Frankenstein – the 200-year-old Prometheus

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(c) Barnes & Noble

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One thing I intended to do this year was read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – to give it its full title, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.  This was because 2018 marked the 200th anniversary of the novel’s first publication in 1818.  But I almost forgot.  It was only a week ago that I remembered my pledge, hurried out and bought a copy of the book in the ‘classics’ section of a local bookstore and read it in three days.

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Actually, I’ve read Frankenstein before.  During a feverish period when I was 10 or 11 years old and was totally horror-daft and monster-daft, I read Frankenstein, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).  I have to confess that Dracula was the only one I enjoyed.  The other two works went over my head.  With Frankenstein, most of Shelley’s prose was like a fog to my 10 or 11-year-old thought processes and I only remembered a few key incidents from the plot.  So when I tackled Frankenstein again last week, reading the book was like a first-time experience.

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Here, then, are my 2018 impressions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

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It really isn’t like the films.  Well, everyone knew that already.  But the literary version of the monster Victor Frankenstein creates in his laboratory is a million miles removed from most of the versions portrayed on the screen – most famously, Boris Karloff’s lumbering, grunting, inarticulate creature in the first three Frankenstein pictures made by Universal Studios in 1931, 1936 and 1939.  For one thing, Shelley’s creature is relentlessly verbose.  He hardly shuts up when he’s centre-stage.  He rattles on for 50-odd pages at one point. 

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(c) Universal Studios

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He’s also not the hapless, easily-manipulated innocent that Karloff’s monster was.  Whereas the Karloffian creature only killed people in self-defence, or through manipulation by unscrupulous humans (like Bela Lugosi’s Igor in 1939’s Son of Frankenstein), or through tragic misunderstandings (like in the 1931 Frankenstein, when he throws a little girl into a river believing she’ll like float like a flower), Shelley’s creature is focused and calculating.  He’s a bastard, frankly.  He murders Frankenstein’s family and friends one by one, even though they aren’t responsible for his suffering.  His victims include a child – Frankenstein’s six-year-old brother.

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(c) Hammer Films

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Also, it’s interesting how emotional, at times histrionic, Frankenstein is in the book.  Given to alternating fits of passion and despair, feverish action and morose lethargy, he almost resembles the popular images of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, the two romantic poets with whom Mary Shelley was famously shacked up on the shores of Lake Geneva when she wrote the novel.  Again, the literary character is at odds with the best-known portrayal of him in the cinema, i.e. Peter Cushing in the Frankenstein movies made by Hammer Films in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  Cushing’s Frankenstein is a driven man of science, fixated on his goal and prepared to be ruthless and callous in order to achieve it – occasionally tipping over into villainy in the process.  It has to be said that if someone was going to rewrite the laws of science by bringing dead matter back to life, it’d more likely be a Frankenstein in the unflinching Cushing mould than the volatile and tormented Frankenstein described by Shelley. Talking of which…

*Talking of which…

We never find out how Frankenstein manages to bring dead matter back to life.  Frankenstein movies have used many techniques for reanimating the collection of stitched-together corpse-parts that becomes the creature – a bolt of lightning in the 1931 Universal one, solar power in the Jack Smight-directed, Christopher Isherwood-scripted Frankenstein: The True Story (1973) and, hilariously, a shoal of electric eels in Kenneth Branagh’s operatic (i.e. madly over-the-top) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994).  But in the book, Frankenstein simply declares: “I see by your eagerness and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted; that cannot be; listen patiently until the end of my story, and you will easily perceive why I am reserved upon that subject.”  And that’s it.

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It’s quite a travelogue.  Events take place in Geneva in Switzerland, Ingolstadt in Bavaria and Chamonix near Mount Blanc in the French Alps.  There’s a lengthy digression involving skulduggery in Paris and a flight across France to Leghorn (Livorno) in Italy, and a boat-trip from Strasbourg to Rotterdam.  Frankenstein goes to England and visits London, Windsor, Oxford, Matlock and the Lake District.  He traverses Scotland, from Edinburgh through Perth to the Orkney Islands and makes an unplanned boat trip to Ireland.  And acting as book-ends to all this are a beginning and ending in the polar wastes north of Archangelsk in Russia, where the story is told in flashback.  So basically, Frankenstein has more locations than four or five James Bond novels put together. 

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Some of it is absurd.  It’s customary to marvel at the fact that Mary Shelley was only 18 when she wrote Frankenstein.  That’s all very well and good, but there are moments where you get the impression that, full of teenaged impulsiveness and impatience, she wants to get from one plot development to the next and isn’t worried about the means of doing so.  This results in some mad lapses in logic and believability.  She wants the creature to become expressive and articulate as soon as possible after being brought to life, so she has him spy on a room where, every day, a foreign woman is receiving rudimentary language lessons; so gradually, the creature becomes literate like the woman does.  But it’s pushing credibility, to say the least, that straight after this the creature finds, reads and understands a copy of John Milton’s Paradise Lost

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Credibility takes a pummelling too when Frankenstein agrees to the creature’s demand that he make him a female companion.  He retreats to a distant, tiny Orcadian island to assemble and bring to life a new body, presumably built out of scavenged body-parts like its predecessor.  How Frankenstein gathers these body-parts without being noticed on an island with just five inhabitants is anyone’s guess.  Later, after reneging on his promise and destroying the female body, Frankenstein ends up adrift on a boat that somehow takes him from the Orkneys to the Irish coast in the space of one night.  He arrives in time to be framed for the murder of his friend Henry Clerval, whose body the creature has dumped on the shore nearby.  Since Clerval had been last heard of in Perth, it’s a mystery how the creature found out about Frankenstein’s betrayal in the Orkneys, assassinated Clerval in Perth and then followed Frankenstein from the Orkneys to Ireland with the corpse. 

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Frankenstein is finally cleared and released from incarceration in Ireland when his father, Baron Frankenstein, shows up to collect him.  Previously, it was stated that the old Baron was too infirm to be able to travel from Geneva to Ingolstadt, so how does he withstand the land and sea journey all the way from Geneva to Ireland and back?    

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(c) Oxford World Classics

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But some of it is brilliant too.  The long-awaited scene where, up on the icy, rocky wastes near the summit of Mount Blanc, Frankenstein comes face-to-face with his now articulate and vengeful creation – “’Begone, vile insect!  Or rather, stay, that I may trample you to dust!  And, oh!  That I could, with the extinction of your miserable existence, restore those victims whom you have so diabolically murdered!’  ‘I expected this reception,” said the daemon.  “All men hate the wretched…’” – is wonderfully atmospheric.  So too is the appropriately Godforsaken Arctic setting where the book begins and ends. 

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And you can’t better Chapter 5 when Frankenstein applies the vital spark to his creation and the story really gets going: “It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils…  It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”  And of course, it gets worse: “Good God!  His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries underneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”

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Finally, it’s unfair to compare it with Dracula.  It’s fashionable these days to hold up Frankenstein as a literary milestone – it certainly wasn’t the world’s first horror story, but there’s a good case to be made that it was the first work of science fiction – whilst dismissing Dracula as an unambitious potboiler.  However, the books are like chalk and cheese, even if their title characters are inseparably linked in popular culture now. Designed to entertain, Dracula is a classic thriller as memorable as Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) or H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1887).  Frankenstein is less about thrills and more about man’s relation to the universe and, as such, belongs in a higher-brow bracket of literature. I feel, though, that because it rollercoasters between the sublime and the ridiculous, it’s less successful than Dracula in what it sets out to do. 

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But… when Frankenstein hits the peaks, it’s a work of art.

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From Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

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The Price is right

 

© American International Pictures

 

Today, October 25th 2018, is an exact quarter-century since the death of Vincent Price – distinguished actor and voice-over artist, gourmet cook and cookbook writer, knowledgeable art collector and art consultant, high-profile liberal and political activist, all-round media personality and legendary star of horror movies.  For that last reason, it seems appropriate that Price expired just a few days short of Halloween, the creepy highpoint of the year.

 

Price was a hero of mine.  He had a remarkable voice, smooth, sonorous and sinister, seeming to come at you through a curtain of glossy black velvet.  And though the movies he appeared in were sometimes less than great, thanks to him they were rarely less than enjoyable.  A good actor will always look and sound good in a good film, obviously.  But it’s the sign of a great actor to feature in a bad film and make it seem much better than it actually is.

 

Price’s acting career began in 1935 when he found work with Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre.  He made his film debut three years later and during the 1940s and early 1950s the cinema employed him as a character actor and, frequently, a villain.  Then, having appeared in House of Wax in 1953, The Fly in 1958 and a couple of schlocky late-1950s classics made by the horror-movie mogul and showman William Castle, he became associated with macabre roles.  This was cemented by his appearances in a run of critically-acclaimed films from 1960 to 1964 directed by Roger Corman, produced by American International Pictures and based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe.  The early 1970s saw him at his horror-icon zenith, appearing in stylish and tongue-in-cheek movies like the Dr Phibes ones (1971 and 1972) and Theatre of Blood (1973) that seemed tailor-made for him.

 

Price’s film workload lightened thereafter because the gothic horror movies he’d specialised in fell out of fashion.  But still, up until the last few years of his life, he  seemed ubiquitous thanks to his copious appearances on TV, radio, stage and vinyl – he not only rapped at the end of Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1983), but featured in Alice Cooper’s Black Widow (1975) and recorded story and poetry readings.

 

Here are my favourite Vincent Price movies.  And fittingly, with Halloween six days away, they’re all horror ones.

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

The Fly (1958)

Price plays the brother of a doomed scientist (Al Hedison) who builds a teleportation device and unwisely tries it out on himself without checking first that nothing has climbed into the transmitter chamber with him.  Something has, a housefly, and Hedison and the pesky insect re-materialise with mixed-up body parts.  It falls on Price to work out what the hell has happened.

 

I saw The Fly on TV when I was in my twenties and found it hilarious.  Somehow, the fly’s head becomes human-sized when it’s planted on Hedison’s shoulders, while a tiny Hedison-head ends up attached to the fly’s body.  Hedison’s miniaturised head still retains his human brain – he shrieks, “Help me!  Help me!” when he gets trapped in a spider’s web at the movie’s climax – but the giant fly’s head also seems to have Hedison’s brain inside it because the mutant creature is smart enough to hide away and leave written instructions for Hedison’s puzzled wife.  These absurdities were apparent to the cast, including Price, who had a hard time filming a scene with Herbert Marshall (in the role of an investigating policeman).  Their conversation gets interrupted by a little voice squeaking “Help me!” out of a spider’s web – at which point both actors kept exploding with laughter.  It required some 20 takes before the scene was finally in the can.

 

That said, I watched The Fly again recently and reacted to it differently.   The image of the fly with Hedison’s puny head grafted onto it, shrieking in terror while a monstrous spider approaches, strikes me now as piteous, grotesque and disturbing.

 

The Raven (1963)

I loved this Roger Corman-directed movie as a kid.  The tale of a trio of feuding magicians played by Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre, it’s more fantasy than horror – but spiced with delightfully ghoulish moments, such as when a torturer checks the temperature of a red-hot poker by pressing it into his own arm, or when Price opens a little casket and is discombobulated to find it full of human eyeballs.  (“I’d rather not say,” he croaks when Lorre asks him what’s inside.)  It’s like a version of Walt Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) for morbid children.

 

Incidentally, Karloff turns Lorre into a raven twice during the film, which allows Corman to tack the title of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous poem onto it and have Price recite the poem mellifluously during its opening scene.  And in the role of Lorre’s son, we get a 26-year-old and amusingly wooden Jack Nicholson.

 

© American International Pictures

 

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Corman’s majestic adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, scripted by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell (with a second Poe story, Hop Frog, stitched into the plot for good measure) and beautifully shot by the great Nicolas Roeg, showcases Price at his sumptuously evil best.  He’s Prince Prospero, who’s holed up in his castle with an entourage of loathsome aristocrats while a plague, the Red Death, decimates the countryside outside.  Price and friends happily live a life of decadence, fuelled by drink, drugs, sex, partying and diabolism, and refuse to help the neighbourhood’s terrified peasants.  However, when they decide to enliven their social calendar with a fancy-dress masque, the masque is gate-crashed by a mysterious, Ingmar Bergman-esque figure swathed in a red robe.  Guess who that is.

 

Tomb of Ligeia (1964)

Made the same year as Masque, Corman’s Ligeia has Price in a more sympathetic role, playing a haunted and reclusive man who tries to put his troubles behind him and find happiness with a new wife (Elizabeth Shepherd).  Unfortunately, his former wife, though dead, is still around in spirit form and won’t leave him in peace.  Tomb of Ligeia has a slightly over-the-top ending, but the build-up to it, involving black cats, flag-stoned passageways, cobwebs, candlelight, hypnosis, Egyptology and some imposing monasterial ruins filmed at Castle Acre Priory in the East Anglia region of England, is spookily wonderful.

 

© Tigon British Productions / American International Pictures

 

Witchfinder General (1968)

Directed by Michael Reeves (who died soon after at the age of 25), the uncompromising Witchfinder General sees Price back in East Anglia, playing a real-life figure from local history – the notorious 17th century ‘witch-finder’ Matthew Hopkins.  Among the East Anglian locations are Brandeston Village, St John’s Church near Thetford and the coastal settlements of Dunwich and Orford, and they form a paradoxically gorgeous backdrop to Hopkins’ ugly, brutal activities.  Orford Castle, which belongs to English Heritage, is the setting for the movie’s climax, which was supposed to feature a deadly conflagration.  However, when Reeves realised he couldn’t set fire to an English Heritage property, he changed the script and used a less spectacular but more gruelling ending whereby hero Ian Ogilvy seizes an axe and bloodily hacks Price to death.

 

Price and Reeves didn’t get on during Witchfinder General’s production.  Reeves considered Price too showy an actor for the role, but the star had been forced on him by the movie’s producers.  Nonetheless, Price ended up giving a low-key but chilling portrayal of evil, which is now considered one of his best performances.

 

Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972)

In 1971, Price starred in Robert Fuest’s baroque comedy-horror film The Abominable Dr Phibes.  He played the demented and disfigured genius Anton Phibes, who murders the surgeons he holds responsible for his wife’s death one-by-one whilst using the ten Old Testament plagues inflicted upon the Ancient Egyptians as inspiration for each killing.  I find the film a bit too pleased with itself and prefer the following year’s sequel, Dr Phibes Rises Again, which was also directed by Fuest.   This has Phibes heading for Egypt to find an ancient temple containing the fabled River of Life, which he believes will resurrect his dead wife.  When he discovers that a rival expedition is also searching for the temple, Phibes lays waste to them using another inventive array of killing methods: hawks, scorpions, a giant screw-press, a sand-blaster, etc.

 

Dr Phibes Rises Again is scrappier but funnier than its predecessor and has a great cast – Price, Robert Quarry, John Cater, Peter Jeffrey, Hugh Griffith, Gerald Sim, Lewis Fiander, John Thaw, Beryl Reid, Terry-Thomas and Peter Cushing.  Cater and Jeffrey are particularly good value as the hapless coppers who pursue Phibes to Egypt and they get the best lines, for example: “I don’t think.  I know!”  “I don’t think you know either, sir.”

 

© United Artists / Harbour Productions Limited / Cineman Productions

 

Theatre of Blood (1973)

Douglas Hickox’s brilliant Theatre of Blood is another comedy-horror movie, this time featuring Price as an insane and hammily over-the-top Shakespearean actor who starts killing the snobbish London theatre critics who’ve bad-mouthed his performances, using murders methods borrowed from the Bard’s plays.  “They’re not going to start killing critics for giving bad notices, are they?” exclaims the campest critic Meredith Merridew, played by Robert Morley, who soon meets a grisly fate modelled on events in Titus Andronicus.  A very distinguished cast of English character actors goes the same way as Morley: Michael Hordern (suffering a demise similar to that of Julius Caesar), Dennis Price (Troilus and Cressida), Arthur Lowe (Cymbeline), Robert Coote (Richard III) and Coral Browne (Henry VI: Part One).  Price even rewrites The Merchant of Venice so that a pound of flesh can be extracted from Harry Andrews.

 

Ian Hendry plays the youngest and least obnoxious critic, who at the movie’s climax is rescued by the police before he gets his eyes put out as the Earl of Gloucester did in King Lear.  Hendry’s on hand to pronounce judgement on Price when he finally plunges to his death through the roof of a burning theatre-building: “Yes it was a remarkable performance… he was madly overacting as usual, but you must admit he did know how to make an exit.”

 

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Price’s participation in Edward Scissorhands, written and directed by his then-youthful admirer Tim Burton, was reduced by ill health – he’d die from lung cancer a few years later – but his small role here remains charming.  He plays the kindly, eccentric old inventor who puts together Edward Scissorhands (Johnny Depp) but expires before he can fit his creation with proper hands.  This leaves poor Edward stuck with the temporary hands he’d been given, which are composed of long sharp scissor-blades.  (Price’s character was kindly and eccentric, yes, but not exactly practical.)

 

Price has been dead for 25 years now but it often feels like he never departed.  His films are still shown regularly on TV and people still imitate his velvety tones.  And though I don’t care for the music of Michael Jackson, I like the fact that I’ve been sitting in pubs in different and far-flung parts of the world, in Sri Lanka and Tunisia and Ethiopia, when someone behind the counter has started playing Thriller on the places’ sound-systems; meaning that a few minutes later the pubs have filled with Price’s glorious voice, intoning:

 

Darkness falls across the land / The midnight hour is close at hand / Creatures crawl in search of blood / To terrorise your neighbourhood…

 

And finally, of course, that laugh: “AH-HA-HA-HA-HA-HAAAAA!

 

© 20th Century Fox