This January marked the 200th anniversary of the first publication of Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s masterpiece of science-fiction and horror has, quite rightly, become something of a classic since she anonymously published the book in 1818. The book went through several different editions over the years but the 1818 is still, in my mind, the definitive version of the story. If only because it so closely resembles the story as it was first ever told. We all know the story of how Mary Shelley came up with Frankenstein and it is, in all probability, part of the reason the story has endured for so long. One Summer in 1816, Percy and Mary Shelley, Byron, and John Polidori all gathered at Byron’s villa Lake Geneva in Switzerland. They propose a writing competition to create horror stories to tell each other the next night. The idea for Frankenstein came to Mary Shelley in a waking dream:
I saw with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life …
After some work and editing, the idea that Mary came up with that Summer in 1816 became one of the most important novels to come out of the Romantic period. After all, it has spurned a monstrous number of film and television adaptations and has inspired many more writers. Shelley is praised for her vivid imagination and modern thinking. She went far beyond the science of her day to imagine something that has withstood the test of time and changed the landscape of gothic horror. It’s a book that I have countless times now and have enjoyed more and more with every read. It featured in my both my Undergraduate coursework and my final Postgraduate dissertation. I bloody love this book and am happy to commemorate it’s 200th anniversary.
Halloween is fast approaching and, if I were any kind of film blogger, then I’d be using this post to review a classic horror film. However, I am always held back by the fact that I’m something of a wimp. I’ve never been a big fan of the horror genre and have avoided many of them. It’s not the violence as much as it is the jump scares. It doesn’t take a lot to have me leaping out of my seats so I’m constantly on edge. This is bad enough in non-traditional horror films, like Alien or something, so how would I cope watching a film that was created with the sole intention to scare the shit out of me. It’s not something I’m very proud of but I am what I am. There are some notable exceptions, obviously, but I tend to just let the biggest horror sensations pass me by. Really, though, I have no real interest in being scared. I don’t want to pay to see how far a writer will go to try and terrify people willing to pay for the experience. I know certain people enjoy the rush of watching these films but I just don’t get it. Maybe it’s because it’s harder for me to go back to normal and turn off the fear response? Who knows. Whatever the reason, I just never have a desire to
watch horror films so, in order to celebrate this time of year, I’m doing the genre the only way I know how: by watching a parody of it.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of my favourite books. It helps that I was tasked with reading it for every year I was at university but it was something I was more than happy to do. Shelley’s story has been described as the birth of science-fiction because of her tale of a scientist raising the dead. However, it was the inspiration for plenty of classic horror films from as early as 1910. The character of the monster went on to frequent many films, which gave rise to the mistake that it is the monster and not the Doctor who is Frankenstein. But that’s not really important. Despite the sheer number of Frankenstein films that already existed, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder decided that there was room for another. This time about a member of the family who does everything he can to get away from his family’s chequered past.
The Young Frankenstein of the title is Frederick Frankenstein, a professor who is so ashamed of his infamous grandfather, the Victor of Shelley’s novel, that he changes the pronunciation to ‘Fronkensteen’. Until the moment that he is presented with his grandfather’s will and he makes an unwelcome return to Transylvania. There he discovers Victor’s old notebooks that describe the process for reanimating a corpse. Very quickly, Fronkensteen is starting up the old family business and robbing corpses and brains in the name of science. All of this with the help of his trusty lab assistants, Igor, son of Victor’s own servant, and Inga, the busty babe who quickly catches his eye. There’s also the slight problem of the townsfolk who don’t trust Frederick and a monster that constantly escapes from the castle.
Young Frankenstein is a silly but incredibly shrewd parody of the classic horror films from the 1930s-50s. Brooks and Wilder created a script that played up on the traditions whilst cleverly working against them. It is Mel Brooks at his greatest. The whole thing looks and feels just like the films it is trying to copy. All of the techniques, visuals and sets are exactly the kind of thing you’d see in films like James Whale’s Frankenstein. It looks completely realistic, which not only makes it feel familiar but also makes it funnier. It’s a carefully crafted and intelligently made film. It works as a parody but also works as a story in itself. Young Frankenstein is a funny film. Yes, not everything works completely and there are definitely funnier Brooks films out there. That doesn’t mean the comedy isn’t there. Even the most obvious humour works here. There are moments that you shouldn’t want to find hilarious but just work. It may not have the sheer thrills of the normal fair you’d watch on Halloween but it’s definitely worth a watch.