Of Gods and Monsters
The story of Frankenstein's monster has been revisited dozens of times in various forms: from James Whale's iconic 1931 version, to Kenneth Branagh’s true to the source version in 1994, to the strange slew of neon gothic horror reimaginings (I, Frankenstein, anyone?) of the past decade. Aside from being an intellectual property filmmakers return to, it’s also one that inspires creations of an entirely different sort. There are movies that delve into the life of James Whale and his own obsessions, movies that create comedy out of the scientific curiosity, and some movies that have almost nothing to do with Frankenstein at all, aside from a haunting presence of the famous monster lingering around the edges of the film.
We’ll start with The Spirit of the Beehive, a 1973 Spanish drama in which a little girl Ana (Ana Torent) growing up in an isolated village becomes fascinated with Frankenstein’s monster after seeing a screening of Frankenstein with her sister. The movie takes place in 1940 at the end of the Spanish Civil war, and while Ana is aware that something violent and bloody has recently happened, she’s too young to understand the gravity of it all. Her sister Isabel (Isabel Telleria) finds it easy to trick her little sister and tells Ana that the monster is real and can be summoned by a child calling out to them. Ana begins speaking to the monster which cause Isabel to double down on the deception and show Ana an empty sheepfold where she claims the monster lives. When a fugitive from the war starts hiding out in the sheepfold, Ana forms a strange, wordless friendship with him, as if she somehow believes him to be the monster, before he is caught by the police and executed.
The Spirit of the Beehive tells a slice of life story almost entirely in symbolic measures. The father of the family is constantly tending to his beehives, a commentary on post-war life – there might be an occupation for everyone but a mechanical, passionless quality prevails – while the mother spends her time fantasizing and writing love notes to a distant, in both time and space, lover that she never plans to see again. She is crushed idealism, wishing for another life but ultimately powerless to get it. The monster of both the actual movie Frankenstein and in Ana’s mind are creatures in need of help as well as warnings about toying with powerful forces.
There is a subtext to the movie that the screening of Frankenstein by the authority of the time was done on purpose to spread propaganda, reminding the people what happens when you give in to Godless pursuits. Frankenstein and The Spirit of the Beehive share a sense of futility with the main characters firmly believing they are facing the future unafraid and having the world (as well as their loved ones) turn on them. At the end of Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein must assist in destroying his creation just as Ana is powerless to save the hidden soldier whose presence brings police and suspicion to her parents.
It’s funny to think that a little girl and a brilliant doctor would have such similar storylines, especially considering how different the movies are in narrative. Still, Ana is made to believe that she summoned the monster into her world, had to hide it from forces that didn’t understand, then solemnly accept its death. As Frankenstein ends with Victor recovering from being attacked and the announcement of his and Elizabeth’s upcoming child, The Spirit of the Beehive ends with a family once fractured, now slowly healing. Both works pose questions about our overall place in life, be it questions of sitting among gods or accepting a small function in a larger picture.
Gods and Monsters is a movie that focuses on the later life of James Whale, the director of the 1931 Frankenstein. The movie takes place a little before Whale’s death in the '60s and presents a portrait of Whale (Ian McKellen) as a successful gay man who has spent most of his professional life misrepresenting who is he in order to make other people comfortable. Now, retired and enjoying his free time immensely, he is less discreet about his leanings – even persuading a journalist (Jack Plotnick) to disrobe for him during an interview. When handsome gardner Clay (Brendan Frasier) starts working on the grounds, Whale can hardly contain himself. He asks the man to pose so he can paint him, discussing some of his past trysts while he does, and even has Clay accompany him to social events.
The movie edges into the territory of obsession since both Victor Frankenstein and James Whale share a powerful fascination with the bodies of men, albeit it in different capacities. They are seen as characters that face harsh criticism for their own thoughts, and refuse to be limited by the other’s demands for decorum, whatever that may be. Clay is made uncomfortable by Whale’s stories of desiring men even though a few scenes earlier, he is engaging in his own bawdy conversation with some friends at a bar. He demands Whale not talk to him about any of that stuff, a request we know would not have been made had the stories been about women. The main servant in the house, Hana (Lynn Redgrave), tells Clay that she prays for her boss’ soul as what he does is against God and nature, a common refrain in any version of Frankenstein.
Gods and Monsters also deals with the topic of death and how far we, as people, go to extend life. Whale starts the movie in terrible health that only gets worse as the film progresses. He laments his ailing body and looks at Clay’s physique with jealousy as well as lust. Hidden underneath a biopic (though not entirely true) narrative is a man wondering how he could get to live forever, how he could cheat the rules so ardently applied to all of us. In the end, after accepting how deep his obsession went and how quickly his body was deteriorating, he kills himself. His body is found by Hana and Clay, one of whom prayed for his soul and one of whom provided him with his final monster.
Lastly, there’s Young Frankenstein, a movie that uses the humankind’s endless search for answers as a springboard for humor. While The Spirit of the Beehive and Gods and Monsters use soupçon of the source material to add depth, Young Frankenstein is a parody and borrows heavily from the 1931 version. Gene Wilder plays Frederick Frankenstein, a descendant of Victor Frankenstein who has tried to distance himself from his infamous grandfather. In this, we see the story told not from the perspective of the doctor or the monster, but from the society telling the doctor to stop. Frederick has no desire to replicate the experiments and often calls his grandfather crazy. He’s only persuaded when he comes across his grandfather’s notebooks and realizes that this man was indeed a genius.
Instead of seeing the cycle of obsession and destruction as somber, Young Frankenstein presents it as silly. Frederick locking himself in a lab for days on end is a manic joke and the reveal of the monster to the press is done with a song and dance number. The desire to solve the puzzle of creating life never comes across as Godless but rather a normal human curiosity, one that Frederick is seduced by even as he tries to resist.
Monsters get reused and reimagined endlessly. Between heart-eating sirens, morphing versions of the Boogeyman, and sparkly vampires, the DNA of these creatures is found in all types of entertainment as a base to build up from. What makes Frankenstein different is how the monster has since been crafted into a symbol and woven into narratives beyond the expected. Whether it’s a child struggling to understand the actions of adults or an adult succumbing to their weaknesses, Frankenstein and his monster recur as both myth and material to remind us about fear, obsession, and how our responses to them matter more than we might think.