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March, 2008 : Feature:

Science Fiction or Not?

For those of us who take science fiction seriously–and you obviously do or you wouldn't be reading IROSFit's frustrating that the very people who ought to be promoting the best in our field are often standing with the Philistines and making fun of it. It's intellectual laziness to be sure since, if science fiction can be dismissed out of hand, one doesn't have to go through the bother of actually learning anything about it.

Several years ago I mentioned to a film critic colleague (still working but thankfully no longer in my city) that I would be attending the local 24 hour science fiction movie marathon held annually in the Boston area. She gave me a disdainful look and asked what movies they would be showing. I noted that the event ran the gamut from recent films to schlock to the classics.

She seemed surprised at the last word. Classics? What "classics" could this degenerate genre have produced? Oh, you know, I replied, Metropolis or Frankenstein. Now she was even more surprised. "Frankenstein?" How could I possibly consider "Frankenstein" to be a science fiction movie?

It was my turned to be surprised. How could it be a science fiction movie? How could it not be? A scientist experiments with bringing dead tissue to life. What else could it be?

Ah, she replied, it's a monster movie.

See, that's how it works. Science fiction is garbage. If something is good it therefore can't be science fiction and must be something else.

Of course the 1931 Frankenstein is part of the cycle of classic Universal horror films. Some entries, like Dracula and The Wolfman, are clearly pure horror films with their tales of vampires and lycanthropy. Others are just as clearly science fiction. The Invisible Man, for example, was based on H.G. Well's famous novel. As for Frankenstein, no less an authority than science fiction writer Brian Aldissin his SF history Billion Year Spree (later updated to Trillion Year Spree)—cites Mary Shelley's novel as the very start of modern science fiction.

Over the years Shelley's novel has served as the basis for countless movies. The earliest one is from 1910 and, while no masterpiece, it remains a fascinating curio. Since then, the story of a man attempting to master the power of creating life has become a cinematic mainstay. Indeed, the Internet Movie Database lists over 100 titles with the name "Frankenstein" in them, from credited adaptations to cartoons to films using the name as a marketing tool. Even allowing for the usual confusion between Dr. Frankenstein the scientist and his creation, sometimes referred to as Frankenstein but more properly as the Monster, Shelley's novel has spawned a cinematic classification all its own. Frankenstein has "met" everyone from Dracula to Abbott and Costello to Alvin and the Chipmunks. He's returned, he's been reborn, he's created woman, he's been a teenager. He's taken revenge, he must be destroyed, he's fought aliens in Puerto Rico, and had his daughter meet Jesse James. Over the years the Monster has been played by Robert DeNiro, Glenn Strange, Lon Cheney, Jr., John Schuck, Christopher Lee, Bo Svenson, David Warner and even Peter Boyle in Mel Brooks's affectionate and hilarious spoof Young Frankenstein.

With all these choices, though, there's a surprising consensus as to what the best film is, and who should be playing the monster. The actor, of course, is William Henry Pratt, better known to generations of horror fans as Boris Karloff. A gentle, soft-spoken Englishman, he was a veteran actor when, at age 44, he got his big breakthrough as the Monster in James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein. To add to the mystery, he isn't even listed in the credits, with the Monster billed as being played by "?" The movie was a hit and it made his career. Although he would still play some non-horror roles, he became an icon of the genre. Yet he appeared as the Monster only twice more. It is in his second outing, the 1935 "Bride of Frankenstein," that we get the most romantic, surreal, horrifying and poignant rendering of this story of a mad scientist playing with life.

After a prologue featuring Elsa Lanchester as Mary Shelley, where she reveals that she has written a sequel to her story, the film picks up where the first one left off. Baron Viktor Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is near death after the fiery climax which supposedly destroyed the Monster. However the Monster is alive and as out of control as ever, claiming as his first victims the parents of the little girl he accidentally drowned in the first movie. While the now recuperating Baron and his bride Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson, replacing the original film's Mae Clark) hope the nightmare is over, it's really just beginning. Almost at once the maddest of mad scientists, Dr. Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger), arrives to goad him into reviving his experiments.

The theme of the story is that classic of old science fiction: there are some things Man is not meant to know. Frankenstein and Pretorious try to create a new life, a female creature who can mate with the monster. Pretorious imagines a future world where "gods and monsters" will co-exist, but it's clear that he is the real monster here. At film's end when the Monster brings about the apocalyptic destruction of Frankenstein's laboratory, he sends the Baron and his wife away, but holds Pretorious back to die in the rubble with him and the "Bride" who has rejected him.

Our understanding of the Monster as a sympathetic creature derives a great deal from this film. It's not so much that the Monster is evil but that he is amoral. He is born into a lumbering, powerful body without having grown into it. Likewise, his understanding of the world is much like that of a child. He needs. He wants. He gets upset. He needs to learn, but under the obsessive Frankenstein and the vice-ridden Pretorious (who uses the Monster to kidnap Elizabeth as a means of controlling the Baron), his moral education is lacking. In a pivotal scene, the Monster–fleeing the always fearful and enraged townspeople–comes across a cottage in the woods inhabited by an old blind man (O.P. Heggie). Unable to see the Monster for what it is, he treats him as a mute and troubled stranger in need of kindness. It is here the Monster begins to learn to speak and to show enjoyment of music and food. This idyll comes to an end when huntsmen arrive, forcing the Monster to flee, but during this brief respite the Monster becomes a figure not of horror but of pity. If only he could have been treated with such kindness and support all along, he might not have acted like the wild animal he has become.

At this point, more so than earlier or in the first film, we perceive the Monster as a sentient being. He becomes sympathetic because he is redeemable, which makes what follows all the more tragic. The two scientists complete their experiment and bring their new creature to life (played by Elsa Lanchester in her famous lightning streak hairdo). This time they are using an "innocent" brain created by Pretorious, which will have none of the criminal past of the "used" criminal's brain installed in the Monster. Her awakening is a breathtaking moment. She sees the Baron and Pretorious, and takes in her surroundings. Everything is new to her. Then she sees the Monster, who reaches out to her with affection. At last he will have the companionship of someone just like himself. And what does she do? She screams and recoils in horror. It is this rejection that sets the Monster on his climactic rampage.

Why does she react this way? I'm indebted to a student in a class where I showed the film for asking how she could possibly know the Monster was frightening when her brain was supposedly a blank. The film offers no answer. I suggested that perhaps it meant that every brain is hardwired with certain archetypal images, as pioneering psychiatrist Carl Jung argued. For the story what is important is that she does react that way, and that the Monster is rejected even by his own kind.

Karloff would don the extensive make-up one more time, for The Son of Frankenstein, with Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi, making it a horror funfest if not quite a great film. However, in answer to my former colleague, "The Bride of Frankenstein" isn't merely a "monster movie." It is a film that deals with profound issues: the meaning of life, the ethics of experimentation, the limits of knowledge, what within us is inborn and what is learned. Fortunately we have a name for stories that deal with such issues.

We call them "science fiction."


Copyright © 2008, Daniel M. Kimmel. All Rights Reserved.

About Daniel M. Kimmel

Daniel M. Kimmel is past president of the Boston Society of Film Critics. His reviews can be found at rottentomatoes.com. He is local correspondent for Variety and teaches film at Suffolk University, including a course on SF. His book on the history of FOX TV, The Fourth Network (Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, 2004), received the Cable Center Book Award. He is also author of The Dream Team -- The Rise and Fall of DreamWorks: Lessons from the New Hollywood . His essay, "The Batman We Deserve," appears in Batman Unauthorized, an entry in the SmartPop series from BenBella Books. His latest book is I'll Have What She's Having -- Behind the Scenes of the Great Romantic Comedies.

COMMENTS!

Mar 19, 03:12 by IROSF
Thoughts on the article? On Frankenstein? Did you watch that video from 1910?

The article can be found here.
Mar 19, 13:01 by David Soyka
Of course, the book is different from the movie, not the least of which is that the Monster, unlike Boris, is quite articulate. While the book is, among other things, a retelling of Milton's Paradise Lost, the reason it is considered the mother of modern science fiction is because it is consistent with the classic defintion of SF -- if you take away the science, you don't have a story. In this case the "science," as Percy Bysshe Shelley's introduction to his wife's novel points out, is that the premise is based on experiements of scientific philosophy in which electricity was used to convulse corpses.
Mar 19, 19:22 by James Gunn
The question about FRANKENSTEIN is not whether it is in the evolutionary line that led to science fiction but, for me, whether it appeals to the science-fictional response to concept or whether it retains too much of the appeal of its gothic roots. Even the novel seems to get more frisson from horror than from idea, and Dr. Frankenstein's failures as a scientist (particularly his recoiling from the horrible appearance of his creation) are greater than his hubris in creating life. So--we can credit Mary Shelley's perception that the Galvanic reflex can restore life to dead tissue and the theoretical and moral implications of animating the dead while still awaiting the far different conceptualization of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. James Gunn
Mar 24, 12:22 by David Soyka
Putting aside the "science" of Frankenstein, it is also a critique of emerging technologies and social structures that prefigures post-Hiroshima SF (though it certainly didn't start there) focusing on the potential destructiveness of modern technologies which Asimov termed for good reason as the Frankenstein Complex. The horror, though consistent with gothic fiction, nonetheless is the horror of creating something which humankind cannot, or does not, control. A core trope of SF, way before Wells.

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