Frankenstein: How a Monster Became an Icon

In his essay collection The Rub of Time, novelist Martin Amis assembled his ultimate Tennis Monster inspired by Victor Frankenstein – the head of Thomas Muster, the torso of Boris Becker, the legs of Michael Chang, etc.

With the metaphor being extended to something as genteel as tennis, does the mystique of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, still speak to us 200 years after it was published?

That’s the thrust of the book, Frankenstein: How a Monster Became an Icon, an essay collection whose principals seek to contextualize a story which is just as relevant, if not much more so, as when it first appeared.

Today, we are completely immersed in an era of the transhumanism – extending life and transcending mortality, pushing ourselves further and further from death’s door. However, at the same time we are futilely convincing ourselves it’s quality, not quantity that matters most to a life best lived.

Dubbed “China’s Dr. Frankenstein” in some circles, He Jiankui claimed to have produced the world’s first genetically edited babies. Initially a bid to thwart the embryonic transmission of HIV, the researcher went a step further, skirting ethical boundaries and implanting genome-edited embryos into a woman’s womb. It’s ironic given the country’s high-profile attempt to limit the creation of human life by mandating a one-child policy. We also saw the debut of a robotic news anchor (a literal robot that is, many a TV personality has already appeared thus).

Of course, there’s the ubiquitous discussion of Frankenfoods/GMO fear-mongering and humorists continue to get comic mileage out of the monster’s physicality. In 2016, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Steve Benson depicted then-Presidential candidate Donald Trump as the lumbering creature carting off a woman dubbed, GOP; Insult-comic Jeff Ross asked Everybody Loves Raymond co-star Brad Garrett (who is 6’8) “how he got his head so far up Ray Romano’s ass with those bolts sticking out of his neck.” (Incidentally that series co-starred the late Peter Boyle, who played the monster in Young Frankenstein and Mel Brooks provides insights here in a chapter, “Frankenstein, Young and Old”)

Frankenstein’s creature, like Freddy Krueger, may have morphed into mainstream acceptance, but that doesn’t mean he still doesn’t have loads to tell us about how we are responsible for our moral choices, as science trudges on.

In the chapter “Frankenstein and Synthetic Life,” Sidney Perkowitz digs into the mythological roots of robotics – Talos, “a giant, bronze, manlike construction” that defended Crete by hurling boulders – and explores Freud’s “unheimlich” or uncanny, which perfectly describes how we feel repulsed by, yet oddly attracted to, a creature made in our own image. It was a feeling felt by many when Nadya Denise Doud-Suleman aka Octomom (A Gothic horror of a portmanteau if there ever was one) pushed reproductive assisted technology to the forefront by birthing octuplets a decade ago.

In “Who is a Monster, When?” Steven J. Kraftchick attempts to put a finger on nebulous definitions – how the word “monstrous” describes everything from egos to children. It’s a term as interpretation-resisting as Shelley’s novel itself, a “hideous” idea (as Shelley describes it in the preface), without referencing her creation. Kraftchick asks, “who, ultimately, is responsible for the horrific destruction and death that the story entails?” He says the lesson of Frankenstein is that “we do not have, cannot have, a ‘God’s eye’ viewing of ourselves or our worlds – when we presume to have attained such a view and act on I, all hell quite literally breaks loose.”

In “Frankenstein’s Creatures,” Carol Colatrella looks at how children’s toys and video games shape current understandings of the monster. These “share many of the themes that dominate adult books, TV shows, and films about aliens, zombies, vampires, and Frankenstein.” According to Colatrella, “playing with Frankenstein figures or games provides children…opportunities to continuously transform and adapt the…story.”

Sesame Street may have “normalized nonhuman figures,” but for this author and kids growing up in Canada, it was the oddball children’s show, The Hilarious House of Frightenstein which proved more impactful than the kid-Gothic counterpart, The Count (The legendary Vincent Price contributed to hundreds of episodes.) Colatrella goes on to discuss the wealth of children’s books offering up some version of Shelley’s myth, as well as live animations that did the same for the young and the young at heart (Frankenweenie).

In the chapter, “Frankenstein at the Boundaries of Life, Death and Film” Evan Lieberman parallels the fear response to the creature, to that of early cinema itself (the 1896 Lumiere brothers’ spectacle which had patrons fleeing for the exits) – and Boris Karloff struggling for speech in the iconic 1931 film, as experimentation with sound in motion pictures transmogrified from title card to sonic synchronicity.

The subject matter tackled in 13 chapters of this book is as broad as the various meanings attached to the creature in two centuries. A century hence (if we make it that far) another volume will surely be filled.

Christopher Lombardo is co-author of Death by Umbrella! The 100 Weirdest Horror Movie Weapons and co-hosts the Really Awful Movies Podcast.

C.H.U.D.

An urban scum outlier released in the height of the slasher boom, C.H.U.D. ain’t a total dud, bringing with it an embarrassment of riches when it comes to acting talent (John Heard, Daniel Stern, Christopher Curry, John Goodman, Jay Thomas).

Still, for most horror heads, this one is best known for its iconic poster, one of the all-time best in the genre, a throwback to what the movie really is: a 50s creature feature, except using a smelly, Bowery/Lower Manhattan milieu for gobs of atmosphere.

As chatty as any horror movie ever, C.H.U.D (aka, Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers) features George, a fashion photographer whose photojournalism focuses on the city’s down-and-outs. All the while, homeless people are going missing, something that has not gone unnoticed by a Soho soup kitchen worker, AJ (the wonderful Daniel Stern) who tries to tip off police.

Local NYPD finally gets involved, but only when a captain’s wife goes AWOL, and true to 50s sci fi form, there’s a stonewalling baddy in the form of a nuclear regulatory commissioner who knows more than he lets on.

C.H.U.D. plays upon the urban legend of something living in the New York City sewers a la Lewis Teagues/John Sayles’ wonderful Robert Forster-starrer, Alligator. However, it lacks the biting (sorry) humor and shocks of that one.

The “rubber monsters in a suit” are casually reminiscent of the The Creature from the Black Lagoon, crossed with the “lead demon” in Demons. And they’re pretty darn good. The improbably-named director, Douglas Cheek, keeps the beasts nicely hidden and wisely focuses on understatement and buildup.

For our money though, Street Trash is the king of all bumsploitation flicks, an audacious, grimy, disgusting (and highly memorable) flick, also set in derelict 80s NYC.

Still, C.H.U.D. has held up fairly well. It’s smarter and better-acted than it has a right to be. However, this subterranean horror isn’t done any favors with downtempo pacing.

***(out of 5)

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