Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Frankenstein Monster -- He's Alive! Alive!

The Frankenstein monster first lumbered into existence in 1818 in Mary Shelley’s classic British novel, , a work that many, including noted SF author Brian Aldiss, have called the first science fiction story.

Filled with “grotesque, dreamlike imagery” (Jane Yolen, Horror: 100 Best Books), Frankenstein is a gothic horror yarn as well, relating the tale of a mad scientist who discovers the secret of life, fashions a monster out of spare parts, and is cursed by his curious (not to mention hideous) creation.

Shelley’s masterpiece has spawned numerous feature films, including last year’s . Based on the graphic novel by Kevin Grevioux, I, Frankenstein starred Aaron Eckhart as Adam Frankenstein, a super-powered, pieced-together being who “gets swept up in a long-running battle between powerful gargoyles and infernal demons who seek the key to his immortality” (allmovie.com).

Like virtually every other Frankenstein interpretation, I, Frankenstein drew inspiration from Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, but played fast and loose with the details. The film is but one of countless ways the Frankenstein monster has appeared in popular culture over the years, from food to songs to merchandising to the big and small screen.

To paraphrase Frankie’s pal, Dracula, and to wish you a happy Halloween, I bid you welcome to my brief history of Frankenstein in popular culture:


You could write a whole book on Frankenstein movies (in fact, several have been written), but I’ll just cover some of the highlights here.

For historical purposes, you should watch the 1910 Edison Studios version of Frankenstein on YouTube. After that, pick up (on DVD or Blu-ray) the trio of Frankenstein films Universal produced during the 1930s: Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Son of Frankenstein (1939), each starring Boris Karloff in his signature role as the sympathetic creature.

Feel free to skip such low-budget turkeys as Frankenstein 1970 (1958) and Frankenhooker (1990), but be sure and check out: Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Hammer Films’ first foray into the Frankenstein mythos;  (1943), another classic from Universal; The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), one of the more entertaining Hammer entries; Young Frankenstein (1974), Mel Brooks’ funniest film (yes, even funnier than Blazing Saddles); Frankenweenie (2012), Tim Burton’s stop-motion animated Disney feature; and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), a flawed, but compelling adaptation of the novel with none other than Robert De Niro as the creature (he’s actually one of the weaker aspects of the film).

If you’re an adult B-movie buff with the will to be weird, boot up the 1973 sleaze fest, Andy Warhol's Frankenstein, which film critic John Stanley (Creature Features Movie Guide Strikes Again) called a “low point in cinema” and a “sickening exercise in black humor.”

Frankenstein on TV

In 1973, Dan Curtis, who created the vampire soap opera , produced Frankenstein, a made-for-TV movie shown over two nights as part of ABC’s “The Wide World of Mystery” anthology series. The movie felt like a stage play, was shot on video, and had a tiny budget, but it adhered fairly closely to Shelley’s novel, with Bo Svenson as the articulate and verbose monster.

Airing later the same year and overshadowing the Curtis picture was the oxymoronically titled Frankenstein: The True Story, a superior British production that was shown theatrically in Europe and on television in the U.S. The monster, played by Michael Sarrazin, is a handsome creation that deteriorates as the film, which runs 182 minutes, progresses. The star-studded cast includes Leonard Whiting, Jane Seymour, James Mason, and Tom Baker (the fourth Doctor Who), who has a brief role as a ship captain.

Modern audiences may enjoy the 2004 made-for-cable movie, Frankenstein, but there’s more entertainment to be found in the Frankenstein monster’s many TV show appearances. In addition to the obvious—Fred Gwynne’s comedic turn as Herman Munster in The Munsters—the ghastly ghoul has reared his ugly head in Tales of Tomorrow, Route 66, Saturday Night Live, The X-Files, and countless other programs, including such animated fare as Drak Pack, Groovie Goolies, Monster Force, and Frankenstein, Jr. and The Impossibles.

Frankenstein in print

, who was only 18 when she wrote Frankenstein, surely had no idea her creepy creation would inspire countless other novels, including: The Frankenstein Wheel (1972) by Paul W. Fairman; Frankenstein Lives Again (1981) by Donald F. Glut; I Am Frankenstein (1996) by C. Dean Anderson; Monster: A Novel of Frankenstein (2012) by Dave Zeltserman; and the five-volume series collectively known as “Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein.”

For those who like pictures with their words, Frankenstein comic books have existed since 1940 with the publication of Prize Comics #7, which featured the “New Adventures of Frankenstein.” More attainable comics include Marvel’s The Monster of Frankenstein (1973), DC’s Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. (2011), and Image’s  (2003), which features a conflicted creature stitched together from the body parts of one cop and three bad guys.

Sing along to a Frankenstein song

If you listen to classic rock radio, you’ve probably heard The Edgar Winter Group’s bass-heavy “Frankenstein” many times. Named after the elaborate, piecemeal recording process used in creating the song, which is one of the few rock instrumentals to become a #1 hit, “Frankenstein” is also noteworthy for its early use of a synthesizer as a lead instrument.

Shock rocker cranked out “Teenage Frankenstein” (1986), which was written for Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, and “Feed My Frankenstein” (1992), which features guest appearances by noted rockers Joe Satriani, Nikki Sixx, and Steve Vai.

One of the best Frankenstein tunes is “Over at the Frankenstein Place,” written and sung by Richard O’Brien for the musical stage play, The Rocky Horror Show (1973). In the feature film adaptation, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon join in.

Other Frankensongs of note include: “Frankie Frankenstein” (1959) by The Crickets; “Monster Mash” (1962) by Boris Pickett; “The Siege and Investiture of Baron von Frankenstein’s Castle at Weisseria” (1988) by Blue Oyster Cult; and “Jumpstart Your Electric Heart” (2005) by Kevin Max (of dc Talk fame).

Ringo Starr’s “Back Off Boogaloo” (1972), a single some say was directed at Paul McCartney’s solo work, featured the Frankenstein monster on the picture sleeve. 

Fun with Frankenstein

When guys like Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, owner of one of the largest collection of vintage monster toys in the world, was a youngster during the 1970s, playing with Frankenstein meant putting together an Aurora model kit and then destroying it. As he says in his collector bio, Too Much Horror Business (2012), “A lot of the toys I have in my collection are toys I once had as a kid, but either blew them up with firecrackers, set on fire, threw off the roof, drowned, buried or whatever.”
These days, playing with Frankenstein translates to video games, such as the long-running, whip-slashing Castlevania series that has appeared on the Nintendo NES, Xbox 360, and many systems in between. Video games with Frankie in the title include:  (1983) for the Atari 2600; Frankenstein: The Monster Returns (1991) for the NES; Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994) for the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo; and The Island of Dr. Frankenstein (2009) for the Nintendo Wii.

Beware: “Frankenfood”

A relatively new phenomenon, “Frankenstein food” is any type of edible that has been genetically modified. According to versatilehealth.com, big business, farmers, and scientists “create strains that can withstand what normal foods and plants can’t; these traits include chemical tolerances, pesticide resistance, heightened nutritional content, and the tolerance of extreme environments”

To avoid this type of altered food, which some experts say poses health and environmental risks, you should go organic. To paraphrase Boris Karloff in , “Frankenstein food: bad!”

Frankenstein food can also refer to unconventional combinations, such as: New York chef Dominique Ansel’s cronut, which is a cross between a croissant and a doughnut; and KFC’s infamous Double Down, a “delicacy” that has bacon, two types of melted cheese, and the Colonel’s secret sauce sandwiched between two fried chicken filets. You can opt for grilled chicken, but what fun would that be?

In simpler times, Frankenstein food meant sitting down to a bowl of sugary sweet, strawberry-flavored Franken Berry, which General Mills first produced in 1971, alongside Count Chocula. Boo Berry followed in 1973. In recent years, the company has made all five of its monster cereals readily available in grocery stores once again, including the long-forgotten Fruit Brute (introduced in 1984) and Fruity Yummy Mummy (1987).

Frankenstein is alive, alive!

Like Hercules, Sherlock Holmes, Superman, and Tarzan, the Frankenstein monster is a timeless icon that is open to interpretation and is probably here to stay. He’s appeared on postage stamps (in 1997 and 2002), he haunts our nightmares (or at least tickles our post-modern funny bones) and keeps us entertained, and he’s a friend to anyone with an appreciation for classic horror.

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