fritz, up there, experimenting." Hearing this, the old goat is all the more determined to drag his son home and force him to go through with his traditional arranged marriage.
Meanwhile, Hank smokes a cigarette over breakfast with his close friend Dr. Waldman. The older man is worried that the creature will become dangerous, given its brain problems. "What?" Hank asks. "I was extremely picky about my brains! That's why I used the one from your classroom."
"And you didn't notice the label 'ABNORMAL BRAIN' plastered on the side of the jar?"
"Uumm..." Hank replies.
"Or the scarcity of convolutions on the frontal lobe?"
"The distinct degeneration of the middle frontal lobe? The jailhouse gang tattoo on the cerebellum?"
"Well, the brain isn't everything," Hank argues. "The development of a new life is as dependent on its environment as its biology, after all."
"Oh? And what sort of environment have you provided your creation?"
"I've kept it locked up in a dark basement for four days. What, why are you shaking your head like that?"
They are interrupted by approaching footsteps. Slowly, a door creaks open, and the creature walks in, backwards.
"And to top it all off, you put its brain in the wrong way!" Waldman scoffs.
The creature then turns around, revealing for the first time that Hank used just as much care in choosing suitable faces as he did brains, though not quite as much as in selecting tailors. Hank guides the creature into the room, and demonstrates that it has the comprehension skills of a German shepherd. It's actually a rather remarkable display, which is completely forgotten when Fritz shows up, carrying a lit torch for no good reason whatsoever. The creature, surprisingly, does not trust the dim-witted gimp thrusting a big flaming stick in his face, and starts swinging and flailing. Eventually, old Doc Waldman gives the creature a karate chop to the back of the neck, knocking it out and giving them the chance to tie it up. "What a strange reaction," Hank says. "He was perfectly fine when being treated with an iota of dignity, but turned inexplicably violent when threatened with physical harm. Oh, well. Fritz, chain him up in the basement and torture him a bit, there's a good lad."
A while later, after several hours of whippings and threatened burnings, Hank and Waldman hear screams. They rush down to the basement, and discover the creature has killed Fritz. "And its behavior keeps getting stranger..." Hank reflects. He finally realizes something needs to be done about this monster he's created, so he lures the beast up from the basement with a burning torch (which up until now had repelled the creature, but whatever) while Waldman sneaks up behind and shoves a hypodermic in the creature's ass. But the creature has the strength of ten men (or about nine more than when Waldman knocked him unconscious with his bare hand in the previous scene), and it takes two extra minutes before finally faceplanting on the stone floor.
Just then, Victor shows up to tell Hank that his father and fiancée are on their way! They all rush about in order to hide the creature, get Hank out of his blood-stained clothing, and to make sure the Ropers don't come out of the kitchen and see Jack's new girlfriend. Once the coast is clear, Victor opens the door, and directs Elizabeth and the Baron upstairs to Hank's room. "Darling," Elizabeth says as she knocks at his door, "It's your one true love!"
"Fritz?!" Hank exclaims, but when he sees it's just Elizabeth and realizes his mistake, he's overwhelmed by guilt and breaks down. It's obvious he needs to be taken away from this place, but Hank resists, insisting he needs to finish his work. It's not until Waldman promises to take care of his work as quickly and painlessly as possible that Hank relents.
Cut to the laboratory a week later, where Waldman has been keeping the creature strapped down and performing inhumane medical procedures on it, before resolving to perform a pre-mortem dissection. (Waldman's notes on these experiments are later recovered and read by his star pupil at med school, young Joey Mengele.) Before he can make the first incision, though, the monster from its slab begins to rise, and suddenly, to Waldman's surprise, his head gets mashed. The monster, having killed yet again, makes his way out of the tower to terrorize the village below...
And, to undercut the excitement and suspense as much as possible, we then cut to a scene from The Great Gatsby, where Hank convalesces at West Egg with Elizabeth. He's finally over Fritz, and she's resigned to the fact that Victor is just too damned platonic, so they decide to finally go through with the wedding.
On the big day, the entire town comes out to toast the moderately happy couple, dance, drink beer, play music, drink beer, prepare stockpiles of unlit torches, and drink still more beer. Almost the entire town has turned out, all except for the woodcutter and his young blonde daughter, Maria. The father promises they'll go to the party and have all the beer she wants after he's finished his chores, and tells her to just play by herself until then. "Play with what?" Maria asks. "The Burgomaster's ban on toys is still in full force."
"You have flowers and a pond, don't you?" her father asks gruffly. "All I ever had at that age was a puddle and a stick. Damned spoiled kids," he mutters as he heads off.
Once the father is gone, the creature stumbles onto the scene. Maria, sweet innocent that she is, assumes the best of this stranger, and invites him to play with her. She offers to share with him, and teaches him to throw small pretty white things into the water. Shortly thereafter, Maria joins the group "Maidens Who Don't Float," and instinctively, the creature flees.
Meanwhile, back at Stately Frankenstein Manor, Elizabeth is having disturbing premonitions, and despite wedding day tradition, asks Hank into her private chamber. Hank dismisses her bridesmaids, and we can all hear them thinking "bow-chicka-bow-wow" as they file out of the room. Alone, Elizabeth tries to explain her vague uneasiness, but the only concrete concern she can express is that Dr. Waldman hasn't shown up. Hank smirks at her feminine silliness and assures her Waldman is always late. Then there's a knock on the door: it's Victor, with news that Waldman was found murdered by the creature! Hank realizes a girl just showed him up (thus proving it really is bad luck to see the bride the day of the wedding), and locks Elizabeth alone in her room so she can't make herself seem smarter than him again.
Suddenly, they hear a growl. "The creature is upstairs!!" Hank and Victor run upstairs, but no monster. Then they hear another growl. "The creature is in the basement!!" Hank and Victor run downstairs, but no monster. The growls continue. "The creature is in the billiard room with the candlesticks!!" Hank and Victor run off again.
As it turns out, the creature was lurking quietly outside the house this whole time, watching Elizabeth through the window. The seven-foot, 300-pound creature then silently climbs in the window and sneaks up behind the poor vulnerable woman, who doesn't realize someone is there until it's too late. The creature is upon her, and she screams...
Hank and Victor hear a scream. "The creature is on the main floor!!" They run upstairs, and find that Elizabeth has suffered a grievous fainting spell, and perhaps even a case of the vapors. Hank is now determined to destroy his creature himself, no matter the risk. Before leaving, he tells Victor that, should anything happen, he wants him to "take care" of Elizabeth.
Taken aback, Victor says, "But... I'm the platonic friend!"
"Why do you think I asked you?" Hank answers. "You I can trust not to schtup her the minute my body goes cold."
Meanwhile, as the village wedding celebration continues, the woodcutter carries the corpse of his dead drowned daughter through the streets, an act which goes over as well as... well, as a corpse at a wedding. A crowd forms behind him as he makes his way to the Burgomaster's house. "My daughter was murdered by a fiend!" he tells the village leader. "And I demand justice! Preferably mob justice!"
The Burgomaster tries to calm the crowd: "This is supposed to be a happy occasion! Let's not bicker and argue about who killed who. Besides, we have no witnesses, no understanding of the circumstances, or any evidence this was anything other than a tragic accident."
"But, look," the father says, "a pretty white girl is dead!" The incited crowd howls even louder, until the Burgomaster is forced to relent. "But we'll wait until nightfall before sending any angry violent mobs outside of town into the wilderness." The crowd decides that sounds fair, and spend the last few hours of daylight drinking as much as possible.
Once the sun has set, the Burgomaster lays out the search plan: one third of the men will go with Maria's father to search the woods, a third with the Burgomaster to the lake, a third with Hank into the mountains, and all the women will cower by the wall looking frightened and concerned. The ladies run to take their places as the men, dressed in their sharpest suits and snappiest hats, light their torches and march out into the night.
Up in the mountains, under a forebodingly dark and curiously wrinkled sky, Hank once again comes face-to-face with his creation. Hank tries to ward the monster off by waving his torch. But the monster ain't having none of that "fire bad" shit no more, and bats the torch out of Hank's hand. "Oh, dear," the doctor says, "I do wish I had thought to arm myself with something more than a burning stick. Hey, guys," he calls out to the rest of the search party, just before being knocked unconscious, "did anyone happen to think to bring a gun, maybe?"
The equally unarmed mob follow Hank's voice, and chase the monster as he carries his creator further up the mountain. There he finds a windmill, its blades spinning rapidly despite the lack of even the hint of a breeze. The monster carries Hank up into the rafters of the old wooden structure, while below a mob of angry drunks carrying torches shout up at him. At this point, even his abnormal, defective, formaldehyde-pickled brain realizes that this was probably not the best of ideas.
Hank regains consciousness, and he and the monster tussle once more, eventually maneuvering onto a small balcony in view of the entire mob. For a being with the strength of ten men, the monster seems to have a hell of a time dealing with this unimposing little poindexter. But ultimately the monster wears his creator down, hoists him up, and hurls him over the rail. Hank lands on one of the windmill's spinning blades (demonstrating that the reason the mill was abandoned was its inability to obey Newton's laws of motion), then slips off and hits the earth below, unmoving. It's poetic justice -- dead by his own creature's hand, a victim of his own hubris.
Thus further enraged, the angry villagers set the old windmill ablaze. The monster, still on the balcony, screams as flames lap out at him from inside the structure. Then he runs into the relative safety of the structure, just flames inexplicably lap at him from the balcony outside. Falling beams knock him to the floor, and he screams as the rest of the burning structure collapses on top of him. Man, there ain't no way anyone, especially a corpse-quilt like the monster, could come back from something like that and resume a reign of horror. Nuh-uh, no way.
But then again... several days later, back at Stately Frankenstein Manor, Baron Frankenstein reveals to his household staff that Hank has made a miraculous recovery, has married Elizabeth, and has managed to avoid any justice, poetic or otherwise. "Join me in a toast," the Baron invites the servants. "To the happy couple."
"To the Son of Frankenstein!" the servants say. "And to the Bride of Frankenstein!"
"And to their heirs," the Baron prompts.
"To the House of Frankenstein!" the servants reply.
"And," the Baron continues, "to any popular comedy duos they may someday meet..."
And as the credits roll, we can't help but wonder... If Hank was able to survive despite his obvious injuries, and despite the fact that giving him a happy Hollywood ending essentially undercuts everything that's come before... then is it possible we have not truly seen the last of his monster, either?