A couple of sample entries from my book, Monster Movies
(dir. James Whale, USA, 1931)
When Mary Shelley first penned Frankenstein (or The Modern Prometheus) in 1818 as part of a literary parlour game with her husband and Lord Byron, she could not have fathomed the ‘monster’ she had created. Her story became the stuff of literary legend and almost immediately made the leap from page to stage then screen (as soon as the technology was made available).
Frankenstein is indisputably the benchmark for all mad scientist stories, made even more pertinent today by the prevalence of plastic surgery and recent debates concerning cloning and genetic engineering. At the time, it echoed the plight of World War I veterans who, physically as well as mentally scarred, were seeking acceptance and assimilation into an unforgiving society.
An early film incarnation of Frankenstein is Thomas Edison’s 16-minute, silent production of 1910, but it wasn’t until James Whale’s Frankenstein in 1931 that the Monster took on a physical appearance that would sit at the height of public consciousness for generations to come. Originally, Bela Lugosi, hot off the success of Universal Studios’ monster hit Dracula, was coined to step into the Monster’s shoes, but Lugosi felt the layers of makeup would hinder his looks and performance. Serendipity saw the deeply chiselled and statuesque Karloff win the role and, quite literally, the rest is cinema history.
So enigmatic and sympathetic was Karloff’s portrayal – without dialogue, only through grunts and groans – he created a monster that people came to regard with considerable affection. It is also testament to his brilliance that the name ‘Frankenstein’ was largely attributed to his character, which was actually nameless, rather than the scientist Dr Frankenstein (Colin Clive) who plays the titular role.
First-time viewers of Frankenstein may experience a sense of having ‘seen it all before’, such is the film’s cultural dominance – we feel like we’ve seen it, even if we have not seen it. Not only that, but there is a naivety to the movie that makes the warning at the beginning seem more amusing than threatening.
At the time of its release, though, the imagery in Frankenstein was legitimately disturbing – cadavers, hypodermic syringes and terrorised expressions – despite coming across as G-rated today. Some prints of the film removed the scene where the monster throws a young girl into the lake to ascertain whether she floats, as well as Dr Frankenstein’s proclamations of feeling like God. To that end, the film’s ‘warning’ was Universal’s protection against the ire of church groups.
Frankenstein exacts the long shadows and exaggerated depth of field of German expressionist cinema. Most notable is the burning windmill of the film’s finale; a stunning set piece that becomes all the more menacing with the lack of music bed and the bobbing flames on stakes and dog barks from a pursuant lynch mob. This is a film to be considered in its own historical context, but, nonetheless, a monster that cements the importance of the monster movie itself.
Thanks to the skills of Jack Pierce, then chief makeup artist at Universal, Frankenstein’s Monster is one of the most recognisable cultural icons of the twentieth century – the deeply chiselled lines, padded out brow and heavy-lidded eyes (which were enhanced at the request of Karloff to make the monster look more lifeless), built-up boots, electrodes (often mistaken by audiences as bolts) at his neck, the sunken cheek (achieved by removing a dental plate) and, of course, that distinctive flattened head.
Pierce’s makeup took hours to apply and – a mix of cotton collodion, gum and green greasepaint to create a sullen pallor on the black & white film – was uncomfortable in its application and removal. Karloff indeed suffered for his art every day on set. Despite his strength and mammoth build, the final scene where he carries his creator up the windmill resulted in three back surgeries and ongoing pain for the rest of his life.
Regardless, Karloff appreciated the importance of Frankenstein’s Monster and never regretted the typecasting such a role inevitably imposed on him.
Frankenstein’s Monster inherits the brain of a killer, which some people believe undermines his innocence, so theoretically, his first instinct is to inflict harm. Yet, Karloff plays him more like an empty vessel, the patchwork man whose reanimated brain acts solely on impulse floundering in a world where everything is alien, just like a newborn baby.
Most telling is the Monster’s scene with the child Maria, with whom he instantly develops a rapport and who, despite her much younger years, is in a position of teacher. This is the only scene where the monster expresses delight by smiling and bouncing in excitement, like an over-enthusiastic puppy dog. For the rest of the movie, he stumbles around on a search for acceptance.
Lineage and Legacy:
It goes without saying – Frankenstein’s legacy is a massive one. So many films are indebted to Mary Shelley’s original premise and so many films still ride on the coattails of the Frankenstein movie moulded by James Whale.
In one of the first nods to movie sequel-dom, Frankenstein (1931) was followed by Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Son of Frankenstein (1939 – the last to star Boris Karloff as the Monster), Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943 – with Bela Lugosi finally playing the monster role), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945 – in which Frankenstein’s Monster makes an appearance), Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Andy Warhol’s Flesh for Frankenstein (1973), Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound (1990), the blaxploitation film Blackenstein (1973), a string of movies focusing more on the creator than the monster from Britain’s Hammer Studios… and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
As can be surmised from this modest list, Frankenstein progressed from pure terror to pure farce in many cases, although the general concept of ‘Frankenstein’ insidiously infiltrates cinema and crops up in a number of films in different disguises, (see The Fly and Re-animator).
Anyone enamoured with Frankenstein would also be well served to check out Bill Condon’s fictionalised drama Gods and Monsters (1998), which depicts an aged and ailing James Whale recalling key moments from his life. Whale’s tortured history and his repressed homosexuality informed themes of ‘normality’ in Frankenstein, which is popularly considered as having an impact on the historical development of the ‘camp’ monster movie, like Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein (1974) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
(dir. Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack, USA, 1933)
Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, King Kong stands alone among monsters, Merian C. Cooper creating him purely for the screen – and not from a literary work. That said, Cooper did draw inspiration from the swashbuckling jungle adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and makes more than a token gesture to Beauty and the Beast; something that’s reinforced continuously through the dialogue. As the opening card so eloquently states:
“And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day, it was as one dead.”
As a director of only a few features, nothing in Cooper’s career would come close to the monumental success of King Kong and, quite frankly, he really didn’t have to prove himself after this movie. It is a film that is much bigger than its monster. Even watching King Kong today is an exhilarating experience, although Fay Wray – a 1930s idyll with thinly drawn eyebrows, tight cupid’s bow lips and platinum blonde curls – would have contemporary feminists cursing at her pronounced fragility. She even lies prone and powerless as Kong cheekily peels off her clothes (!).
But all political correctness aside (and who needs it anyway), King Kong is an excellent premise, well executed, that has given us one of cinema’s most recognisable moments – a daring Kong dangling from the top of one of New York’s iconic edifices with a Barbie-doll-sized woman in his hand. From Q – The Winged Serpent to 20 Million Miles to Earth, many a film has paid homage to this denouement.
Despite impresario Carl Denham being one of the dodgier characters in the movie, especially in Peter Jackson’s version, he was apparently a fictionalised version of Cooper, who was quite the Indiana Jones-type crusader. On bringing Kong to New York, Denham bills him as “The Eighth Wonder of the World”. When Cooper penned that now famous tag, could he have fathomed his ape creation would take on such proportions?
“It wasn’t the airplane,” says Denham. “It was beauty who killed the beast.”
Essentially a very big gorilla, Kong Kong didn’t require much imagination to sketch into details. He is an abomination of nature existing in a prehistoric world held in stasis, and probably would have lived out a relatively charmed life if it wasn’t for the intrusion by those pesky filmmakers.
Coming off another prehistoric feature, The Lost World, ‘chief technician’ Willis O’Brien was ready to leave the world gasping in awe with his complex stop-motion fighting sequences between Kong and the other carnivores on the island – see Kong rip open the jaws of a T-Rex for a particularly grisly moment. While Kong is the feature attraction, the dinosaurs act as some impressive back-up dancers, like the Loch Ness-like creature rising up from the water through the mist. Stunning.
Considering the island natives regularly sacrifice their women to keep Kong at bay, he’s obviously a prickly personality – and one they choose not to know better.
But as demonstrated by Kong’s soft spot for blondes, his aggressive projection does not run through to the core. Under that thick, fur coat beats a sentient heart, and one that proves his downfall in the game of survival in what would become renowned as cinema’s most heartbreaking instance of unrequited love.
Important to note is, from start to finish, in the original film, Fay Wray is completely petrified of Kong and maintains the back-of-hand-to-brow histrionics right through to his swan dive from the top of the Empire State Building. Peter Jackson’s most recent re-imagining of the film opts for a stronger relationship between Beauty and her Beast (among other things), to the point that she actually chooses to scale buildings with him and gaze lovingly into those dark eyes beneath his monkey brow.
Lineage and Legacy:
Good golly… Where does one start? Actually, the question should be, what would cinema be like WITHOUT King Kong? Stretching infinitely beyond the somewhat limited categorisation of ‘monster movie’, King Kong created the template for the ‘adventure film’, which means the careers of George Lucas, Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg would have been markedly different without its influence.
The great Ray Harryhausen attributed his viewing of King Kong at age 12 to changing the course of his life, propelling him into the intricate world of stop-motion animation. Without Harryhausen’s enterprising work (The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad), cinema would not have the special effects foundations that gave rise to such mega hits as the Lord of the Rings trilogy… In short, King Kong’s tentacles stretch into every nook and cranny of cinema.
As most people would be aware, King Kong has been remade twice to great fanfare (in 1976 and, the longest version, in 2005) and has undergone numerous sequels starting with The Son of Kong, which was released in the same year as the original film.
The beauty of Kong, although he is ‘the beast’ of the tale, is that he is so transportable and timeless. He’s tackled Godzilla (King Kong vs. Godzilla, 1962). While in Japan, he also fought with his steel-clad doppelganger, Mechani-Kong (King Kong Escapes, 1967). And he even earned himself a British clone (Konga, 1961).
When it comes to King Kong, there are few films that can boast such transcendence and vitality that they live outside of their own confines. Would most kids know where that Donkey Kong computer game got its name? Actually, they probably would. That’s the thing about King Kong.