ON CLASSIC CINEMA It’s alive!
Young Frankenstein trades fears for laughs in the modern monster mash.
Nothing screams Halloween like a good old-fashioned monster movie.
The genre of horror films has its roots in monster movies: Paul Wegener’s The Golem (1915), the silent German vampire film Nosferatu (1922), and Hollywood’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). Universal Studios’ “Universal Monsters” — a term that refers to their popular series of monster films concentrated in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s — most notably defined the “monster movie” breed of films and established the genre in the United States.
Universal’s first hit was 1925‘s The Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney, followed by the “Golden Age” of monster movies in the 30’s and a slew of sequels in the 40’s. It is in these years that Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., and Claude Rains became household names forever associated with the creatures they played, and it is in these films that classic cliches — mobs with torches, creepy mist, creeking stairs — were born. Frankenstein (Karloff), Dracula (Lugosi), The Mummy (Karloff), The Invisible Man (Rains), The Wolfman (Chaney Jr.) … the list goes on.
The spoofs and satires that have since poked fun of the over-the-top style of the monster movie genre are just as memorable. The first was comedic duo Bud Abbott and Lou Costello’s hit 1948 comedy-horror spoof Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, featuring Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi — in his only reprise of Dracula after the original — and Glenn Strange as the monsters. Meet Frankenstein perfectly summed up the era with its hilarious homage to the Universal Movie Monsters, and is still widely recognized as a classic.
But let’s jump ahead a couple decades, and highlight a more modern parody. Mel Brooks’ acclaimed Young Frankenstein (1974) is an amusing and affectionate tribute to the classic horror genre that stands as one of the best horror spoofs of all time, and has since widely influenced modern cinema’s portrayal of the Frankenstein Monster. The plot-line is simple: the great scientist Frankenstein’s grandson — himself a scientist — wants nothing to do with his grandfather’s grotesque work (“Frahnkensteen, not Frankenstein!”). When he finds his grandfather’s secret laboratory in Transylvania, however, his destiny overcomes him. Cue giant mentally handicapped monster.
The film satirizes the classic style with almost overwhelming melodrama; heightened character reactions, a dramatic orchestral score, and endless cliches fill every scene. In the spirit of a classic monster movie, mist swirls eerily around the castle, walks on staircases are creaky and drawn out, and townspeople mob angrily; the film is even shot in black and white. Several scenes pay direct homage to the original Frankenstein films, including the monster’s comic encounter with a blind hermit who accidentally pours soup in his lap and lights him on fire.
The characters are as archetypal as they come: the intellectual scientist Frederick Frankenstein (played by Gene Wilder, perhaps best known for his role as Willie Wonka), his busty and dim-witted lab assistant Inga (Teri Garr), and the strange hunchback servant Igor (Marty Feldman) together form a hilarious trio whose interactions make up some of the funniest scenes in the movie.
Take, for example, Frankenstein’s reaction when he finds out that Igor gave him the wrong brain — it had even been labeled “Do not use this brain!” — to put in the monster.
“Now, that brain that you gave me, was it Hans Delbruck’s?” he asks calmly.
“Ah, good,” says Frankenstein. “Would you mind telling me whose brain I did put it?”
Igor: “And you won’t be angry?”
Frankenstein, forcibly: “I will NOT be angry.”
Igor: Abby someone.”
Frankenstein: “Abby someone! Abby who?”
Igor: “Abby normal.”
Frankenstein, raising his voice to a shout: “Abby normal!”
Igor: “I’m almost sure that was the name.”
The comedic style is very up-front, and jokes are proudly displayed as such. In another scene, for instance, Igor delivers some Groucho Marx-eque slapstick humor:
Frankenstein: “Help me with the bags.”
Igor: “Soitenly. You take the blonde, I’ll take the one in the turban.”
Frankenstein: “I was talking about the luggage.”
In addition to a shameless sense of humor, the quality of acting contributes strongly to making the film a success. Gene Wilder’s fervent expression, as well as Cloris Leachman’s creepiness in the part of the scary house servant Frau Blücher, are particularly suitable to their respective roles. Peter Boyle gives a priceless performance as the monster, and steals the show with his infamous performance of “Putting on the Ritz” with Wilder.
Whether you’re in the mood for something a little different, or really just want to see Peter Boyle tap dance as the Frankenstein monster, Young Frankenstein is one of those films that I highly recommend for pretty much any occasion. And besides, you can’t really go wrong with the Frankenstein monster on Halloween.