13 O’Clock Movie Retrospective: The Man With Two Brains

On today’s installment of the Retrospective, Tom and Jenny are discussing the hilarious 1983 mad scientist comedy The Man With Two Brains, starring Steve Martin and directed by Carl Reiner.

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Revenge of the Deathless Guinea Pig: An Appreciation of “The Asphyx”

Cheerio, old chaps! Today’s movie is another kinda obscure 1970s flick from Europe, but we’ve temporarily travelled from Italy to Old Blighty. Bizarrely, and completely coincidentally, it also concerns a fucked up aristocratic family by the name of Cunningham, just like my last entry on The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave. I swear I did NOT do that on purpose. Clearly, mysterious cinematic forces are at work here.

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Directed by Peter Newbrook and released in 1972, The Asphyx was also known under the titles Spirit of the Dead and The Horror of Death. Set in 1875, it explores many of the same themes as Frankenstein, what with all the hubris about scientists tampering in God’s romaine and suchlike. Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens) is a widower, a gentleman scientist, and a cheery, progressive sort of bloke, using his money and expertise in service of the betterment of mankind. At the beginning of the movie, he is bringing his fiancée Anna (Fiona Walker) back to the family estate to introduce her to his two grown children Clive (Ralph Arliss) and Christina (Jane Lapotaire), as well as a young fella named Giles (Robert Powell), who he introduces as his adopted son, but who also has a thing going with Christina, so…huh. Yeah, technically they’re not blood relatives, but still, eeeewwwww. Moving on.

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One of Sir Hugo’s main scientific pursuits involves working with a psychical research society, photographing people at the moment of their deaths. A few of their photographs seem to show a strange black smudge near the dying people, which the psychical society believes are the souls leaving the bodies. Sir Hugo is excited about the implications of this research, but his ward/assistant/daughter-banger Giles is all kinda meh, skeptical of the society’s conclusions and not really seeing the point of it all.

Things start going to shit about twenty minutes into the festivities. Clive and Anna are killed in a freak boating accident, and Sir Hugo happens to capture their deaths on his newfangled video camera. Beside himself with grief, he insists on watching the footage to see his beloved Anna and his only son Clive one final time. He is simultaneously horrified and ecstatic to find that he can clearly see that telltale black smudge appearing on the film right before Clive gets beaned with the fatal tree branch, but now that he can see it as a moving image instead of a static one, he can’t help but notice that the smudge is not moving away from Clive, as his soul presumably would, but toward him. Dun dun duuuuuun.

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This doesn’t seem like a great deal to go on, but from this single piece of evidence, Sir Hugo formulates a theory that obviously, this black thingamabob isn’t really a soul per se, but an entity from Greek mythology called an asphyx, something like a grim reaper deal that comes to claim your ass when you’re fixing to bite the big one. He’s eager to do more research into the matter, and fortuitously, an opportunity soon presents itself: the president of the psychical society, Sir Edward Barrett (Alex Scott) arrives at Sir Hugo’s house, all in a lather because the barbaric British government has decided to reinstate public executions in order to try to stem the tide of a supposed explosion of violent crime. Sir Edward and Sir Hugo are both vehemently anti-capital punishment, and Sir Edward wants Sir Hugo to film the first hanging, hoping that the horror of the images will rally the public to their cause. Sir Hugo pretends that he doesn’t really want to do it, but secretly he’s all like AWWWW YEAH and metaphorically rubbing his hands together in anticipatory glee. He finally agrees, though he doesn’t tell Sir Edward what his true intentions are, vis-á-vis recording dying people’s repo-demons.

During the hanging, Sir Hugo uses a “light booster,” essentially a spotlight using phosphorous crystals, to illuminate the gallows as the condemned man meets the noose; but to the surprise of himself and everyone assembled, the criminal’s asphyx is clearly visible to all, and seems to be trapped within the phosphorous beam. When Sir Hugo reviews the footage later, both he and Giles realize that if a person’s asphyx could be halted by the phosphorescent light, and further, if the asphyx could then be transferred to a purpose-made lock-box with a phosphorous beam shining indefinitely into it, then a person could, theoretically, never die, provided the asphyx is never released. They try the experiment on a guinea pig and meet with rousing success, so of course the next logical step is that Sir Hugo, growing increasingly mad with the potential power of everlasting life, decides to immortalize himself, because his awesomeness cannot be contained within a single lifetime, goddammit.

If you know anything about this type of movie, you’ll know that the situation is going to go drastically, horrifically sideways from that point forward, and you may find yourself asking the following questions: Is it ever morally justifiable to toy with immortality? What lengths will a man go to to preserve his family and his legacy? Is it really prudent to have to live forever when your noggin is hanging on by a single sinew like Nearly Headless Nick? Some pretty fucked up shit happens at the end of this, folks, and here is yet another example of a Cunningham family who really, desperately need some kind of psychiatric intervention. Happy Days this ain’t.

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As with a lot of British films from the early 70s, this one moves at a snail’s pace and is ridiculously talky, so it’s definitely not for all tastes. The characters, further, are all intensely twee, upper-class-twit types, but I found myself kinda liking them in spite of myself. Plus I was so interested to see what new, profanely impious schemes Sir Hugo was gonna come up with next that I was utterly transfixed through the entire two-hour running time. I also found the ending wonderfully cruel, ironic, and immensely satisfying.

That’s all for this installment, so until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

Scary Silents: Frankenstein (1910)

Look, my Scary Silents series is alive! ALIVE!!! And today we’re dissecting a classic, the Edison Studios adaptation of Frankenstein from 1910. As most horror buffs know, this was the first filmed version of Mary Shelley’s novel, even though I gotta say the adaptation is a tad on the “creative” side. Time to get this experiment started, so fire up the kinetogram and watch along!

We open on a title card, which is followed by an explanatory blurb informing us that this is a “liberal adaptation of Mary Shelley’s story,” which somehow sounds both apologetic and condescending at the same time, and then the screen reads, “Frankenstein Leaves for College,” which in a just world would be the title of an epic Descendents album consisting of nothing but Cramps covers.

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PLEASE TELL ME SOMEONE GETS THIS.

There follows a brief and completely pointless scene of Frankenstein bidding adieu to his father and “sweetheart” (seriously, that’s how she’s referred to in this movie). As the card informed us, Frankenstein is indeed leaving for college. See? There he goes, leaving for college. Father and Sweetheart wave at him as he goes, leaving for college. “Have fun with the leaving and the college,” they seem to say to his retreating back. “Take it easy on the butt-chugging and try really hard not to subvert all the laws of God and man while you’re there, K? Oh, and bring us a University of Ingolstadt sweatshirt when you visit at the holidays.”

Then there’s evidently a time jump, so we don’t get to see Frankenstein Wikipedia-pasting his way through Biology 101 or getting dragged up a flagpole by his manties in a fraternity hazing. In fact, Frankenstein appears to be the most diligent college student in the entire history of college, because the next card informs us that, “Two years later, Frankenstein has discovered the secret of life.” Holy shit, even Leonardo da Vinci wasn’t THAT far ahead of the curve. Unless, of course, the secret of life that Frankenstein discovered involved Dark Side of the Moon and copious amounts of weed. Hate to poop on your birthday cake, V-Frank, but we’ve ALL discovered that secret.

The next scene shows Frankie in his…lab? dorm room? man cave? He’s sitting in a throne and making eureka-type hand gestures of the sort one would expect from some smug sumbitch who discovered the secret of life, and then he is abruptly edited to his feet, where he proceeds to wave his arms around in a self-congratulatory fashion, addressing what appears to be a loaf of pumpernickel but is probably a brain, breaking only to snatch up his feather quill to jot down all his earth-shattering, life-secret-discovering mind poots. Y’know, for posterity. Then he looks at what he just wrote and sits back in his throne, all OMG I AM SUCH A FUCKING GENIUS THAT I CAN BARELY STAND TO BE IN THE SAME ROOM WITH MYSELF, JUST KIDDING, I CAN STAND IT BECAUSE I’M JUST THAT AWESOME. Then he struts out of his room, just raring to share his discovery with a world too blighted to understand him, maaaaaaan.

“Just before the experiment,” reads the next card, and from Frankie’s subsequent facial expressions it appears that he may be having second thoughts about the whole tampering in God’s domain business, but then I guess not, because he picks up a letter from his desk and smooches on it and grins like a lunatic, then scoops up his quill in order to dramatically scribble a reply, which is addressed to “Sweetheart” (is that really her name? So when they get married she’s gonna be Mrs. Sweetheart Frankenstein?) and basically gives her the Cliff’s Notes version of what he expects his “marvellous work” to amount to. “Discovered the secret of life and death, gonna create the most perfect being the world has ever known, yadda yadda, I’m really not useless like your mother says, I swear I’m gonna sew a bunch of corpse parts together and reanimate that shit and everyone will love it and then you’ll see, then I’ll be good enough to ‘claim you for my bride,’ right? Right? I promise my scientific discovery should be quite sufficient to overshadow the somewhat less pleasant discovery you’re going to make on our wedding night, my darling. Please assuage my monstrous insecurities. Your devoted, Frankenstein.”

Decent penmanship for a budding doctor, though, it must be said.

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UNLIKE THIS.

After he’s written the letter, he folds it up all nice and then he gets up from his desk and makes to toddle down to the corner post office, but then he pauses and puts his hand to his chin in that universal HMMMMMM gesture, and then he says FUCK IT, BITCH DON’T NEED TO KNOW MY LIFE and crumples up the letter and tosses it on the desk. Yeah, takin’ a man-stand! HO DON’T OWN ME AND MY GODLIKE CREATOR POWERS, BRAH.

Uh, yeah, about that? Even the title cards are onto you, dude. “Instead of a perfect human being,” the text sniffs, “the evil in Frankenstein’s mind creates a monster.” The movie does not specify which mind-evil did the deed, whether it was the relatively mild crumpling of the Sweetheart letter, the desire to want to create life in the first place, those three dead hookers stuffed under his dorm room bunk, or just the kind of general evil that resides in all our minds just by virtue of our shared humanity. I like to think that the evil in my mind wouldn’t create anything more nefarious than a doughy, middle-aged high school gym coach, or perhaps a stale bran muffin, but y’know, I’m not judging anyone on mind-evil levels here.

And now we come to the money-shot, the actual monster creation! Since whizzing sciencey doodads hadn’t been invented yet in 1910, Frankie has to go the alchemy-via-Julia-Child route, mixing up some reanimatin’ potion in his ramen noodle pot while a friendly skeleton looks on from a nearby chair. I DID SO MAKE FRIENDS IN COLLEGE, MOM, AND DON’T MENTION HOW THIN AND BONY HE IS WHEN YOU SEE HIM, HE’S REALLY SENSITIVE ABOUT THAT.

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BY THE POWER OF GRAYSKULL, IT’S SOUP!!!

In the closet behind him is a large vat steaming merrily away, and for a moment I’m distracted by the fantasy that this is a documentary about the early days of the Frankenstein Brothers Homestyle Chili Company, when they were still a scrappy startup experimenting with different spice blends in their parents’ basement. Frankenstein’s Chili: Better Than the Sum of its Parts!

Dr. Foodenstein tosses a spoonful of the ramen noodle potion into the chili vat with a hearty “BAM!” and then remembers there’s a couple more ingredients he forgot, so he chucks those in too, and the chili emits a plume of smoke and Frankie turns toward the camera all VOILA, CHILI MAGIC, Y’ALL, and then, because the best chili must simmer to perfection in complete darkness away from the prying eyes of the public, he closes the closet doors on it, except they look more like metal bank vault doors, if those vault doors were painted with tempera on big pieces of cardboard. Then he puts a wooden bar across the doors, lest the chili escape and cause panic and intestinal distress throughout the German countryside.

Much like an oven, the closet vault doors have a little window through which you may monitor the progress of your foodstuffs, so Frankie takes full advantage, watching as his chili gains sentience. This is actually a pretty cool effect, similarities to Jiffy Pop notwithstanding. If you kinda squint, it does sort of look like a monster is assembling itself, with ropy “veins” emerging from the pot to wrap themselves around what could be a ribcage, if looked at with a generous (or drunk) eye. Now, I’m no Rachael Ray, but I have cooked a few pots of chili in my time. Is it normal for stygian beast-men to spontaneously arise from amid the bubbling stew of beans, spice, and meat? Because if it is, what am I doing wrong? I bet I’m forgetting to offer up the proper invocations to Belphegor, right? That’s gotta be it.

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YOU BETTA RECOGNIZE.

So Frankie keeps peering through the window as the monster solidifies, pausing every few seconds to look toward the camera with a FUCK YEAH, WHO’S THE MAD MONSTER BAKER kinda face. The chili monster moves one arm up and down like he’s lifting a two-pound dumbbell, and then he’s on fire for some reason, and then the motion of his one arm becomes ever more pronounced, as though he’s fervently trying to hail a taxi. Then we cut to Frankie gesturing and shaking his head as if he just can’t believe how epic this shit is, then in the next shot the chili monster has two arms and a fat lumpen chest and a total fivehead positioned beneath a nest of hair that wouldn’t look out of place on a member of Ratt circa 1986.

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I FEEL PRETTY.

Here’s the thing, though. Even though Frankie has been standing there watching the entire chili monster development through his little Easy Bake Oven window, he is still horrified — HORRIFIED — when he sees his creation in its final form. Dude, you just saw the misshapen torso and the spindly bone-arms and the tragic hair a second ago and you were all about it, but now, somehow, the gestalt of it is just too loathsome to contemplate? I guess I just don’t get life secrets.

Predictably, the wooden bar comes flying off the door and a creepy hand like the eyeball fella’s from Pan’s Labyrinth oozes out of the chili closet and wiggles at Frankie as the cowed doctor shrieks (silently) and points at the horror he’s unleashed. “Frankenstein appalled at the sight of his evil creation,” the title card reads, helpfully. No shit?

As further evidence of his appalled-ness, he backs into his bedchamber all OHHHH SHIT I DONE FUCKED UP NOW, tearing at his hair and fainting dramatically across his bed. Because back in the silent movie days, men were men, goddammit, and if wilting like dying daisies at the first sign of trouble was good enough for your grandpa, then it’s good enough for you, sonny. These fainting ninnies beat the Nazis, you know.

As Frankenwhiner angsts among the bedclothes, the monster quietly parts the curtains, and even though he seems to be yelling and waving his bean-sprout fingers inches away from Frankie’s prone face, it still takes forever for Frankie to wake up, slowly move his head so that he is in direct eye contact with his hellish creation, and then freak the fuck out. Pity poor Frankie, who can apparently only see things when the pupils of his eyeballs are centered directly on them. Nothing bad really happens to either one of them, though; the monster just waves his hands and goes boo, Frankie takes entirely too much time rolling out from beneath the monster’s narrow scare-zone, then he slides into his chair for a second, emoting, then he gets to his feet and paces and tears at his hair some more, and then he collapses into a heap on the floor. The monster, clearly realizing that frightening this drama llama is not enough of a challenge for him, makes a MY BAD, I THOUGHT I WAS TERRORIZING A MAN gesture and backs out of the shot. A moment later, Frankie’s…butler? houseboy? comes into the room, looking all officious and no-nonsense, but springing into action when he sees the supine form of his master all splayed across the Oriental rug. He wakes Frankie up, and Frankie stares all bug-eyed toward where the monster was, obviously not able to deal with any of this shit, and then the butler begins weirdly stroking his head as though Frankie is a kitty and the butler is Jackson Galaxy. There, there, doctor. Just cough up that hairball and you’ll feel a lot better.

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FRIEND GOOOOOD.

The next scene, “The return home,” opens about how you’d expect, with Father Frankenstein and Sweetheart sitting in their front parlor avoiding conversation with one another. The gangly Frankie arrives, sweeping grandly into the room while removing his top hat, widening his arms in a convivial gesture that seems to say MY FABULOUS ASS HAS RETURNED, YOU LUCKY BASTARDS, NOW COMMENCE THE WORSHIPFUL FAWNING. Gotta say, he seems pretty cocky for a guy who just loosed a malevolent fiend whose first action on earth was making him piss his pants in terror. I’m actually not really sure if Dad and Sweetheart know what Frankie has been up to vis-á-vis creating unholy abominations in his chili pot, but they seem happy to see him, anyway. Seemingly less happy to see him is some doddering old guy who walks into the shot with his arm outstretched as though he’s trying and failing to get the attention of the other three actors. Who is this? Is it Thomas Edison doing a sly walk-on like a proto-Alfred Hitchcock? Perhaps Wilford Brimley attempting to warn them of the dangers of diabeetus? No idea.

“Haunting his creator and jealous of his sweetheart for the first time the monster sees himself,” reads the next card. Painful lack of commas aside, why does this film keep telling us what’s going to happen before it happens? Did people not know how suspense worked back then? Anyway, we see Frankie sitting in a room with a full-length mirror featuring prominently, and then Sweetheart comes swooshing in with her copious layers of white chiffon, and the two mack on each other and Sweetheart pins a flower to Frankie’s lapel. They chat and fart around for a few seconds, and then Sweetheart exits stage right, perhaps to have a wee off camera, and then the door opens and the chili monster barges in, looking like Pete Burns from Dead or Alive filtered through a post-apocalyptic-mutant lens. Frankie points at the monster again like YOU and the monster points back at him like NO, YOU, and then the monster seems to be trying to reason with his creator, gesturing to Frankie and then at himself, all YOU DID THIS SHIT, MOTHERFUCKER, I HOPE YOU’RE PROUD OF YOURSELF, and then he leans forward and plucks the flower off Frankie’s lapel and throws it on the floor. DID THAT TART GIVE YOU THIS FLOWER? SHE CAN NEVER BE WHAT I AM TO YOU, MASTER. YOU FORMED ME WITH YOUR OWN SECRET RECIPE, AND NO ONE WILL EVER LOVE YOU LIKE I CAN.

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I LEFT A BUNNY BOILING ON THE STOVE FOR YOU.

Sorry, I got carried away and thought I was watching Fatal Attraction for a second.

So I guess Frankie knows that Sweetheart is coming back and apparently tells the monster to hide, which the monster obligingly does. Accommodating chap, that monster. Sweetheart breezes into the room carrying…teacups? a short stack? and she lays the stuff out on the table, presumably pretending not to notice the stench of the charnel house that undoubtedly follows the monster wherever he goes, including sitting next to me on the city bus, inevitably. Frankie does that I’M TOTALLY NOT STANDING IN FRONT OF THIS PLACE WHERE A MONSTER IS DEFINITELY NOT HIDING thing, and even though she’s just brought in their tea, Frankie convinces Sweetheart that she must have some pressing business elsewhere and to get gone. Meanwhile, the monster creeps out from his hiding place before Frankie and Sweetheart have even left the room, and they totally don’t see him even though he is standing right there in the open. Frankie’s intense eye-pupil focus strikes again, I guess. After Sweetheart leaves, Frankie closes the door portentously and approaches the monster, they point at each other some more, then they commence wrestling.

Just as the spoilery title card promised, in the midst of the fisticuffs, the monster catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror and proceeds to body-dysmorphia the hell out with a histrionic, arm-raising FUCK YOU FOR DOING THIS TO MEEEEEEE meltdown, after which he stalks off to sulk and binge on Little Debbie Cakes while weeping in front of his worn VHS copy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Another grammatically-challenged card informs us that “On the bridal night Frankenstein’s better nature asserting itself,” and if you could keep yourself from reading that in the voice of the Wild and Crazy Guys, then you’re a better woman than I. Dr. and Mrs. Sweetheart are being congratulated on their nuptials, and you can just tell that the two of them are giving the guests perfunctory handshakes and shoving them unceremoniously out the door so they can get started on the sweet wedding-night nookie. Once the last insufferable guest has gone, the pair embrace and eagerly contemplate the long-awaited rubbing of their no-no parts together. Frankie’s all GO IN THE BEDROOM AND DRAPE YOUR NUDITY ACROSS THAT TESLA COIL THE WAY I LIKE, I’LL BE IN THERE AS SOON AS I BLOW OUT THE CANDLES AND MAKE SURE THERE ARE ABSOLUTELY NO MONSTERS WAITING OUTSIDE TO STORM IN AND TEACH ME THE MEANING OF HUBRIS. As he prepares for the BOW CHICKA WOW, he is called away by someone off camera (the butler wanted to caress Frankie’s kitty-head one last time before bed, I suppose), and while he is gone, the monster naturally breaks into the house and immediately twigs where the bridal chamber is. He makes his spindly-fingered way toward the boudoir, likely intending to indulge in a Sweetheart Sampler, if you know what I mean. And because he’s a monster, you can bet he’ll eat all the good pieces first, like the caramels and the nut cups, and by the time Frankie gets back, there won’t be anything left but those gross fruit creams.

That analogy was bad and I feel bad.

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Frankie is finally done getting his head stroked by the butler (snort) and at last deigns to head for the bridal suite, where Sweetheart has no doubt got herself off with a vibrator and fallen asleep by now. But look, the doors are wide open! What could this portend? Could it be that the monster Frankie created and then just kinda left behind with a MEH, NO LONGER MY PROBLEM has returned to settle the score? Frankie closes the doors and then seems to realize OMG, MY NEW BRIDE IS IN THE BEDROOM ALONE AND THE MONSTER IS PROBABLY IN THE HOUSE, and instead of rushing to her aid, he just kinda stands there, uselessly, and wigs out until the crisis is averted by Sweetheart herself, who comes barreling out of the bedroom all in a lather after having experienced the most intense orgasm of her life; so intense, in fact, that she cannot remain upright and faints dead away, after which the monster emerges all cock-proud with his enormous schwanstücker and tries to play the whole thing off like IT WAS A TOTAL ACCIDENT, MAN, I DIDN’T MEAN TO HURT HER, BUT HEY, IT’S YOUR FAULT FOR SADDLING ME WITH JOHN HOLMES’S PEEN, DON’T HATE THE PLAYA, HATE THE GAME. Frankie and the monster tangle up again, and finally the monster is all I DON’T NEED THIS SHIT, BRO and storms out, while Sweetheart writhes around, beseeching him not to leave. But he does, and Frankie kinda shakes his fist after him, all THAT’S RIGHT, RUN AWAY, MONSTER, OR YOU’LL GET MORE OF THE SAME, even though the monster totally just whipped his ass and popped his wife’s cherry and overall made him look like a chump. Sweetheart clutches at Frankie’s legs to prevent him from following the monster, but to no avail. Frankie has finally decided to accept responsibility for what he’s done, and truth be told, he probably wants to get away from the missus for a while, since listening to her extolling the virtues of the monster’s superior tongue dexterity has gotta be murder on his ego.

Now, right here is where the “liberal adaptation” caveat comes into play, because the next card reads, “The creation of an evil mind overcome by love and disappears.” With all due respect, what the fuck is this shit? In the book, the monster killed Frankie’s wife, right? He didn’t just ring her bell (allegedly) and leave her all alive and satiated. But I guess the sight of the monster laying waste to everyone Frankie knew and loved was just a little too real for early 20th-century cinema, man, so Edison went with a happy clappy ending that completely let Frankie off the hook for his presumption. And while I was thinking that the word “disappears” was used metaphorically, like the monster just wandered off to quietly live out the rest of his days on a remote farm in Vermont or something, it seems as though the power of Frankie and Sweetheart’s luuuurve was able to suspend the laws of physics and cause the monster to literally disappear, like wink out of existence. His reflection remains briefly, and Frankie stares at it, and it’s really obvious that the movie is trying to say FRANKIE AND THE MONSTER, YOU GUYS, THEY’RE THE SAME, and then Frankie is just pointing at his own reflection before running to the mirror and going, THERE YOU ARE, YOU STUDLY HUNK OF MAN-MEAT and celebrating the fact that his grave transgression has been completely erased from the space-time continuum and there’s not even a messy monster corpse to be disposed off after all is said and done, so the entire point of Shelley’s novel was pretty much negated, meaning there’s really nothing stopping this addle-brained abomination-maker from firing up the old chili pot to try again and get it right this time. Maybe less cayenne pepper and more eye of newt will dampen the creation’s murderous impulses just a bit. It’s all just trial and error, you know. Meh.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this installment of Scary Silents! Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein & the Summer of 1816

A strange gathering of intellectual luminaries during one “haunted summer” produced one of literature’s most enduring creations.

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Frankenstein’s monster is one of the most ubiquitous characters in popular culture, appearing everywhere from movies and novels to children’s toys and cereal boxes. Though the image we have of the lumbering creature today—greenish skin, square head, beetling brow, ropy scars and neck bolts—has been largely formed by Boris Karloff’s stunning portrayal in the Universal horror films of the 1930s, in the beginning, the monster was literally dreamed into existence under rather eerie circumstances by an eighteen-year-old girl.

Summer in Switzerland

It was May 14, 1816. Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his “wife” Mary (the couple only married later that year, though Mary already used his last name) had been invited by friend and fellow poet Lord Byron to visit him at a rented chateau, Villa Deodati, on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Also joining the festivities were Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairemont—who was pregnant with Byron’s child and was trying to get back into his good graces—and Byron’s personal physician John Polidori.

The gathering apparently started out quite idyllic—the friends spent long hours writing, discussing weighty ideas, and boating in the lake. But a short time after the group arrived, the weather took a bizarre turn, and it seemed the streaks of lightning and the torrents of rain would never cease. Mary and the others were confined to the house for many days.

Ghost Stories

More reading and discussion ensued. Particular topics of conversation included the early evolution theories of Erasmus Darwin, as well as the new science of galvanism. Also contributing to the entertainment of the group was a book of German ghost stories called Fantasmagoria, which the friends took turns reading aloud.

The combination of the macabre tales and the isolating weather seemed to have strange effects on everyone present; Percy Shelley, at one point, succumbed to visions that sent him screaming from the room. Later, Shelley claimed that Byron’s reading of the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem “Cristabel” had brought to mind the image of a woman with eyes instead of nipples, which horrified him.

Setting to Work

Some time after this incident, the group decided that they would each try to write their own ghost story. Most set to work immediately and produced tales of varying quality. Byron wrote a story fragment titled “The Burial,” which was later published as a postscript to his narrative poem Mazeppa. Shelley wrote a tale called “The Assassins,” which apparently never saw the light of day (though his poem Mont Blanc, written around the same time, was published later that year). Dr. Polidori wrote “The Vampyre,” later expanded to novel length, which was the first vampire story published in English and which some speculate might have been an inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, written 78 years later.

The Monster Is Born

Mary Shelley, however, couldn’t think of an idea for a story, and had to respond with a frustrated “No” when asked by the others if she had begun work on it. But then, one night, she had a terrible nightmare. She woke violently amid the sounds of the storm howling outside. The dream had been so vivid that she had a difficult time believing it hadn’t been real. Since she was too shaken to sleep, she began writing down her dream, in which “a pale student of the unhallowed arts” used bits of corpses to create a man. “By the glimmer of the half-extinguished light,” she wrote, “I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”

Mary’s terrifying dream was described verbatim in the story she presented to the others. Though the first draft was only about 100 pages long, Percy loved the story and encouraged Mary to flesh it out. She did, and two years after the strange events at Lake Geneva, the story was published as Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, thus introducing one of literature’s most frightening figures to the world at large.

Dr. John Polidori and The Vampyre

Though Dracula and Lestat are far better known today, modern vampire literature owes a great deal to Polidori’s Lord Ruthven. The original article I wrote can be found here.

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Born John William Polidori in September 1795, the creator of the earliest English vampire story actually trained as a physician, obtaining his medical degree from the University of Edinburgh at the age of nineteen. But his true wish was to be a writer, and with a view to realizing that dream, he took a post as personal physician to Lord Byron, a position that thrust him into the very center of the vanguard of literary romanticism. According to letters and diaries written by acquaintances, Polidori was apparently roundly disliked, but his lucky association with Byron would open up a wealth of opportunity and ensure his minor legacy.

Villa Deodati and the Haunted Summer

Like several other significant works of the period — most notably Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — Polidori’s vampire story had its genesis in the infamous “haunted summer” of 1816, when Lord Byron invited a handful of luminaries to spend time with him at his villa on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Polidori soon found himself in the company of the freethinking poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his soon-to-be wife Mary Godwin, along with Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, who was also Byron’s lover. The unconventional writers evidently took some delight in teasing Polidori for his uptight nature and literary ambitions; Polidori was so stung by the mockery that he challenged Shelley to a duel, which never came to fruition.

In the by now well-known scenario, Lord Byron challenged his guests to each write an original ghost story. Mary Godwin’s, of course, was later published as Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Shelley, Byron, and presumably Clairmont each wrote fragments of poems or stories, some of which were later fleshed out and published. Byron’s novel fragment, which he quickly lost interest in and abandoned, was picked up by Polidori, who used it as the basis of his own story, which he called “The Vampyre.” The vampiric character of Lord Ruthven, in fact, was very obviously based on Lord Byron himself.

The Vampyre Published…and Misattributed

Lord Byron had never felt that warmly toward Polidori — by his own admission, he found the doctor silly, pretentious, jealous and insecure, and once threatened to give him “a damned good thrashing.” Tensions between the two men came to a head shortly after the summer of 1816, and Byron dismissed Polidori from his post as physician.

The following spring, “The Vampyre” was published in the New Monthly Magazine, but without Polidori’s permission; worse, it was attributed to Lord Byron. Publisher Henry Coburn had evidently obtained the story through unknown channels and thought slapping Byron’s name on it would help sell more copies. Polidori protested and threatened to sue; Coburn paid him £30 and republished the story as “related by Lord Byron to Doctor Polidori,” but the damage had mostly been done, and Byron would be credited with writing “The Vampyre” for many years to come, even after he had published his original novel fragment, the one that Polidori had based his own story on.

The Vampyre Finds Fleeting Success

Perhaps due to rumors that Byron was its true author, or knowledge that the vampire in the story was based on him, “The Vampyre” was a rousing success, with five editions printed in 1819 alone. Critical opinions of the tale were a mixed bag; some derided it as “trashy,” while no less an authority than Goethe claimed it was the best thing Byron had ever written. Whatever its literary merits, though, the gothic tale of the vampiric and debauched Lord Ruthven traveling the continent with a young man named Aubrey in his evil thrall was unquestionably the very first English-language vampire tale, and hence the dark godfather to every fictional bloodsucker that followed — from Dracula to Lestat to Edward Cullen.

The Tragic End of John Polidori

Polidori continued his medical practice, using his literary notoriety as leverage to woo high-society patients. His ministrations were often fatal, however, and he later abandoned medicine to go into law. His writing impulse never left him; in 1819 he published a novel called Ernestus Berchtold which sold less than 200 copies, and two years later produced a Byronesque poem called The Fall of the Angels which likewise garnered scant attention. The thwarting of his ambitions led to a depressed gambling spree, and with debts spiraling out of control, Polidori committed suicide by taking prussic acid, a month shy of his 27th birthday.

Polidori has turned up as a character in several films and novels, many of which revolve around Byron, the Shelleys, and the summer of 1816. He is nearly always portrayed negatively, as a vain, talentless hanger-on with pretensions that outstripped his abilities. But his legacy lives on as the seed out of which all of modern vampire literature has sprouted.

Sources:

Davenport-Hines, Richard (1998). Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin. North Point Press. ISBN: 086547544.

Hoobler, Dorothy (2007). The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein. Back Bay Books. ISBN: 0316066400.