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Lunatics and Laughter Day 3: Young Frankenstein (1974)

young-frankensteinDirector: Mel Brooks

Writers: Gene Wilder & Mel Brooks

Cast: Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, Kenneth Mars, Madeline Khan, Richard Haydn, Gene Hackman, Anne Beesley

Plot: Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronkensteen,” Gene Wilder), grandson of the infamous Victor Frankenstein, leaves his inconsistently affectionate fiancé Elizabeth (Madeline Khan), for Transylvania. He is met by Igor (“I-gor,” Marty Feldman), grandson of his grandfather’s assistant, and Inga (Teri Garr), his temporary lab assistant, who quickly displays more affection than the fiancé he left behind. Frankenstein’s castle is kept by Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman), who Frederick questions about his grandfather’s “private” library. That night, Frederick is awakened from a nightmare by Inga, and, after a classic spinning bookcase gag, the two of them locate a secret passageway. At the bottom of a cobweb-covered staircase, they find Igor and the elder Frankenstein’s lab. Frederick reads his grandfather’s notes and finds the secret of animating lifeless matter, something he always believed impossible.

Igor and Frederick steal the corpse of an enormous, freshly-executed man to repeat Victor’s experiment. Igor goes on his own to steal a suitable brain for the beast, but as happened to his grandfather, fumbles with it and is forced to take an abnormal brain instead. In town, the people fear Frankenstein’s grandson, certain he is repeating his grandfather’s crimes (which, of course, he is). They recruit Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars) to discover what Frederick is doing.

That night the Monster (Peter Boyle) comes to life. Although he seems gentle at first, when Igor strikes a match, he goes berserk and nearly kills Frederick. Igor confesses that he took a brain from “Abby Normal” just as Kemp arrives.  Frederick sends him off, but while he’s preoccupied Frau Blucher finds the monster and releases it. The creature breaks free from the castle, and Frederick vows to find it before it can hurt anyone. They set a trap for it the next evening, luring it with a violin and sedating it. Frederick insists upon trying to convince the creature it is loved. As he speaks to the beast, he not only takes it under his wing, but accepts his own destiny, declaring, “MY NAME IS FRANKENSTEIN!”

He presents the creature to the town, charming them with a song and dance routine before a light blows and it turns on the crowd and the police haul it away. As Frederick and Inga find comfort in each other’s arms, they receive a telegram that Elizabeth will be coming to the castle that night. After Elizabeth again rebuffs Frederick’s advances for the night, the creature – having escaped — returns to the castle. She passes out and he takes her with him to a hiding place in the woods, where she soon succumbs to its own animal desires. After a mere six times, though, the violin from the castle summons him back. Frederick decides the only way to protect the creature is to use his own brain to stabilize it. Kemp leads an angry mob, complete with torches and pitchforks, into the castle, and are about to make off with Frederick’s body, when the stable creature commands them to put him down. He gives a stirring speech and Kemp realizes the error of his ways. In the end, Frederick and Inga are married, whilst Elizabeth and the creature go off to enjoy domestic bliss of their own.

Thoughts: Coming off the magnificent western/comedy Blazing Saddles, it’s not surprising that Mel Brooks would turn his attention to the horror/comedy genre. (He’d later tackle the epic in History of the World Part I, science fiction in Spaceballs and high adventure with Robin Hood: Men in Tights. He’d return to horror with Dracula: Dead and Loving it, but the less said about that one, the better.) Working off an idea by Gene Wilder, these two took one of the most enduring classics of horror and turned it into one of the best horror/comedies ever.

Young Frankenstein works as a kinda-sequel to the original Frankenstein, building on the mythology of the original Universal films even though there was no official connection. (Young Frankenstein was produced by 20th Century Fox.) It doesn’t really contradict any of the older films, at least no more than some of the official sequels did, but it takes the franchise into an entirely different direction. This is the first film in my little experiment that I’d classify as a “Type B” horror/comedy – more comedy, but using the tropes of horror and spoofing them. The difference is in the plot, really – what puts this in the second category is that the story couldn’t exist without the comedy tropes. Even Abbott and Costello’s antics with the monsters followed a fairly straightforward scary movie plot for the 1940s, whereas certain elements of this film could not be removed or altered without drastic changes being made to the story structure. You could maybe replace the musical number towards the end with something more King Kong-eque, but that would simply feel derivative. And it’d be a lot harder to play up the creature’s abduction and romancing of Elizabeth without the comedy elements in any way that doesn’t make it tread uncomfortably close to plain rape.

The other thing, and the more all-encompassing thing, that makes this a Type B is the characterization. In a Type A universe, we’ve got a frightening situation populated by some funny characters. Bela Lugosi wasn’t a quippy Dracula, and Bob Hope’s cracks about the ghosts were only funny in the context of a world where nobody would take such a thing seriously. Not so for Type B, where all characters – and everything else – can become fodder for humor.  In Young Frankenstein, as in most Mel Brooks comedies, anybody can play straight man to anybody else at any moment. Everyone can crack a joke or make a comment that’s hysterical – to the audience. In-universe, however, nobody recognizes the humor.

The only exception would be Marty Feldman’s Igor, who leans heavily on the fourth wall, winking at the audience, and throwing out some meta-puns that make him seem both wackier than and more savvy than the rest of the characters. His comedy is easily the broadest of the troupe Brooks and Wilder assembled, and he’s probably the funniest as well. His timing is flawless, his sense of propriety non-existent, and his ability to key into other comedy from other eras makes his performance as funny now as 40 years ago.

What elevates this above most other Type B horror/comedies (coughScaryMoviecough) is the way Brooks and Wilder are still capable of crafting real characters instead of caricatures, telling a real story instead of just creating their own Frankenstein-patchwork of other movies. Even this film, which literally could not exist without Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as its inspiration, feels fresh and original.

Just as important, Brooks and Wilder don’t simply repeat moments, but build upon them. The crummy spoofs of the 21st century are frequently completely devoid of actual jokes, instead just referencing a better movie under the assumption that the audience will understand the reference and laugh at the recognition. This is a stupid, asinine way to make a movie that far too many of my 11th grade students mistake for humor. In a Brooks comedy, though, we touch on the familiar moments and make them new. Igor stealing the brain, for example, begins with a glance at the camera, because he knows that we know what’s coming. Then, when the brain of a “scientist and saint” is accidentally destroyed, he goes for the abnormal brain immediately, despite the fact that the next brain over is clearly labeled “visionary.” The camera just pans past the other label, though, and a viewer may watch the movie two or three times before they even notice it. Modern films are incapable of this sort of subtle, Easter Egg humor – a film by Jason Freidberg and Aaron Seltzer (perpetrators of such crimes against comedy as Meet the Spartans and Vampires Suck) would be sure to hover over that label, make sure everybody sees it, and drain every iota of comedic potential from it before moving on to what everybody knows they’re going to do anyway.

Modern spoof movies suck, is the point I’m trying to make.

Anyway, the film is built on small moments. Kenneth Mars’s assorted shtick with his artificial arm, the disastrous game of darts, and the bit where a choking Frederick has to play charades to make his incompetent accomplices understand he wants them to sedate the monster that is actively murdering him are the sorts of thing that make for a great spoof. None of these are repeat jokes, they’re built on the characters and story as presented instead of spending all their time making allusions to everything else. In fact, except for the full-film allusion to the original, the only references to anything else are when the town elders imply they’ve dealt with monsters five times in the past (referring, of course, to the line of Frankenstein pictures made by Universal) and Madeline Kahn’s hairstyle after she becomes the creature’s “bride.” And as those are both clearly references to the Frankenstein lore as a whole, if not the first movie specifically, we accept them.

When the movie references the original directly, it often does so in order to subvert it. When the creature encounters a little girl playing with flowers, we’re prepared for the worst, based on what happened to the little girl in the Boris Karloff original. Instead, we get a hysterical seesaw gag which completely takes us by surprise and is more than funny enough for us to forgive the fact that it really doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the story. Gene Hackman’s cameo as the blind man serves a similar purpose – not actually progressing the plot, but showing us the character of the beast as it attempts to make friends and is thwarted, not because he’s a monster, but because his potential companions aren’t entirely capable.

When I asked for help assembling the movies for Lunatics and Laughter, one of the first suggestions I got was Scary Movie. And while I considered it, I decided not to do it, at least for the first phase. It may make the expanded edition, but only because of its influence on movie as a whole, not because of the quality. As you’ll see as we continue our march to Halloween, the vast majority of the movies I’ve chosen for this project are A-Type horror comedies, because most of the B-Types, frankly, are terrible. This is hands-down the best, the finest, the funniest horror spoof I’ve ever seen, and it’s frankly ruined me for most of the other ones. And for that, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder most assuredly have earned my thanks.

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Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 5: Frankenstein (1931)

frankensteinDirector: James Whale
Writer: John L. Balderston, based on the novel by Mary Shelley
Cast: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, Boris Karloff, Dwight Frye, Lionel Belmore, Marilyn Harris

Plot: Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) has a plan to create life. Assembling a body from the pieces of corpses, he builds an enormous monster of a man. But alas, his plan goes awry when his assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye)  places a criminal brain into the creature. The creation (Boris Karloff, climbing that rocketship to stardom) is innocent, but powerful and terrifying. When it gets loose and accidentally kills a small child, there can be only one solution – destroy the creature before it’s too late.

Thoughts: Right off the bat, this film is more engrossing than Dracula was for me. Henry Frankenstein (changed, for some reason, from the novel’s “Victor”) and his assistant begin the film with the eerie process of excavating the recently-dead to use their parts in Victor’s creation. Like Dracula, this actually adds to the original novel in ways that have become accepted as part of the lore – for instance, Mary Shelley was somewhat ambiguous about where Victor obtained the pieces he used to construct his man, even implying some of the parts were not human in origin. The whole segment with the abnormal brain, which is not pretty iconic for Frankenstein, started here.

That’ s by no means the only place where the film deviates from the source material, of course. It’s a pretty loose adaptation and abandons volumes worth of backstory, but it succeeds in creating a memorable, timeless interpretation of the character that has dominated our perceptions ever since. Every legendary image of Frankenstein — the green skin, square and scarred forehead, and bolts sprouting from the neck — originates here. This, my friends, is the reason Herman Munster was the man he was.

And let’s be honest here – it’s justified. This is a powerful piece of work. The creature in this film (Karloff, interestingly, was not named in the opening credits, but was given his due at the end) isn’t really a monster. He’s huge, he’s powerful, but he has no real desire to do harm until harm is done to him. This assertion, of course, is somewhat undercut by the idea that Fritz places a “criminal” brain into his body – that seems to imply that violence is in his nature after all. But then again, maybe that’s the point the filmmakers were going for.

Speaking of Fritz, I’m really starting to become a fan of actor Dwight Frye. His Renfield was one of the most memorable aspects of Dracula to me, and his portrayal of Fritz is creepy, laced with just a touch of comedy. The man really was a gifted actor, and did some magnificent work here in the early days of Universal Pictures. The classic “Igor” version of the mad scientist’s assistant actually doesn’t show up until later in Universal’s Frankenstein series, but Fritz is where the archetype has its foundation, making Frye responsible for two of the most enduring villainous second bananas in cinematic history.

Karloff, of course, is unequaled as the monster. He wasn’t really that big of a man, and reportedly the four-inch platform boots he wore as the monster were hell on him, but he brought in a tragedy to the performance that would make you think he was doing Shakespeare. You watched this creature and you felt for him. You watched the townspeople (in the classic torch-and-pitchfork wielding mob) chase after him and you had to wonder exactly who was in the wrong here. That’s what’s so great about this story – the way it can chill and still, at the same time, raise ethical questions. The creature did kill Marylin Harris, but is he actually responsible for her death? He didn’t know what he was doing. Counter-argument: if a wild animal kills a child, you put it down. Counter-counter argument: a wild animal isn’t a human being, and can’t be taught as one. Could the creature? We have to ask here – was he a monster, or was he an infant, unaware of his own strength, who had the potential to grow into a thinking, feeling man if it weren’t for all those people who wanted to poke him with stabby things and burn him with burny things?

To be fair, later films in the franchise would sort of throw away this particular hook, with the monster becoming less innocent and more malevolent, not to mention outright dangerous. But you can’t judge the original on those grounds. In this case, we can look at Frankenstein and his mob attacking the beast and wonder who was in the right. Frankenstein’s monster isn’t a zombie in the strictest sense of the word, but the ethical questions raised here feel like a precursor to the sort of things George Romero was later going to do in Night of the Living Dead and its better sequels, and that other, lesser filmmakers have attempted to do ever since.

I think it’s safe to say that Frankenstein – both the film and the creature – is my favorite of the classic Universal Monsters. But we are going to look at one more of them before we move on. So tomorrow let’s fire up the DVD player and step forward in time one year to 1932, and thrill to the tale of The Mummy.