By Eddie Whitlock
When I was a kid, the highlight of my week was watching “The Big Movie Shocker” on Friday night. The host of the WAGA TV-5 show was Bestoink Dooley, portrayed by Atlanta actor George Ellis. Bestoink introduced me to the Universal monsters, and I never had a chance to thank him for it.
This column is about Frankenstein, one of the monsters I met courtesy of Mr. Ellis’s alter-ego.
If you want to learn more about Bestoink Dooley, there’s a great article by Will Stephenson “The Bestoink Dooley Fan Club,” that was printed in the April 20, 2017, issue of Oxford American.
No, this is about Frankenstein and me. I saw those movies so many times that I don’t know which I saw first. I remember best “The Bride of Frankenstein,” in which the monster is quite sympathetic and quite human – even to the point of learning to speak.
He wanted a wife. Even as little kid, I could appreciate that. He wanted a family. His father had rejected him. It just made sense.
Dr. Frankenstein had been traumatized by being thrown off the windmill at the end of “Frankenstein.” He declared himself out of the monster business. Lucky for us, that’s when the wonderfully weird Dr. Semptimus Pretorius arrives on the scene. He’s the one who pushes for the creation of a bride for the creature.
This movie is book-ended by scenes with Elsa Lancaster. In a prologue, she portrays a sassy Mary Shelley. In the climax of the movie, she is a fiery Bride, who rejects the man for whom she has been created.
Wow. What a flick!
I never really got into the Hammer Horror films of the 60s and 70s. That’s no offense to them. It’s just me. I think I heard English accents and immediately assumed it was educational. Please don’t give me an educational Frankenstein. Or – if you do – don’t let me know it’s educational.
I always love a good “bad” movie, and Frankenstein has been the subject of many of those.
My favorite bad Frankenstein was “Frankenstein Conquers the World,” a 1965 flick. The premise is that the Germans had possession of the immortal heart of the Frankenstein monster in 1945 and – for safe-keeping – stored it with their Rising Sun friends in the city of Hiroshima.
Twenty years later the heart has grown a body – a giant body, of course – and must now fight a giant monster calledBaragon.
There were lots of other bad Frankenstein movies, including one done by Andy Warhol. I’ve read about that one and have applied the “Life is short” principal in deciding not to watch it.
On television, there have been several good – and bad – attempts to portray the Frankenstein monster. The best known of these is probably the character Herman on the series “The Munsters.”
Fred Gwynn made for a nice, goofy interpretation of the creature. No deep issues were ever addressed, though there was a great episode in which Herman tells his son Eddie, “…It doesn't matter what you look like: tall or short or fat or thin, ugly, or handsome, like your father. You could be black or yellow or white; it doesn't matter. What does matter is the size of your heart and the strength of your character."
My personal favorite TV incarnation of Frankenstein’s monster was by Jack Elam in the show “Struck by Lightning” in 1979. It was cancelled after just three episodes, which should tell you how badly my opinions match with those of the general public.
Frankenstein has been sprinkled throughout my life. He was a cereal mascot for Franken Berry. He was a song by the Edgar Winter Group. He was a punchline in an episode of The Monkees, where he was played by Richard Keil.
It’s the character from the story, though, that is my obsession. I love the idea of a creature put together from parts of others, imbued with life through unnatural means, and then set loose without anchor or obligation.
But I am no Frankenstein.
For one thing, he’s huge, and I’m barely five feet tall. For another, he is orphaned, and I have always been fortunate to have family and friends and community. Finally, he is immortal and homeless while I am painfully human and quite tethered to my little life.
By the time I arrived in Athens, Georgia, as a student in 1981, there was another Frankenstein on the scene. Okay, not a Frankenstein, a Frankenfurter.
My late friend David Moore took me to see “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at a midnight show that year. We worked together at WGAU, smoked marijuana in our spare time, and tried to meet girls. (I was a full-time student, too, though I never let it interfere with the other facets of my life.)
Rocky Horror was an epiphany. I will never forget standing when a show host asked who had never seen the film before. “Virgin!”
It’s a movie celebrating the weirdness of Dr. Frankenstein and the beauty of the monster. For me, it established the idea that “Normal is just a setting on the dryer” before such a concept was phrased that way.
Adulthood set in not long after that. I got married, had a child, had a career, changed careers, suffered depression, and – for lack of an accurate term – enjoyed adulthood.
The monster was still there. When you were an outcast in a social situation, you were the monster. When your appearance made you less to others, you were the monster. When you wanted to be loved by an angry hateful world, you were the monster.
But you can’t stop there.
The arrogant doctor was still there. When you considered yourself more knowledgeable than the folks who taught you, you were Frankenstein. When you tried to abandon the bad you had created rather than dealing with it, you were Frankenstein. When you treated another human being as less than a human being, you were Frankenstein.
When I think about the Frankenstein movies, “The Bride of Frankenstein” will always top the list. Within that 75-minute film is humor, pathos, wonder, horror, and heartbreak. I don’t believe there is a more Christian (in a good way) moment on screen than the scene where the blind hermit comforts the injured monster. He gives the creature an unconditional love we should all emulate. When that tear trickles down Boris Karloff’s cheek, I find one in my own eye.
Now let me make a confession. I tried to read the book several times in my life, but I never got into it. A couple of years ago, I got the audiobook and succeeded in experiencing the entire tale.
It’s still a tough one. It was written in the early part of the nineteenth century, after all. The language seems clunky and the pacing is like – well – a lumbering monster at times.
But it’s a great story. I was most impressed by the passage when the monster learns language by hiding in a corn crib adjacent to a poor family’s home. If you want to see this part of the story well-done on screen, check out the Kenneth Branagh’s1994 film “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein." How we learn influences what we learn. The monster learns communication by watching a loving family. Is it no wonder he communicates a desire for love? For family?
Even in the book, the creature has no name, though he notes to Dr. Frankenstein at one point, “I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel.”
Read the book. Or listen to the audiobook like I did. It’s worth it.
Future Frankensteins are also on my mind. My wife Joan and I just finished watching an 8-episode Turkish miniseries “The Creature” on Netflix. It is a wonderful reimagining of the story. It certainly has horror, but mainly it has the horror that is human hate.
Guillermo Del Toro, an awesome horror director, is currently developing his own film about Frankenstein. He’s currently casting it, so I don’t anticipate its being available for viewing any time soon. I’m really excited about it because Del Toro plans to have Dr. Pretorius as a main character.
On December 8, Ciné (an independent theater in Athens, Georgia) will begin showing another Frankenstein film, “Poor Things.” I’m hoping to be in line when they open.
Here’s the plot summary from IMDb:
“Brought back to life by an unorthodox scientist, a young woman runs off with a lawyer on a whirlwind adventure across the continents. Free from the prejudices of her times, she grows steadfast in her purpose to stand for equality and liberation.”
If family health trends hold true, I have about five more years left on this earth. In the 1939 “Son of Frankenstein,” Dr. Wolf Frankenstein – son of Henry – examines the creature and determines him to be superhuman and immortal. Immortal, he is – even if I am not. But I’m looking forward to keeping up with his incarnations and interpretations as long as I can.
Eddie Whitlock is a Georgia native, a graduate of UGA, and wannabe writer. He retired in 2021 from the Athens-Clarke County Library, where he worked as coordinator of volunteers, community service supervisor, and vending machine scapegoat.