Friday, 5 November 2010

Film's first great horror film - 1910 - Frankenstein - J. Searle Dawley

            Unlike many of film’s early adaptations of literary works, the first cinematic adaptation of Frankenstein is the equal of its more famous successors. Rather than allowing the film’s limited reel time to limit its portrayal of Mary Shelley’s gothic novel, the film flourishes within the boundaries of its limitations. The filmmaker manages to translate the original text into the cinematic equivalent of a powerful Poe or Robert Louis Stevenson short story and concentrate the impact of the text’s fable.

          The film makes a bold departure from its source by giving the viewer the impression that the Monster may in fact be a figment of Frankenstein’s imagination. As the film draws to a close, this uncertainty compounds the tension of the film’s climactic moments. As the viewer is unsure of the Monster’s existence, our confusion transforms into excitement as Frankenstein grapples with his creation while his wife lays unconscious on the floor; we cannot be sure if he is wrestling with his conscience or actually fighting with his creation.

          One of the main reasons for the film’s power is its deliberate exploitation of the power of visual terror. Although Georges Mèliès consistently dabbled in the horror genre with his many incarnations of devils and monsters, they amused more than they frightened. The monster in Frankenstein, particularly when he is being created, is simultaneously grotesque and petrifying (particularly when it expands in Frankenstein’s cauldron (See image below)).     

            This groundbreaking horror film was presumed lost for close to half a century:
For many years, this film was believed to be a lost film. In 1963, a plot description (reprinted above) and stills were discovered published in the March 15, 1910 issue of an old Edison film catalog, The Edison Kinetogram.
In the early 1950s, a print of this film was purchased by a Wisconsin film collector, Alois F. Dettlaff, from his mother-in-law, who also collected films.He did not realize its rarity until many years later. Its existence was first revealed in the mid-1970s. Although somewhat deteriorated, the film was in viewable condition, complete with titles and tints as seen in 1910. Dettlaff had a 35 mm preservation copy made in the late 1970s. He also issued a DVD release of 1,000 copies.
BearManor Media released the public domain film in a restored edition on March 18, 2010, alongside with the novel Edison's Frankenstein, which was written by Frederick C. Wiebel, Jr.

            Although we must be greatly appreciative of the rediscovery of this landmark movie, we cannot help be saddened by the knowledge that many of the other great films of the era will remain lost forever.

            Interestingly, the film was also banned after its release:
This was the very first "creation" film. At the time, the religious zealots thought the film was making a mockery of God, so the film was banned very shortly after its release. After that, it was condemned to obscurity...

            The film employs the use of a mirror with great success. Cinema’s obsession with the complex relationship between the voyeur and his/her subject(s) really takes off with this film. In the film’s most powerful sequence of events, several characters appear in the mirror in quick succession. In the second of these images, Frankenstein sees the Monster appear in the mirror and is startled by his presence as his fiancé is in the next room (see image below).

            But after Frankenstein’s fiancé re-enters the room and he hurriedly attempts to lead her out of that same room, they are now trapped in the mirror’s frame as the Monster observes them from his hidden location (see image below).

            The mirror and the camera lens share many similar properties; the complex interplay between these two reflective instruments deepens the allegorical framework of Shelley’s original text. And as the film comes to its gripping conclusion, the mirror plays a crucial role in ‘defeating’ the Monster and implicating that it was in fact a manifestation of the darker recesses of Frankenstein’s imagination.

            This brilliant film demonstrates that early silent films are capable of both containing complex, allegorical narratives and frightening modern day audiences. 


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