Friday, May 14, 2010

(Very First!) Monster of the Day: Frankenstein's Monster

"It's Alive!"

Starting off in a bit of a tired state, so I know choosing Frankenstein's monster may not be the best idea- but it seems necessary. To my mind it's appropriate since I'm going to try to piece this thing (the blog) limb by rotting limb, and in the end, hopefully, create something that is both beautiful and dread-inspiring. But mostly dread-inspiring.

The Monster is obviously one of the most prevalent horror icons in history, and interestingly- one of its youngest. While the concepts of reanimated corpses coming to life and wreaking havoc (ala zombies), or making life out of non-living substance (like the Hebrew Golem) have ancient roots, the unique blend of science, romanticism, and human morality that this creature embodies is less than two hundred years old. But as tempting as it is to talk about Mary Shelley's sprawling, layered work, there are two reasons not to: 1, That could take forever, and 2, this blog is all about the monsters themselves.
As most of us know, the prevalent image of the monster is not Shelley's character at all. Where he is intelligent, compassionate (er...when he's not murdering), and vulnerable, today's monster is a simple-minded hulking brute with neck-bolts and a strange aversion to fire at the end of a stick. Oh and I hear he loves strawberry cereal.

Oh, he does.

This simpler, more iconic version of the monster was popularized, of course, by Boris Karloff in James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein. So enduring was Karloff's performance, most people think of that black and white mug when they think 'Frankenstein'. Hell, often a cinematic (read: B movie) moan or groan escaping a zombie or mummy's rotting lips will just be a variation on his trademark grunts. So why is this? There are a lot of simple answers. Modern day Frankenstein is what we are first introduced to. Shelley's work may seem bogged down to some in romantic description and borderline flowery prose.

In the end, for me, favor has nothing to do with the fearsomeness of the creature. I find that one page where the creature is described to be more frightening than any on-screen adaptation. The fact that Victor has built him slowly and with exact knowledge of the outcome-yet still manages to be horrified to actually see it in motion- is I think, a simple but brilliant depiction of the uncanny.But it's with that that my real admiration for this story-as a horror story-ends. Without getting too much into book report territory here-the bulk of the novel seems like a contest of cruelty between master and creation, and Shelley's goal is ultimately for us to side with the monster. But throughout most of it, the monster is winning. Her intent is clear- his inherent morality is broken with knowledge and the realization of being an 'other'; and it is Victor's fault for bringing him into creation. But ultimately he sticks out in my mind as being a bully and an assassin who realizes the gravity of his actions after his first few victims, yet continues to take lives just for some acknowledgement from his master. Of course, Victor never says 'uncle', so the bodies continue to drop. Hell, he's like a petulant, rebellious teenager. They both are. I might be judging Shelley's beast unfairly in my time: murderers are a dime a dozen in the modern horror world, and over-educated, manipulative and bloodthirsty? That just sounds like quite a few people I know.

That classic Karloff monster- let's face it, his name is 'Frankenstein'- couldn't inspire me to write endlessly the way Shelley's novel can. But it's the poster I want on my wall. Any kill count over his head is acceptable, in an Of Mice and Men sort of way. Poor lug couldn't help himself. The movie succeeds in having a true monster whose side you are definitely not on- and that monster is man. I guess my point is, under that protruding brow are eyes that lead straight to his stitched-together heart. He's one of the world's favorite monsters, and ironically, it's because of his humanity. Maybe it's flawed (aren't all humans?), but it has a heart. And that electricity fueled heart will beat forever.

Here's a bonus! The monster's first live-action adaptation: an almost 13 minute silent version made in 1910.

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