Originally posted March 27, 2012
Greetings, fellow miscreants.
As a once-accredited physician and, therefore, a man of science, I have always had more than a little sympathy for Dr. Frankenstein. Surely he was no madman. Just a little misunderstood, as we proponents of the medical avant-garde are wont to be. From my own experiments—for I have made tentative stabs at re-animation, and dabbled in homunculi—I know full well the stresses that can beset a visionary artist whose best efforts are greeted with howls of outrage from unwashed hordes of torch-bearing rubes.
So it is in that context that I submit to you a motion picture of over a century ago—the 1910 Thomas Edison Frankenstein. Since the story is a creation myth of sorts, and since this film dates from the very earliest days of the cinematic horror tradition, I deemed it rather clever and poetically apropos to make it the first object of my consideration as a critic.
In the early 1970s, when the good doctor (me, that is) was a mere stripling youth, the first chapter of every history of the horror film included a striking publicity photo of an actor identified as Charles Ogle, as he appeared in Edison Studios’ one-reel adaptation of Frankenstein. A simultaneously silly and startling apparition, Ogle portrayed the creature as a bug-eyed, sneering hunchback in an unbecoming fright wig, his misshapen hands dripping with what appeared to be rotting flesh. These same books, while acknowledging the film’s historical importance, declared it irretrievably lost.
For decades I carried that idea around with me, convinced that we would never know anything more of the film than the famous image of the grimacing Mr. Ogle. Had those books come out just a few years later, they would no doubt have revealed the happy news that a lone print still existed, and had been languishing for decades in the private archives of a Wisconsin film collector, one Alois F. Dettlaff. Only after learning of the item’s rarity in the mid-‘70s did Mr. Dettlaff release the 14-minute Frankenstein to the world in all its tattered, but still watchable, glory. (Like virtually everything else that was once considered rare and special, the film is available on DVD and watchable on YouTube.)
Predictably, we don’t see Mr. Ogle in anything like the clarity of the publicity shot. Movie cameras were cumbersome beasts in 1910, and the now-familiar cinematic language of alternating long shots, medium shots, and close-ups, which now seems so intuitively right, had yet to be invented. Thus, we see everything from a fixed, distant perspective, as though watching a play.
Given the brevity of the film, it’s no surprise that the poignant and mythic properties of the story are ignored, and reduced to an action-packed vignette. This Frankenstein still holds considerable historical interest—especially in the scene of the monster’s creation, which Mary Shelley only touches on in her 1818 novel. Here we see the creature materialize out of a vat of chemicals, an effect achieved by setting fire to an effigy of the monster and printing the scene in reverse.
It would take the 1931 James Whale production to establish the conventions of the laboratory full of bubbling beakers and the leering hunchbacked assistant. But with this primitive little film, a potent modern myth flickered dimly into being—and like Dr. F. himself, Mr. Edison could scarcely have comprehended the force he was about to unleash upon an unsuspecting world.
I will leave it to future columns to wax eloquent upon the enduring meaning of the story, which has been embroidered upon and dragged through the mud in countless productions since. As it stands, I have spent too little quality time with my raven, Barnaby, and he is regarding me with an aggrieved and querulous eye. I take leave of you now, to put my domestic affairs in order and fortify myself with strong drink. But first, a bonus video in the form of Le Manoir du diable (a.k.a. The Haunted Castle, 1896), a three-minute-and-change Georges Melies production which is often cited as the first horror film ever made. Since it was made to delight and amuse rather than to frighten, I’m not sure it truly qualifies, but it does contain what is perhaps the first screen vampire–plus an assortment of skeletons, ghosts, witches and the like. Besides, any opportunity to showcase the marvelous Melies should be seized upon.