I Was a Teenage Frankenstein/Teenage Frankenstein (1957) ***½
Of all the many monsters-and-teenagers movies American International Pictures cranked out in the late 1950’s, I think this one is my favorite. It’s fast-moving (by 50’s standards, anyway), cleverly written, and pleasingly lurid. It has an effective villain and fantastic monster makeup (again, by 50’s standards). And believe it or not, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (or just Teenage Frankenstein to you Brits) features by far the most faithful-to-the-novel screen characterization of the Frankenstein monster that had ever been attempted up to 1957. All that and what seems to be the first of the color endings that A.I.P. was so enamored of in those days, too! What more could you possibly ask for from a 50’s teen monster flick?
As is usually the case with these movies, we have here a distant descendant of the famous Baron Frankenstein, but in marked contrast to most of his fellows, this one has the balls to use his real last name! This Dr. Frankenstein (Whit Bissell, in a functional reprise of his earlier role in I Was a Teenage Werewolf) is a prominent medical researcher from England (note that Bissell doesn’t even bother trying to fake an accent) who has come to the United States to participate in a series of seminars on the hot new subject of limb and organ transplants. As befits a man of his lineage, Frankenstein’s thinking is far in advance of currently accepted medical orthodoxy, and he claims to be already capable of performing extraordinarily complex transplant operations, even with tissue that has long been dead. His colleagues at the university hospital where the seminars are being held are skeptical of his more extravagant claims, however, and the comments of one doctor in particular really get under Frankenstein’s skin. But Dr. F. is not the sort of man to be driven into a funk by such rejection; instead, the disbelief of his fellow surgeons galvanizes him into action, making him determined to prove the veracity of his exotic theories, and to prove it now.
But the work he envisions is too demanding for him alone. He will need at least a couple of highly skilled assistants, and his first choice for the job is an old friend and longtime collaborator named Dr. Karlton (Robert Burton, from The Slime People and Invasion of the Animal People). Karlton has mixed feelings about the project. On the one hand, if Frankenstein is right, he has an opportunity to be a part of the most important program of medical research of the 20th century. On the other hand, what Frankenstein is proposing will entail working at the far fringes of medical ethics at the very least, and though no details are ever given, the last time Karlton helped his friend with a project at those far fringes, they ended up crossing over them in what seems to have been a big way. Frankenstein has ways of compelling Karlton’s cooperation, however. First, Karlton’s involvement in those long ago experiments makes him particularly vulnerable to blackmail. And second, sheer luck allows Frankenstein to present Karlton with a fait accompli: on the way home from the hospital, the two doctors witness a horrific traffic accident, and the teenage driver of the more badly damaged vehicle dies by the time Frankenstein can get him to his home lab. (Presumably, it’s closer to the scene of the wreck than the hospital, and it’s certainly every bit as well equipped.) Now that he and Karlton are in possession of a seriously damaged but basically serviceable young body, why not use it as raw material for Frankenstein’s tissue-grafting experiments?
Frankenstein still needs one more accomplice, though— someone to help him deflect the attention of the outside world while he works. A man of his professional distinction is always getting calls from people, and he needs somebody to act as a gatekeeper, screening out all but the most urgent distractions, if his grand experiment is to be a success. He finds just such an accomplice in a talented and attractive nurse named Margaret (Phyllis Coates, from Panther Girl of the Kongo and the original Invasion U.S.A.). Not only is Margaret eager to work with a researcher of Frankenstein’s standing, she quite obviously has the hots for the man, and thus needs little persuasion to quit her job at the hospital and become his live-in assistant/receptionist/secretary/sex-toy. In fact she and Frankenstein are engaged to be married within days of her taking the job.
Now as I said, the body of the teenage driver is in pretty bad condition. His hands and legs are pretty well useless, and the dagger-like shards of the shattered windshield (no such thing as safety glass in 1957, you know) have deprived him of anything that might honestly be described as a face. Frankenstein and Karlton are clearly going to need to get replacement parts from somewhere. Frankenstein’s solution to the problem is to keep his eyes on the local newspapers, looking out for any stories about dead teenage boys, and after a week or two, he has a perfectly good set of extremities for his creature. (All the excess parts go to feed the alligator Frankenstein keeps in a tank under his basement lab.) It is now that the work begins in earnest, and before long, the dead teenager (Gary Conway, from The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent, who would revisit the role the next year in How to Make a Monster) is not merely alive again, but able to move about and even speak, though he apparently has no memory of his former life.
This is a far cry from the Frankenstein monsters played by Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., and Glenn Strange. No grunting and stumbling here, folks. In accordance with Shelley’s original characterization, the monster here is thoughtful, introspective, and philosophically inclined, and there’s nothing in the world he wants so much as human companionship. But again and again, Frankenstein refuses his requests to be let out to “go among people.” The doctor has two very good reasons for this, as a matter of fact: one of them is concern for the secrecy of his morally shady project, and the other one is hidden under the bandages that swathe the creature’s head. And when the monster begins badgering Frankenstein with exceptional vigor one afternoon, the doctor decides the time has come to let his creation in on a little secret. Grabbing a pair of scissors from a nearby table, Frankenstein hands the creature a mirror and cuts away the bandages. Our boy monster is one ugly son of a bitch. The character design for the monster really makes me wonder whether this film or Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein hit the theaters first. In both films, the monster is big and muscular, with stringy black hair, a bulging, obviously blind right eye, and a face that looks like it was run over by a lawn tractor. A.I.P.’s version is naturally both cheaper and ickier than Hammer’s, but the basic idea is the same, and I’d love to know whether both studios’ makeup artists arrived at it independently, or whether one was ripping off the other.
But even first-hand knowledge of his own ugliness fails to assuage the creature’s desire for human contact, and one day the young monster gets fed up with his situation, and takes matters into his own hands. When Frankenstein carelessly forgets to lock the door to the laboratory on his way out, his creation waits a short while, and then sneaks out to have a look at the world. It does not go well. Everyone he encounters runs screaming away from him, and worse yet, he accidentally kills a girl in her college dorm room while trying to make her stop shrieking. The monster finds it all very distressing— it turns out he has more real company locked down in the cellar. At least there, he gets to see and talk to his creator, Karlton, and occasionally Margaret.
Which brings us to the subject of Margaret and her deteriorating relationship with her boss/fiance. Frankenstein is so wrapped up in his work that he never has time for his bride-to-be, and she’s getting nearly as frustrated with her lot as the monster in the basement is with his. And most offensive to Margaret’s sensibilities is Frankenstein’s refusal to let her in on the secret of his experiments. This, after all, is supposed to be his life’s work, and since Margaret is supposed to be his life-partner, you might expect him to want to share it with her. Sure enough, shortly before the monster succumbs to his temptations, Margaret succumbs to her own, and has a copy made of Frankenstein’s lab key. She then lets herself in to look around, and finds the monster reposing in a morgue locker set into one of the walls. Maybe some things are better left unseen after all, huh?
Well, when Frankenstein finds out what his fiancee and monster have done, he goes a little haywire. Clearly, his secret has been severely compromised, and if he’s going to avoid taking heat for what he has done, he’s going to have to find a way to bring the situation back under his control. Margaret, the love of his life, is going to have to go, and the monster is going to need a new face. He arranges the disposal of his fiancee by telling the monster she wants to hurt him. Then, after the creature finishes with her (another gourmet meal for the alligator!), Frankenstein takes him out face-shopping at lover’s lane. The monster finds one he likes (its owner is played, conveniently enough, by Gary Conway as well), and with his creator’s blessing, brings it and its owner back to the lab for some cosmetic surgery. Now, with the monster apparently normal, Frankenstein sees his chance to return to England, where he can finish the job of educating and socializing his creature in safety. But some creative thinking is going to be necessary in order to get the monster through customs, and the result of that creative thinking might not be acceptable to the man-made boy. I mean, would you want to be taken apart and flown across the ocean hidden beneath the false bottoms of a bunch of shipping crates? Yeah, well neither does he, and that means real problems for Dr. Frankenstein.
I tell you, A.I.P. on a good day was a wonderful thing. Sure, they put out a lot of borderline-unwatchable crap, but every once in a while, they were able to pull it all together and create something fantastic. I Was a Teenage Frankenstein is an example of the studio at its best, combining tacky cheap thrills with a surprising amount of wit and intelligence to make a first-rate drive-in experience. Shelley’s theme of the cosmic injustice of the monster’s condition is presented here far more cogently than even in her own novel, and stands shoulder-to-shoulder in astonishing comfort with such longtime B-movie staples as man-eating alligators and disgusting peeping-tom monsters spying on hot chicks getting ready for bed. It’s an impressive accomplishment weaving those two strands together, and to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever done it better for so little money.