Category Archives: film

Movie reviews. Genre commentary.

Even Wilder: The Cultural Significance of a Comedic Frankenstein

With the passing of Gene Wilder — one of the best actors to ever to play Dr. “Fronkensteen” — Mary Shelley’s monster may never be funny again. Not that the young girl — a few months shy of her eighteenth birthday — wrote the tale of a man who created a monster  for laughs. On that stormy night two-hundred years ago when she was challenged by Lord Byron to pen a horror tale, comedy was probably the furthest thing from her mind.  Her Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, the now classic novel first published in 1818., is arguably humorless. Shelley’s novel is one of tragedy after tragedy. At its conclusion, Frankenstein’s fiancé has been strangled by the monster, Victor himself dies (of exposure, exhaustion, ambition!) and the monster, who weeps for his maker, is last seen floating away on an ice flow. Not funny at all. Ironic in places, perhaps. Histrionic, which can be funny in a “people just don’t act like that” sort of way.  But it’s not until Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder 1974’s Young Frankenstein that the story becomes pure comedy for the sake of the comedic. Or was it?

Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein (1823)
Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein (1823)

The first adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel to stage, Richard Brinkley Peake’s 1823 Presumption! or, The Fate of Frankenstein — produced not five years after the first edition of Frankenstein (and arguably a reason why the novel went to  a second) — was the first to mute the creature, and in so doing, open the figure more easily to ridicule. The monster of the novel is well- read, well-spoken and almost erudite, but Peake’s creature is clumsy. And Peake doesn’t stop at stumbling pantomime. Within the play there is a ignoramus of a servant named Fritz (curiously, the name given to Frankenstein’s assistant in Universal’s 1931 classic with Boris Karloff) and his only slightly more intelligent wife; they sing lighthearted songs and are peppered as comic relief throughout the play. It’s as if Peake saw Shelley’s story as only working on stage if there were an infusion of levity. Melodrama only plays so far with an audience. And gothic melodrama? It was panned by the critics.

So why not go in the “other” direction? More to the comedic and an attempt to appeal to even wider audiences, Peake put together a version later in 1823 that was outright farce: calling it Another Piece of Presumption. Then the imitators started: there was Frank-in-Steam; or, The Modern Promise to Pay; a monster played by a dwarf in a burlesque version of the play; and then, perhaps the most over-the-top of adaptations from the time: Frankenstitch (the Needle Prometheus), about a tailor who sewed together pieces of several bodies to make his creation. Each was further removed from the source material. And while most were torn apart by critics looking for more by way of the ethical questions inherent to the subject of man creating man, audiences apparently loved the humor. Stage adaptations continued through the nineteenth century, from gothic melodramas to Richard Butler and Henry Chance Newton’s musical burlesque: Frankenstein; or, The Vampires Victim (1887), a flop that found the monster flirting with his feminine side. It ran only one week.

Why would audiences want a comedic Frankenstein?

Frankenstein, promoted in The Edison Kinetogram
Frankenstein, promoted in The Edison Kinetogram, March, 1910

Fast forward a little over 20 years and the moving picture would pick up the tale of the man who created a monster by none other than inventor Thomas Edison. His once “lost” 1910 adaptation of Frankenstein actually ends comedically — at least in the Aristotelian sense of the term. The monster, a hideous mirror-image of Frankenstein (literally) is a jealous type, not happy with his maker’s attention to a woman. But in the end, love conquers all and the monster’s image dissolves into the mirror. Frankenstein and his bride live happily ever after.

In practically every adaptation since, the monster’s luck with women never much improved. Similarly jealous of his maker’s bride, Boris Karloff’s quintessential creature in James Whale’s 1931 Universal classic ends up feared and hunted.  But Dr. Henry Frankenstein (played to over-the-top 1930s perfection by Colin Clive) ultimately ends up in the arms of his beloved Elizabeth by movie’s end. The monster? Consumed in a fiery mill and presumed dead. Once again, all is right with the world. What seemed doomed to tragedy ends well.

Then Director James Whale makes one of the boldest moves in Hollywood history by turning the genre upside down with his sequel.

Elsa Lanchester as The Bride of Frankenstein
Elsa Lanchester as The Bride of Frankenstein

James Whale’s brilliant Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is a subversive film. Beyond the solid argument made by Gary Morris is his essay for the Bright Lights Film Journal, Bride of Frankenstein not only  addresses sexual subversion and a challenge to traditional family values, it forces the audience to confront the notion that the most freakish among us may be the most human, and those in positions of power — the scientists and burgomasters — haven’t a clue.

There is humor in the subversion. From the pure camp of Doctor Pretorius to the played-for-laughs startles and screams of Frankenstein’s housekeeper Minnie, the audience has much to smile about in Bride of Frankenstein. And all the while, their expectations of what a horror movie should be — how it should end (i.e., resolve favorably) and that morality, normalcy and the nuclear family should escape unscathed — is subverted. No marriage here. “We belong dead,” says the monster as he pulls the switch to blow the set to smithereens. Roll credits.

The cast of Young Frankenstein
Mel Brooks, Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Gene Wilder and Teri Garr

Sharing more with Whale’s sequel than simply being a parody of the genre, Mel Brooks takes subversion one step further (or perhaps back) in Young Frankenstein. Those who would normally hold positions of power, the scientist and inspector, are here subjects of ridicule — and both we and THEY know it.

Wilder, in particular, revels in his character’s inability to comprehend the significance of what he has done and what he is doing. He is narcissistic and anxiety-ridden, nervous about his future and embarrassed as to his family’s past. But expose him to the temptations of his libidinous assistant Inga, the multiple machinations of his housekeeper Frau Blücher and the sheer insanity of his sidekick Igor (it’s pronounced “Eye-Gor”) and suddenly Dr. Frankenstein reclaims not only his heritage, but his passion for living. Ironic that this is found only through the resuscitation of the dead. Through the making of a child-like (yet well endowed) monster, Frankenstein becomes more human. Each laugh endears us more to both him and his creation. And the subversion? Whereas Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein subverts sexual mores and challenges the nuclear family, Young Frankenstein is simply, subtly (yet superbly) a subversion of audience expectation. We know the tropes of the genre: the dark and stormy night (“could be worse”…”could be raining”); wolves baying at the moon (“there wolf… there castle”); secret passages (“put..the candle…back).

Yet Brooks and company subvert our expectations from the smallest of punchlines to the biggest of payoffs — a truly happy ending.

In place of Shelley’s questions about the nature of man and the ethics of scientific inquiry, Brooks explores not what it is to be a man who makes a monster, but what it means to be someone or something so outside the norm that it is, ultimately, freed from norms. Free to be happy. Free not only to be how one was made but who one is capable of becoming.

The monster and his mate
The monster and his mate at the end of Young Frankenstein

It’s a message for all freaks and weirdos.

And yes, the doctor still ends up with a bride.

But even the monster gets the girl.


Dawn of Justice in The Age of Cynicism

With the the recently released extended version of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, a hotly contested debate will undoubtedly continue — not only involving the merits of this almost universally panned production but also the believability of Batman truly being able to take on Superman.

It’s an age-old question. Brains vs. brawn. Or is it?

BATMAN: TDKR #4 (1986)
BATMAN: TDKR #4 (1986)

The idea that Batman and Superman could be such bitter rivals was introduced in the modern age, courtesy of Frank Miller and his groundbreaking Dark Knight Returns. There, Superman is a tool of the government, sent to put down the once retired now revitalized thorn-in-the-side of the powers that be. It’s a comic book world born of the cynical nineteen eighties and a time when superhero fiction was at a critical crossroads of cultural legitimacy.

Using his advantage of time and “considerable fortune,” Batman of TDKR develops armor and an arsenal of weapons — including a synthesized form of the mcguffin known as kryptonite — to make the Man of Steel bleed. It’s a short-lived battle, but it makes its point. Superman is not invulnerable. But what is  the true nature of his vulnerability?

Superman #76 (1952)
Superman #76 (1952)

In the Golden Age of comics, DC’s finest heroes were the best of friends. Having officially first met (outside of the Justice League) in Superman #76 (1952), there was friction between the two, but it was over harmless flirtations with Lois Lane. Like the Golden Age itself, there was innocence. Comics were for kids and kids at heart.

Throughout the Silver Age, the relationship between Batman and Superman became almost comical with “The World’s Finest” team swapping everything from villains to powers, finding Batman get superpowers of his own or (stranger still) get taken over by an alien just to keep up with Superman. Mercifully, the “World’s Finest” comic was finally canceled in the mid eighties as the plots became more and more peculiar. just in time for Miller’s alternate history / future, and John Byrne’s seminal Man of Steel mini-series reboot — both in 1986.

Man of Steel #3 (1986)
Man of Steel #3 (1986)

It was in issue three of the latter series that we get the first hint of distrust between the two characters in the mainstream (rebooted) DC universe. Superman makes it clear to Batman that he could whisk the caped crusader to a cell in the blink of an eye when Batman retorts that were Superman to touch him, a (magnetic?) field surrounding his body would trigger a bomb somewhere in Gotham, killing an innocent person. It’s the first tense moment between the two in regular continuity. Of course, Batman doesn’t tell the Man of Steel on whom the bomb is planted: it is Batman himself!

Batman’s machinations reveal, to no one’s surprise, a dark side to the hero — one that would be crystalized almost two decades later by Jeph Loeb in his critically acclaimed HUSH storyline:

“If Clark wanted to, he could use his super speed and squish me into the cement. But I know how he thinks. Even more than the Kryptonite, he’s got one big weakness. Deep down, Clark’s essentially a good person… and deep down, I’m not.” — Batman: HUSH #612 (2003)

“Deep down, I’m not [a good person.” Batman’s awareness of self is at the same time sad and empowering. As such, it begs a number of questions.

Wherein lies true power? And what is more heroic? Having the willingness to do whatever it takes? Possessing the restraint that keeps one from abusing power? Knowing one’s true self? Or is it something more sinister.

The lines between the heroes begin to blur. Just as each once stood for the innocence of caped abandon (in a Golden Age that still exists for every child on a playground), each hero also faces the moral consequences of action and inaction. Historically (at least in the comics), Superman has maintained that core of innocence and desire to forever be the “good” man raised by his adoptive parents. Conversely, Batman has been the morally grey divided self striving to do good in a world where he learned early on from the brutal murder of his parents one thing: that the world is essentially a bad place.

Does that ultimately drive Batman to madness? Writers of both the comics and pop culture commentaries have certainly questioned his state of mind (see, for example What’s the Matter with Batman?). Does Bruce Wayne fit the schizoid personality profile defined in Dr. R. Laing’s seminal,  existential nineteen-sixties study The Divided Self? The problem with such attempts to analyze Batman is that it assumes Batman does not nor can ever rise above his childhood trauma. Superman, on the other hand, grows up with love, support and a strong moral compass. Does love, then, as poets and preachers would have us believe, conquer all?

Director Zack Snyder hints at, but ultimately abandons this dichotomy of underlying philosophies and mental health in favor of making both characters world-weary and guilt-ridden. When we debate the murkiness of character(s) evident in Zack Snyder’s ambitious but ultimately flawed film, the issue of what it means to be a hero and whether or not the better man wins may come down to more than the result of the film’s titular main event (it certainly comes down to more than [spoiler alert!] the invocation of the name Martha!!!!!). It comes down to which man is more (or less) damaged. And that does a disservice to both characters.

Dawn of Justice (2016)
Dawn of Justice (2016)

In the end, it just may be that the “dawn of justice” is the moment when it’s made clear that all heroes have flaws. That moral absolutes are tough to come by in this day and age. And that, for our heroes to resonate at all with a modern audience, they have to be as conflicted as we are.