Review by Derek
“A man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God … it deals with the 2 great mysteries of creation: life and death. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you.”
And thus begins the classic horror film, Frankenstein. A Vaudevillian type of introduction and we are on our way. The intro captures the stories main thrust, and quite a popular theme of the time. With the onset of modernism came the idea that Science was the great healer, the newest, best, and most rational religion. And with this sudden onslaught of sure-firedness claims of scientists, and the quite amazing things they were accomplishing, the fear of going ‘too far’ became a favorite plot tension of authors and movie producers. The overall message was that the scientific revolution and its subsequent exponential growth was too much too soon, and destined to either be in ruins or put us in ruins. To be a little anachronistic: they were drinking their own Kool-Aid.
And this is the issue with Dr. Frankenstein. He seeks to create new life. His whole being is obsessed with the thought. He has withdrawn from family and friends, his only companion being Fritz, the deformed henchman. By day he performs his heinous experiments on animals (initially) and human organs, and by night he and Fritz procure more human organs by robbing graves, cutting bodies down from gallows, and some other ways that he is not at liberty to discuss. His newest creation will be his masterpiece, but he needs a fresh human brain.
The human brain he gets is preserved in some sort of liquid, probably much like other tissue samples. However, there is a problem with the brain that Fritz has stolen from the medical school (from Dr. Waldman, Dr. Frankenstein’s previous professor and mentor). Fritz initially picked up the jar that said ‘normal brain’, but he accidentally dropped it. So he had to get the brain from the other jar, which was shown to illustrate what an abnormal brain looks like; abnormal, in this sense, because it belonged to a rowdy, violent, and murderous individual.
You can see where this is going! I once saw a movie starring Emilio Estevez where he was a cop who had to have an arm transplant. Yeah, the whole arm. What he didn’t know is that the arm was from an evil criminal he had pursued. Something like that. Anyway, the arm had a mind of its own. In the case of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, its mind had a mind of its own! … Okay, so this one makes a little more sense than an arm.
As Dr. Frankenstein’s friends and family worry, they travel with Dr. Waldman to the abandoned windmill building where the doc is doing his experiments. And there they watch and listen to him, perceiving him to be a raving lunatic, as he describes what he is doing. Yes, their suspicions are correct, he is trying to create life (his “insane ambition” as Dr. Waldman earlier remarked). Yes, he does get bodies from wherever he can. This he talks about very nonchalantly, as if it is only our own ignorant understanding of human life that makes us recoil at the idea.
He needs a great storm to produce the electricity he needs to reanimate the composite dead man. Indeed, he needs “all the electrical secrets of heaven.” “Think of it!: The brain of a dead man waiting to live again in a body I made with my own hands … (stares at hands) … with my own hands.” This machinery has gone beyond the UV ray; he says he has discovered the great ray that first brought life into this world. He says he is not bringing something back to life though. Rather, he is creating fresh. The body he has was never alive. It is made from the bodies he has taken from graves, gallows, anywhere. It is a piecemeal body.
And after the lightning strikes, he screams the now-famous line: “It’s alive! Alive! Alive! Alive! In the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!” Woah, pull back on those reins a bit. At least what God created was initially good (Gen. 1:31)!
The rest is pretty much the story you know. The monster gets loose and goes berserk, kills some people on purpose, and accidentally kills a little girl. The setup to the problem, though, is the most important, and the outcome predictable. The scientist has overstepped his boundary – when he is trying only to understand God, then all is well. But then he decides to play God, or feel that he can supersede God. He seeks the power of God for himself and others; indeed, in the religion of Science, God is to be replaced by man, particularly intellectual man, the savior of the masses. But what happens in the movie flies in the face of Dr. Frankenstein’s convictions. When one tries removing God from the picture, sometimes he lets them … and then it may be said that all hell breaks loose.
Now I hope that at this point in time we (as in Christians) have stopped viewing scientists in this way. But there was a time where they were viewed as suspect. Of course, there have always been Christians who were scientists. Indeed, most of the famous scientists you’ve heard of were Christians! The issue is that there is fear that their theories are in opposition to our convictions. Some say this isn’t the case at all. This blog post is not the place to have this lengthy discussion. But the main point of tension between Christians (but certainly not only Christians) and scientists (or doctors; really just anyone in a scientific field) today is much the same. No one can deny that they have benefitted from the findings of science (medicine, vaccines, modern anesthesia, and so on), but there is still something that strikes a chord when one becomes dangerously close to “playing God”.
How does one play God? One way is for he or she to interfere in matters of life or death, those “two great mysteries of creation.” Today we see this largely in issues of abortion, euthanasia, cloning, stem cell research, and transhumanism (Google it), among other things. However, the idea of connecting a head to another body is completely science fiction (or is it?). It is particularly human life we are concerned with here. Though we are to be stewards of all creation, most didn’t care about the research on creatures until those creatures were themselves. I remember once in a Biology lab I myself worked in (and did research on zebrafish embryos) I was a bit horrified at a catalog I saw. It sold dead animals for high schools, colleges, etc., for research and general dissection for assignments. I just remember feeling very sad that a high school could get dead cats, rabbits, frogs, etc. to dissect (and if they buy 100 they can get a discount!). Many of these animals are raised to be killed. If someone wants to make the case that serious researchers need test animals then I will listen. But for high school students who could mostly care less? Detestable.
Dr. Frankenstein has sought destroyed life so that he can create life. The life he created then destroyed life. The monster himself was also eventually destroyed as well. The idea of destroying life to create it is not foreign today, either, but it would never be worded that way. The movie ends kind of like Animal Farm by Orwell. The townspeople close in on the monster in a windmill. They are yelling for its blood, and they set the mill on fire. As the scene goes back and forth between the monster and the townsfolk, you begin to question which one is the monster. In my estimation, it is both.
Performances & Scenery
Just a quick note on these: very, very fun! I think even your kids will like it. This is classic 1930s horror cinema. Colin Clive, who plays Dr. Frankenstein, has the diction of the stereotypical reporter, gangster, etc. from that era. You just have to hear him, it’s great fun. Fritz is played by the deliciously over-the-top Dwight Frye, a.k.a. Dracula’s Renfield. And Boris Karloff as the monster is legendary, though a bit campy at times (by today’s standards, of course). But some of the scenes of violent fights and the monster’s creepiness must have, in their day, created quite a scare. They had not been so desensitized yet to the horror genre and violence in film.
And the scenery? Again, like any good horror movie should be! Gloomy skies, dark nights in opposition to surrounding aristocracy, and violent thunderstorms that last all night.
This is a really fun movie to watch. Check it out before your kids watch it, but it could be a fun scary movie to watch with them. No cussing, no gore, no sex. There is some violence, but it is mild by today’s standards.
In many ways, it is a much better overall movie than Dracula, it just doesn’t have Lugosi’s strong performance. Interestingly, Lugosi was originally asked to play the monster in this movie, but he felt it was beneath him to play a monster with no speaking lines (only grunts!). What ended up happening is that because of this film, Karloff would have a long career and get to do some genres other than horror, where as Lugosi was stuck and typecast. Karloff ended up being a much bigger star. I recommend seeing the movie Ed Wood to view some of this frustration Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi is amazing! – and it won him the Oscar, an award that Lugosi was certainly talented enough to win, but never had the chance. Ironically, Lugosi would be forced to lower his standards and play Frankenstein in a sequel (one of many). In this version, Frankenstein’s monster is blinded and he must walk with his arms straight out in front of him to help feel around when he is walking. However, the blinding scene ended up being cut, so people watching the movie just thought that the monster walked with his hands straight out in front of him now for no reason. And in that, Lugosi left his mark on the Frankenstein franchise as well.
*Note, this will be the last of my reviews of favorite movies – I find it hard to be totally objective with something I have such a long history with 🙂