read the book, you know the film. It opens in the Arctic Ocean, aboard
a ship frozen in ice. Its captain seeks the North pole. Instead
he encounters a Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Leon Vitali) stumbling about the
ice floes, in search of a monster (Per Oscarsson). Rescued by the
captain, Victor relates his story...
story has been filmed myriad times, and interpreted nearly as often. The monster is often portrayed as a simple brute. Whale portrayed
him as a sympathetic mute, later capable of some halting phrases. (How long before the PC patrol censors the monster's joyful discovery: "Smoke
good!" ?). Terror
of Frankenstein follows Shelley's novel in portraying the monster
as an eloquent advocate for his own defense, and for his demand that Victor
create for him a bride. Not that he can't be cruel. Nor is
he as verbose as in the Shelley novel. But then, the nature of film
does not allow for a discourse that continues across several chapters in
Shelley's Frankenstein works on many levels, including as metaphor for the loneliness, resentment,
and eventual hostility that results from societal rejection. Such
emotional pains are especially common to adolescence, and make for a recurring
horror theme (Carrie, Twisted
High). AIP's I Was a Teenage Frankenstein is noteworthy primarily because it is the Frankenstein adaptation that
taps most explicitly into this theme of adolescent angst.
of Frankenstein too focuses on this aspect of the novel. Newly born, full of wonder and delight at the beauty of nature, the monster
is soon rejected and assaulted because of his horrid appearance. He angrily vows vengeance on all humanity, and kills the innocent. But, desiring a mate to assuage his loneliness, he promises Victor that
he will make peace with humanity if Victor builds for him a bride "as ugly
Phil Hardy's Overlook
Encyclopedia recognizes this, scoffing that the monster "like
a true adolescent, feels repulsive and is left to cope alone in the world,
causing it to develop into a brutal delinquent." Hardy would
rather the film concentrate on the Baron's conflicts with society, lamenting, "Floyd's
pretty pictures and psychological approach drain the myth of its power."
I disagree. The monster's attempts to cope with rejection, more so than Victor Frankenstein's
attempt to play God, is the thematic core of Shelley's novel; or at least,
its the more interesting aspect. And Terror
of Frankenstein, unlike most adaptations, highlights this core.
of Frankenstein is a low-budget effort, but this lack of funds
enhances rather than hinders Floyd's thematic focus -- perhaps even directed
him to it. The monster is unattractive, but more creepish than freakish. This may be less a matter of choice than of budgetary constraints. This monster has no expensive nuts and bolts, no elaborate makeup. His lips are blackened with lipstick, his face pallid with powder, his
hair unkempt. He'd likely pass unnoticed in some parts of New York. His cadaverous (rather than monstrous) appearance supports the theme of
a lonely outcast. He is the grimy, sickly bum we pass quickly on
the street, his appearance menacing rather than terrifying.
of Frankenstein's simple makeup and effects demonstrate how
low budgets constrain filmmakers into creative choices that aesthetically
enhance a film's theme. Hence, the film is an example of pragmatic
aesthetics, I mean when a filmmaker puts budgetary
production compromises to aesthetic effect. Forced to compromise
on location, lighting, whatever, the filmmaker uses that limitation in
a way that enhances the theme or story. I first used the term in my essay,
"The Pragmatic Aesthetics of Low-Budget Horror Cinema," published under
another title in Midnight Marquee #60. For a fuller explanation, see my book, Horror Film Aesthetics.)
its low budget, Terror
of Frankenstein is a handsome production. The old buildings
Floyd found in his Irish locations support the story, and filming scenes
of nature costs the same for a low-budget film as big budget. The
period costumes are attractive. For stark beauty, the wintry forest
scenes rival those in Ghost
Story. Hardy dismisses Floyd's "pretty pictures" as being
complicit in "draining the myth of its power," but I think otherwise. Terror
of Frankenstein more convincingly evokes early nineteenth century
Switzerland than many bigger budgeted films. The Arctic Ocean sets
are also impressive.
noticeable budgetary compromise is the background casting. The principals
are all superb, but there are so few extras that the sets feel empty. Victor's vast mansion appears sparsely staffed with servants. The
university appears to have enrolled only a handful of pupils. Even
village squares are sparsely populated. No guests attend Victor's
wedding to Elizabeth (Stacey Dorning); the spacious church is empty save
for the necessary participants. (One rationale may be that they invited
no guests out of mourning for the recent death of Victor's brother).
is a minor matter. The film's low-budget production values and special
effects can't match Hollywood. But the locations and laboratory props
serve their purpose admirably, the cast performs well, the script is intelligent.
Review copyright by Thomas
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