The first in this series of silent movie watchalong posts is alive! ALIVE!!! And today we’re dissecting a classic, the Edison Studios adaptation of Frankenstein from 1910. As most horror buffs know, this was the first filmed version of Mary Shelley’s novel, even though I gotta say the adaptation is a tad on the “creative” side. Time to get this experiment started, so fire up the kinetogram and watch along!
We open on a title card, which is followed by an explanatory blurb informing us that this is a “liberal adaptation of Mary Shelley’s story,” which somehow sounds both apologetic and condescending at the same time, and then the screen reads, “Frankenstein Leaves for College,” which in a just world would be the title of an epic Descendents album consisting of nothing but Cramps covers.
There follows a brief and completely pointless scene of Frankenstein bidding adieu to his father and “sweetheart” (seriously, that’s how she’s referred to in this movie). As the card informed us, Frankenstein is indeed leaving for college. See? There he goes, leaving for college. Father and Sweetheart wave at him as he goes, leaving for college. “Have fun with the leaving and the college,” they seem to say to his retreating back. “Take it easy on the butt-chugging and try really hard not to subvert all the laws of God and man while you’re there, K? Oh, and bring us a University of Ingolstadt sweatshirt when you visit at the holidays.”
Then there’s evidently a time jump, so we don’t get to see Frankenstein Wikipedia-pasting his way through Biology 101 or getting dragged up a flagpole by his manties in a fraternity hazing. In fact, Frankenstein appears to be the most diligent college student in the entire history of college, because the next card informs us that, “Two years later, Frankenstein has discovered the secret of life.” Holy shit, even Leonardo da Vinci wasn’t THAT far ahead of the curve. Unless, of course, the secret of life that Frankenstein discovered involved Dark Side of the Moon and copious amounts of weed. Hate to poop on your birthday cake, V-Frank, but we’ve ALL discovered that secret.
The next scene shows Frankie in his…lab? dorm room? man cave? He’s sitting in a throne and making eureka-type hand gestures of the sort one would expect from some smug sumbitch who discovered the secret of life, and then he is abruptly edited to his feet, where he proceeds to wave his arms around in a self-congratulatory fashion, addressing what appears to be a loaf of pumpernickel but is probably a brain, breaking only to snatch up his feather quill to jot down all his earth-shattering, life-secret-discovering mind poots. Y’know, for posterity. Then he looks at what he just wrote and sits back in his throne, all OMG I AM SUCH A FUCKING GENIUS THAT I CAN BARELY STAND TO BE IN THE SAME ROOM WITH MYSELF. JUST KIDDING, I CAN STAND IT BECAUSE I’M JUST. THAT. AWESOME. Then he struts out of his room, just raring to share his discovery with a world too blighted to understand him, maaaaaaan.
“Just before the experiment,” reads the next card, and from Frankie’s subsequent facial expressions it appears that he may be having second thoughts about the whole tampering in God’s domain business, but then I guess not, because he picks up a letter from his desk and smooches on it and grins like a lunatic, then scoops up his quill in order to dramatically scribble a reply, which is addressed to “Sweetheart” (is that really her name? So when they get married she’s gonna be Mrs. Sweetheart Frankenstein?) and basically gives her the Cliff’s Notes version of what he expects his “marvellous work” to amount to. “Discovered the secret of life and death, gonna create the most perfect being the world has ever known, yadda yadda, I’m really not useless like your mother says, I swear I’m gonna sew a bunch of corpse parts together and reanimate that shit and everyone will love it and then you’ll see, then I’ll be good enough to ‘claim you for my bride,’ right? Right? I promise my scientific discovery should be quite sufficient to overshadow the somewhat less pleasant discovery you’re going to make on our wedding night, my darling. Please assuage my monstrous insecurities. Your devoted, Frankenstein.”
Decent penmanship for a budding doctor, though, it must be said.
After he’s written the letter, he folds it up all nice and then he gets up from his desk and makes to toddle down to the corner post office, but then he pauses and puts his hand to his chin in that universal HMMMMMM gesture, and then he says FUCK IT, BITCH DON’T NEED TO KNOW MY LIFE and crumples up the letter and tosses it on the desk. Yeah, takin’ a man-stand! HO DON’T OWN ME AND MY GODLIKE CREATOR POWERS, BRAH.
Uh, yeah, about that? Even the title cards are onto you, dude. “Instead of a perfect human being,” the text sniffs, “the evil in Frankenstein’s mind creates a monster.” The movie does not specify which mind-evil did the deed, whether it was the relatively mild crumpling of the Sweetheart letter, the desire to want to create life in the first place, those three dead hookers stuffed under his dorm room bunk, or just the kind of general evil that resides in all our minds just by virtue of our shared humanity. I like to think that the evil in my mind wouldn’t create anything more nefarious than a doughy, middle-aged high school gym coach, or perhaps a stale bran muffin, but y’know, I’m not judging anyone on mind-evil levels here.
And now we come to the money-shot, the actual monster creation! Since whizzing sciencey doodads hadn’t been invented yet in 1910, Frankie has to go the alchemy-via-Julia-Child route, mixing up some reanimatin’ potion in his ramen noodle pot while a friendly skeleton looks on from a nearby chair. I DID SO MAKE FRIENDS IN COLLEGE, MOM, AND DON’T MENTION HOW THIN AND BONY HE IS WHEN YOU SEE HIM, HE’S REALLY SENSITIVE ABOUT THAT.
In the closet behind him is a large vat steaming merrily away, and for a moment I’m distracted by the fantasy that this is a documentary about the early days of the Frankenstein Brothers Homestyle Chili Company, when they were still a scrappy startup experimenting with different spice blends in their parents’ basement. Frankenstein’s Chili: Better Than the Sum of its Parts!
Dr. Foodenstein tosses a spoonful of the ramen noodle potion into the chili vat with a hearty “BAM!” and then remembers there’s a couple more ingredients he forgot, so he chucks those in too, and the chili emits a plume of smoke and Frankie turns toward the camera all VOILA, CHILI MAGIC, Y’ALL, and then, because the best chili must simmer to perfection in complete darkness away from the prying eyes of the public, he closes the closet doors on it, except they look more like metal bank vault doors, if those vault doors were painted with tempera on big pieces of cardboard. Then he puts a wooden bar across the doors, lest the chili escape and cause panic and intestinal distress throughout the German countryside.
Much like an oven, the closet vault doors have a little window through which you may monitor the progress of your foodstuffs, so Frankie takes full advantage, watching as his chili gains sentience. This is actually a pretty cool effect, similarities to Jiffy Pop notwithstanding. If you kinda squint, it does sort of look like a monster is assembling itself, with ropy “veins” emerging from the pot to wrap themselves around what could be a ribcage, if looked at with a generous (or drunk) eye. Now, I’m no Rachael Ray, but I have cooked a few pots of chili in my time. Is it normal for stygian beast-men to spontaneously arise from amid the bubbling stew of beans, spice, and meat? Because if it is, what am I doing wrong? I bet I’m forgetting to offer up the proper invocations to Belphegor, right? That’s gotta be it.
So Frankie keeps peering through the window as the monster solidifies, pausing every few seconds to look toward the camera with a FUCK YEAH, WHO’S THE MAD MONSTER BAKER kinda face. The chili monster moves one arm up and down like he’s lifting a two-pound dumbbell, and then he’s on fire for some reason, and then the motion of his one arm becomes ever more pronounced, as though he’s fervently trying to hail a taxi. Then we cut to Frankie gesturing and shaking his head as if he just can’t believe how epic this shit is, then in the next shot the chili monster has two arms and a fat lumpen chest and a total fivehead positioned beneath a nest of hair that wouldn’t look out of place on a member of Ratt circa 1986.
Here’s the thing, though. Even though Frankie has been standing there watching the entire chili monster development through his little Easy Bake Oven window, he is still horrified — HORRIFIED — when he sees his creation in its final form. Dude, you just saw the misshapen torso and the spindly bone-arms and the tragic hair a second ago and you were all about it, but now, somehow, the gestalt of it is just too loathsome to contemplate? I guess I just don’t get life secrets.
Predictably, the wooden bar comes flying off the door and a creepy hand like the eyeball fella’s from Pan’s Labyrinth oozes out of the chili closet and wiggles at Frankie as the cowed doctor shrieks (silently) and points at the horror he’s unleashed. “Frankenstein appalled at the sight of his evil creation,” the title card reads, helpfully. No shit?
As further evidence of his appalled-ness, he backs into his bedchamber all OHHHH SHIT I DONE FUCKED UP NOW, tearing at his hair and fainting dramatically across his bed. Because back in the silent movie days, men were men, goddammit, and if wilting like dying daisies at the first sign of trouble was good enough for your grandpa, then it’s good enough for you, sonny. These fainting ninnies beat the Nazis, you know.
As Frankenwhiner angsts among the bedclothes, the monster quietly parts the curtains, and even though he seems to be yelling and waving his bean-sprout fingers inches away from Frankie’s prone face, it still takes forever for Frankie to wake up, slowly move his head so that he is in direct eye contact with his hellish creation, and then freak the fuck out. Pity poor Frankie, who can apparently only see things when the pupils of his eyeballs are centered directly on them. Nothing bad really happens to either one of them, though; the monster just waves his hands and goes boo, Frankie takes entirely too much time rolling out from beneath the monster’s narrow scare-zone, then he slides into his chair for a second, emoting, then he gets to his feet and paces and tears at his hair some more, and then he collapses into a heap on the floor. The monster, clearly realizing that frightening this drama llama is not enough of a challenge for him, makes a MY BAD, I THOUGHT I WAS TERRORIZING A MAN gesture and backs out of the shot. A moment later, Frankie’s…butler? houseboy? comes into the room, looking all officious and no-nonsense, but springing into action when he sees the supine form of his master all splayed across the Oriental rug. He wakes Frankie up, and Frankie stares all bug-eyed toward where the monster was, obviously not able to deal with any of this shit, and then the butler begins weirdly stroking his head as though Frankie is a kitty and the butler is Jackson Galaxy. There, there, doctor. Just cough up that hairball and you’ll feel a lot better.
The next scene, “The return home,” opens about how you’d expect, with Father Frankenstein and Sweetheart sitting in their front parlor avoiding conversation with one another. The gangly Frankie arrives, sweeping grandly into the room while removing his top hat, widening his arms in a convivial gesture that seems to say MY FABULOUS ASS HAS RETURNED, YOU LUCKY BASTARDS, NOW COMMENCE THE WORSHIPFUL FAWNING. Gotta say, he seems pretty cocky for a guy who just loosed a malevolent fiend whose first action on earth was making him piss his pants in terror. I’m actually not really sure if Dad and Sweetheart know what Frankie has been up to vis-á-vis creating unholy abominations in his chili pot, but they seem happy to see him, anyway. Seemingly less happy to see him is some doddering old guy who walks into the shot with his arm outstretched as though he’s trying and failing to get the attention of the other three actors. Who is this? Is it Thomas Edison doing a sly walk-on like a proto-Alfred Hitchcock? Perhaps Wilford Brimley attempting to warn them of the dangers of diabeetus? No idea.
“Haunting his creator and jealous of his sweetheart for the first time the monster sees himself,” reads the next card. Painful lack of commas aside, why does this film keep telling us what’s going to happen before it happens? Did people not know how suspense worked back then? Anyway, we see Frankie sitting in a room with a full-length mirror featuring prominently, and then Sweetheart comes swooshing in with her copious layers of white chiffon, and the two mack on each other and Sweetheart pins a flower to Frankie’s lapel. They chat and fart around for a few seconds, and then Sweetheart exits stage right, perhaps to have a wee off camera, and then the door opens and the chili monster barges in, looking like Pete Burns from Dead or Alive filtered through a post-apocalyptic-mutant lens. Frankie points at the monster again like YOU and the monster points back at him like NO, YOU, and then the monster seems to be trying to reason with his creator, gesturing to Frankie and then at himself, all YOU DID THIS SHIT, MOTHERFUCKER, I HOPE YOU’RE PROUD OF YOURSELF, and then he leans forward and plucks the flower off Frankie’s lapel and throws it on the floor. DID THAT TART GIVE YOU THIS FLOWER? SHE CAN NEVER BE WHAT I AM TO YOU, MASTER. YOU FORMED ME WITH YOUR OWN SECRET RECIPE, AND NO ONE WILL EVER LOVE YOU LIKE I CAN.
Sorry, I got carried away and thought I was watching Fatal Attraction for a second.
So I guess Frankie knows that Sweetheart is coming back and apparently tells the monster to hide, which the monster obligingly does. Accommodating chap, that monster. Sweetheart breezes into the room carrying…teacups? a short stack? and she lays the stuff out on the table, presumably pretending not to notice the stench of the charnel house that undoubtedly follows the monster wherever he goes, including sitting next to me on the city bus, inevitably. Frankie does that I’M TOTALLY NOT STANDING IN FRONT OF THIS PLACE WHERE A MONSTER IS DEFINITELY NOT HIDING thing, and even though she’s just brought in their tea, Frankie convinces Sweetheart that she must have some pressing business elsewhere and to get gone. Meanwhile, the monster creeps out from his hiding place before Frankie and Sweetheart have even left the room, and they totally don’t see him even though he is standing right there in the open. Frankie’s intense eye-pupil focus strikes again, I guess. After Sweetheart leaves, Frankie closes the door portentously and approaches the monster, they point at each other some more, then they commence wrestling.
Just as the spoilery title card promised, in the midst of the fisticuffs, the monster catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror and proceeds to body-dysmorphia the hell out with a histrionic, arm-raising FUCK YOU FOR DOING THIS TO MEEEEEEE meltdown, after which he stalks off to sulk and binge on Little Debbie Cakes while weeping in front of his worn VHS copy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Another grammatically-challenged card informs us that “On the bridal night Frankenstein’s better nature asserting itself,” and if you could keep yourself from reading that in the voice of the Wild and Crazy Guys, then you’re a better woman than I. Dr. and Mrs. Sweetheart are being congratulated on their nuptials, and you can just tell that the two of them are giving the guests perfunctory handshakes and shoving them unceremoniously out the door so they can get started on the sweet wedding-night nookie. Once the last insufferable guest has gone, the pair embrace and eagerly contemplate the long-awaited rubbing of their no-no parts together. Frankie’s all GO IN THE BEDROOM AND DRAPE YOUR NUDITY ACROSS THAT TESLA COIL THE WAY I LIKE, I’LL BE IN THERE AS SOON AS I BLOW OUT THE CANDLES AND MAKE SURE THERE ARE ABSOLUTELY NO MONSTERS WAITING OUTSIDE TO STORM IN AND TEACH ME THE MEANING OF HUBRIS. As he prepares for the BOW CHICKA WOW, he is called away by someone off camera (the butler wanted to caress Frankie’s kitty-head one last time before bed, I suppose), and while he is gone, the monster naturally breaks into the house and immediately twigs where the bridal chamber is. He makes his spindly-fingered way toward the boudoir, likely intending to indulge in a Sweetheart Sampler, if you know what I mean. And because he’s a monster, you can bet he’ll eat all the good pieces first, like the caramels and the nut cups, and by the time Frankie gets back, there won’t be anything left but those gross fruit creams.
Frankie is finally done getting his head stroked by the butler (snort) and at last deigns to head for the bridal suite, where Sweetheart has no doubt got herself off with a vibrator and fallen asleep by now. But look, the doors are wide open! What could this portend? Could it be that the monster Frankie created and then just kinda left behind with a MEH, NO LONGER MY PROBLEM has returned to settle the score? Frankie closes the doors and then seems to realize OMG, MY NEW BRIDE IS IN THE BEDROOM ALONE AND THE MONSTER IS PROBABLY IN THE HOUSE, and instead of rushing to her aid, he just kinda stands there, uselessly, and wigs out until the crisis is averted by Sweetheart herself, who comes barreling out of the bedroom all in a lather after having experienced the most intense orgasm of her life; so intense, in fact, that she cannot remain upright and faints dead away, after which the monster emerges all cock-proud with his enormous schwanstücker and tries to play the whole thing off like IT WAS A TOTAL ACCIDENT, MAN, I DIDN’T MEAN TO HURT HER, BUT HEY, IT’S YOUR FAULT FOR SADDLING ME WITH JOHN HOLMES’S PEEN, DON’T HATE THE PLAYA, HATE THE GAME. Frankie and the monster tangle up again, and finally the monster is all I DON’T NEED THIS SHIT, BRO and storms out, while Sweetheart writhes around, beseeching him not to leave. But he does, and Frankie kinda shakes his fist after him, all THAT’S RIGHT, RUN AWAY, MONSTER, OR YOU’LL GET MORE OF THE SAME, even though the monster totally just whipped his ass and popped his wife’s cherry and overall made him look like a chump. Sweetheart clutches at Frankie’s legs to prevent him from following the monster, but to no avail. Frankie has finally decided to accept responsibility for what he’s done, and truth be told, he probably wants to get away from the missus for a while, since listening to her extolling the virtues of the monster’s superior tongue dexterity has gotta be murder on his ego.
Now, right here is where the “liberal adaptation” caveat comes into play, because the next card reads, “The creation of an evil mind overcome by love and disappears.” With all due respect, what the fuck is this shit? In the book, the monster killed Frankie’s wife, right? He didn’t just ring her bell (allegedly) and leave her all alive and satiated. But I guess the sight of the monster laying waste to everyone Frankie knew and loved was just a little too real for early 20th-century cinema, man, so Edison went with a happy clappy ending that completely let Frankie off the hook for his presumption. And while I was thinking that the word “disappears” was used metaphorically, like the monster just wandered off to quietly live out the rest of his days on a remote farm in Vermont or something, it seems as though the power of Frankie and Sweetheart’s luuuurve was able to suspend the laws of physics and cause the monster to literally disappear, like wink out of existence. His reflection remains briefly, and Frankie stares at it, and it’s really obvious that the movie is trying to say FRANKIE AND THE MONSTER, YOU GUYS, THEY’RE THE SAME, and then Frankie is just pointing at his own reflection before running to the mirror and going, THERE YOU ARE, YOU STUDLY HUNK OF MAN-MEAT and celebrating the fact that his grave transgression has been completely erased from the space-time continuum and there’s not even a messy monster corpse to be disposed off after all is said and done, so the entire point of Shelley’s novel was pretty much negated, meaning there’s really nothing stopping this addle-brained abomination-maker from firing up the old chili pot to try again and get it right this time. Maybe less cayenne pepper and more eye of newt will dampen the creation’s murderous impulses just a bit. It’s all just trial and error, you know. Meh.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this installment of silent film watchalong! Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.