It’s pronounced Frahnkenschteen

A few weeks ago, I tweeted a playfully snap about the truly awful-looking I, Frankenstein… and was immediately followed by the film’s twitter. I felt obscurely guilty and protective, like when you spritz a naughty kitten with the spray bottle and she runs to you for refuge. (I have not failed to consider that I, Frankenstein is exploiting pity as a marketing tool.)

In honor of discovering that a current theatrical-release big-budget schlockfest will follow you on Twitter for mentioning it even in jest, I suggest a handful of movies and shows to rent [instead of/in addition to] attending I, Frankenstein‘s theatrical release.

Young Frankenstein. Even I, who am iffy-to-uncomfortable about Mel Brooks’ oeuvre, must salute the marvel that is Young Frankenstein. The film revels in loving parody, which is only enriched by the authenticity of its aesthetics. The crisp, luscious black & white, the midcentury costumes, and the period sets perfectly recreate the look and feel of Universal’s classic monster movies – in some cases, literally; Brooks was able to rent the original electric apparatus used for James Whale’s Frankenstein from the engineer who created it.

The perfections of the film are too many to count: Gene Wilder (and his wild shock of hair) as Frederick Frankenstein (“It’s pronounced Frahnkenschteen.” “You’re putting me on.”); the unparalleled Madeline Kahn as Frederick’s chilly fiancée, Elizabeth; Marty Feldman’s rolling eyeballs as he humps his way along drafty, dusty corridors; Cloris Leachman as the sinister chatelaine, Frau Blücher; Peter Boyle creaking, groaning, and side-eyeing his way through his role as The Creature. But this is much more than a slapsticky rip on an enduring tale; Young Frankenstein displays an endearing fondness for its source material even as it upends the dramatic tropes of Frankenstein films past.

Gods and Monsters. James Whale, the director of Universal’s iconic Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, flouted the dictates and strictures of polite society, refusing to repress or hide his homosexuality despite a culture and career most inhospitable to it – and, eventually, to him.

Gods & Monsters

Gods and Monsters stars Sir Ian McKellan as Whale in his last days, Brendan Fraser as Clayton Boone, the young gardener Whale ushers into his life and his home, and Lynn Redgrave as the stern housekeeper who defends and chides Whale in equal measure. The Oscar-winning screenplay was adapted by director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Kinsey) from Christopher Bram’s 1995 novel Father of Frankenstein, and the whole film has a sometimes sweet, sometimes salty nostalgia that never goes where you think it will.

Gargoyles. So there are gargoyles in this nonsense Frankenstein movie? WHATEVER. For a proper tale of gargoyles, you gotta go to the 90s series “Gargoyles,” which features… well, y’know, gargoyles.

gargoyles tv

When a jillionaire purchases a Scottish castle and has it rebuilt, stone by stone, atop a New York skyscraper, he unwittingly awakens the castle’s ancient gargoyles, who were turned to stone and doomed to remain so until the castle should soar above the clouds. HA, TAKE THAT, CURSE.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show. An innocent young couple (Susan Saradon, Barry Bostwick) are driving through ominous countryside when their car breaks down, stranding them and sending them search for help at a nearby estate.

It’s a classic set-up, and RHPS delivers a classic plot… with a twist here and there. The nearby estate is staffed, as classic monster-movie grammar requires, by a taciturn handyman (Richard O’Brien) and wild-eyed maid (Patricia Quinn). It’s owned by an urbane and welcoming scientist (Tim Curry) of dubious ethics. And there is a most… interesting… experiment underway. But that’s very nearly the end of Rocky Horror’s similarities to the classic monster movies of yore.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. If you disdain the guttural moans and bleats of the classic movie Frankenstein’s monster and instead insist upon the eloquent Creature as Mary Shelly envisioned him, Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the movie for you.

In this ambitious if uneven epic, Doctor Frankenstein (Branagh) endows his resurrected man with his own mentor’s brain, but soon denounces and casts out his creation to seek his doom. But who among us will settle for such short shrift? Not you, not I, and not the innocent walking death that Frankenstein has brought forth from the world beyond.

The film follows Shelley’s plot more faithfully than any other adaptation I’ve seen; though Branagh’s directing wasn’t yet up to the sweep and grandeur of this tale, it is gratifying for the pedants among us (AHEM) to see The Creature acting with the volition and intelligence that the original story envisioned.

The X-Files “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” S5 ep 5, is a stand-alone Monster of the Week episode, so don’t worry about finding your place in the long-arc mythology of “The X-Files.” Just sit back and let it wash over you.

Mulder and Scully (David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson) arrive in rural Indiana to investigate reports of a disfigured person or creature (witnesses are both fuzzy and, well, unkind in their descriptions) roaming the area, impregnating unconscious women. The assailant resembles The Great Mutato, a comic-book protagonist created by the grown son of one such woman based on townspeople’s descriptions of their encounters. Bring in the local hubristic mad scientist (every town has one, right? APPARENTLY SO), Dr. Pollidorri, and let’s see the sparks fly. Literally, right? I mean, this is a Frankenstein allusion. Speaking of Frankenstein allusions, “The Post-Modern Prometheus” is filmed in glorious black & white in homage to the great James Whale Frankenstein films of the ‘30s.

Gothic. During the long sunless summer of 1816, young Mary Shelley (née Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) and her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, paid a visit to his dear friend Lord Byron in exile on the shore of Switzerland’s Lake Geneva. Over the course of this visit (and inspired by the ghost stories they took turns reading aloud), the assembled guests, all writers of some kind, undertook a friendly competition: each would write a ghastly tale to entertain and horrify their fellows. This contest is famously the event that spurred Shelley to write her iconic Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.

Gothic Lord Bryon portrait

Ken Russell’s Gothic tells a fictionalized account of this visit, reducing it to a brief and harrowing weekend of the dissipation and debauchery for which Lord Byron was infamous, packed with laudanum guzzling, scantily-clad chases through a dank manor, and all steeped in lascivious innuendo. The film heaves with excess and imagery, and it’s either chomping great fun or crassly off-putting, depending on your temperament. (For me, it’s both.)

But I can’t find fault with the performances: Natasha Richardson made her film debut as the ingenuous Mary Shelley, Julian Sands plays Percy with an odd combination of sleepy-eyed wonder and schoolboy zeal, Miriam Cyr is beguiling as Mary’s “cousin” (factually, her stepsister) Claire Clairmont, and Timothy Spall’s Dr. Polidori, leech enthusiast and literary lapdog, is indelible. But it’s Gabriel Byrne who carries this film on his capable shoulder, investing Lord Byron with every ounce of louche charm and repulsive assurance, making every facet of the character shine and shade as bright-and-dark as the sky in a thunderstorm.

This entry is cross-posted to The VideoReport.

3 thoughts on “It’s pronounced Frahnkenschteen

  1. Young Frankenstein is basically perfection, so I don’t really have anything to say about that, but I have feeeeeeeeeeeelings about the Branagh movie because I wanted to love it, but it was, to me, laughably bad (overwrought in a way) in some parts. But I really loved how faithful it was to the original text. And now I have to watch Gothic because saucy Gabriel Byrne is my favorite Gabriel Byrne. Oh, who am I kidding? Any Gabriel Byrne is my favorite Gabriel Byrne.

    • Agreed: the Branagh Frankenstein collapses under the weight of its own swagger. Branagh just wasn’t up to directing the epic he wanted. But it’s notable for its faithfulness, which is worth remembering.

      Gothic is a hoot. It falls all over you the way a staggering, handsy drunk does.

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