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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Terror of Frankenstein

Rounding out the sci-fi films of 1977 is the obscure Terror of Frankenstein (ToF). For its original european release, the film was titled Victor Frankenstein. The American distributors must have felt the film needed a more sensational title. ToS has the distinction of being one of the first films that attempted to be faithful to Mary Shelley’s novel. Calvin Floyd wrote the screenplay adaptation and directed the film. This swedish-irish production is low-budget, featuring a cast virtually unknown to American audiences. Per Oscarsson plays The Monster. Leon Vitali plays Victor Frankenstein.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A man dressed in furs staggers along, collapsing near a ship stuck in arctic sea ice. He is taken aboard and warmed. He tells the captain his tale of woe. The flashback begins. Young Victor is intrigued and obsessed with discovering the secret of life. He leaves to study medicine, despite a cozy home life, a good friend (Henry) and pretty fiancee, Elizabeth. At the school in Ingolstadt, he learns much and experiments. First, he works on animals. His professor tells him to try his work on a ‘grand scale’. Victor takes this to mean human-scale. He collects body parts (kept on ice) and shops for bodies and parts at the town morgue. He does his work with little explanation or exposition. Via a kite flown in a lightning storm, and a wire attached to the neck of his creation, the creation comes to life. Victor is suddenly terrified at his success. He runs away. The creation seeks Victor out, but Victor screams and runs out of the house. Henry comes to take Victor back to his home in Geneva. After being rejected by his creator, the monster wandered into the countryside. He is chased off by farmers with pitchforks. He hides in shed alongside a farm house. He steals some of the farmers’ food, and listens to them. The farmer reads from the Bible, (notably, the passage in 1 John 4:7, “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.”) Via his exposure to the farm family, he learns to speak and read. When the farmer and his wife leave to the fields, the monster tries to befriend the blind grandfather. They return and he is chased away again. He returns to Victor’s loft lab in Ingolstadt. There, he reads Victor’s notes, discovering enough to locate Victor. The monster actually comes across Victor’s young brother William in the woods. He kills him after finding out who he is. Victor finds out it was his monster that killed his brother. The monster tells Victor that he must create a mate for him. If he doesn’t he’ll kill the rest of Victor’s family, one by one. Victor secludes himself on “an island” (Scotland) to work on his next creation. While on an introspective stroll, Victor sees that a nearby farm couple is brutally murdered — the work of his monster. He decides not to finish the she-monster, fearing that he might be unleashing a race that would torment mankind. The monster vows to get his revenge on Victor’s wedding night. Fast forward, Victor and Elizabeth marry. On his wedding night, the monster gets into the bedroom and kills Elizabeth. Victor vows to pursue the monster to the ends of the earth. The story catches up to the ship in the ice. The monster comes aboard and confronts his creator. Victor, enraged, dies of a heart attack. The monster, unsatisfied, says he has nothing to look forward to, but death. He walks off into the arctic night. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
After all of the previously-released films which spun off of the James Whale version of the story, seeing a film that followed Shelley’s original story fairly. The obscure (to American eyes) cast helps the characters be themselves. The stark landscapes enhance the severity of the story.

Saga Connection
Floyd’s screenplay tries to adhere to Shelley’s original story, so is not built upon the James Whale version in any way. Yet, following the original as it does, viewers can see the sources of elements used in the Whale Saga. The Bride, the old blind man playing his violin, the death of a child, etc. One can even see the source of many of the names that got used for starring Frankensteins: Victor, Henry, William.

Based on the Book — Floyd’s script tries to follow Shelley’s story, almost scene by scene. It opens with the arctic scene as framing device and tells the story in flashback. Within that large flashback are smaller flashbacks to fill in backstory. Such a complex structure was not all that uncommon for 19th century novels (when people had more patience and attention-span), but can confuse (or annoy) the modern viewer accustomed to simple stories told in direct linear fashion. Floyd’s production suffers, as most movies-based-on-novels tend to, for being insufficient time to tell such a complex story. Yet, he gets all the major elements in, and manages to evoke some of the pathos in both characters and never lapses into the sentimental.

Classic Cautionary Tale — Just as Faust was the cautionary tale those who would ‘sell out’ morally, Frankenstein was the primal cautionary tale for scientists. In his myopic zeal to discover the secret of life, Victor never thought about what ‘success’ would really mean (rather like Faust). Like atomic scientists, driven on to ‘discover the secrets of the atom,’ true success was terrifying. Also like the atom, no one could run away and hide from that success. It just kept standing there. Victor even warns Henry, metaphorically, that one should never climb mountains alone. Too late, Victor sees that his creation is terrible, not just frightening. When he sees the Scottish farm couple murdered in the ransacked home, it becomes inescapable what his human ‘bomb’ can (and will) do. He rationalizes that maybe if the monsters stayed on some remote island, mankind would be safe. This is the same thinking of the Nuclear Club in the 50s. Victor refuses to finish the she-monster, as he realizes the monsters could never be contained.

Parental Obligations — On a more moral plane, Shelley has the monster represent the long-term consequences of man’s short term thinking. On a more obvious level, is the propensity of people to think only short term (sex) and want to run from the long term (the resulting child). But, on a more analogous level, the tendency of people to eagerly create, but disown their creation. Men who foment for war, but are aghast at the destruction. Bureaucrats who foment for some new program ‘for the benefit of mankind’, only to see it become a willful beast ‘consuming’ the little people. Mankind is too quick to discover (create), but too prone to disown responsibility for what they create.

Bottom line? ToF is not a highly polished film in the Hollywood sense. It suffers, at times, from a low budget and a non-mainstream crew. Yet, these features also give the film an earnest air. ToF has value as an honest attempt to bring Shelley’s tale to the screen, instead of perpetuating more of the Hollywood myth begun by Whale and copied by opportunists ever since. For its fidelity to Shelley, ToF is worth watching.

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