Growing up, I was one of the latter-day Monster Kids; those wizened, sage-like and height challenged children who cut his teeth early on watching WGN out of Chicago where, for the cost of a measly monthly cable bill (thanks, mom and dad!), the Universal Monsters of the 1930s and 40s kept this latchkey kid company and populated my gray matter with an entire galaxy of vampires, werewolves, mummies and reanimated corpses, brought back from the land of the dead by a usually well-meaning (some might even say “mad”) scientist.
It was the latter, in the form of the Universal Frankenstein series of films that particularly intrigued me early on. For as much as I opined Lawrence Talbot’s fate of forever walking the earth as a werewolf and thrilled to Bela Lugosi’s nocturnal rampage amongst the London upper-class as the undead Count Dracula in two classic films, my little pre-adolescent heart beat most sympathetically for Boris Karloff’s interpretation of author Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein Monster. In a lovely and lush trilogy of black and white haikus – Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein and The Son of Frankenstein – directors James Whale and Rowland V. Lee made me a believer in the ultimate underdog, the so-called “Monster” who never really wanted to terrorize anyone and who, in point of fact, just wanted to be loved and left alone; easier said than done when you’ve got every village in Europe pursuing you doggedly with an arsenal of torches, bloodhounds and shotguns. Which brings me to one of the biggest and earliest life lessons that I ever learned: Some things just aren’t ever that easy.
The exception to my above Charlie Brown-like dogma comes in the form of director Don Glut’s Tales of Frankenstein, which not only goes down smooth and easy but which also brings to life (reanimates, you might say. Woka Woka.) the gonzo and classy era of the Golden Age of Hollywood when a studio could non-ironically slap a title like Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman onto a new release and see it generate a veritable mint at the hallowed box office.
Tales of Frankenstein is an anthology film written and directed by a legendary gentleman who knows a thing or two about the Monster: Don Glut wrote the 1973 tome The Frankenstein Legend: A Tribute to Mary Shelley and Boris Karloff and The Frankenstein Archive: Essays on the Monster, the Myth, the Movies and More. With those credentials you would think that I would have had my radar in tune with this newest foray into Shelley territory, but t’would not be so: I grew up knowing of Don through his work on one of my all-time favorite comic book characters, Captain America. Although his run on Cap was but a brief and sweet interlude, it made a lasting impression upon my sensibilities, as did his short stint on another comic love of mine, Marvel’s The Invaders. Even as I raided the local Five and Dime’s comic book spinner rack for any and all Don Glut work I could get my grubby little mitts on, it escaped my purview that this journeyman writer was also inexorably linked to my other great love, Boris Karloff and the Frankenstein Monster. How did I, a bright eyed, towheaded pop culture nerd, miss the connection? While I’d like to point to my copious ingestion of Cherry Flavored Pez and Topps trading card bubble gum as the source of this transgression, the simple truth of the matter is that I just didn’t put the two together until a few years after the fact. Hey, even Babe Ruth – the Sultan of Swat – had a few off days.
Tales of Frankenstein is based off of Don’s own short story work with the Monster and his grasp and understanding about what still makes those old Universal Frankie pics play like Sid Catlett on a vigorous jazz solo is solid and beyond reproach. Simply put, Glut gets it. He’s a monster movie aficionado himself and he takes what still works from those old films – charm, outlandish and memorable characters, evocative lighting, over the top music and a respect for the story that does not pander to nor insult its viewers – and he makes it all sing. Watching these four vignettes unspool, I was tempted to get Universal on the phone and ask – nay, demand – that they scrap their silly “Dark Universe” plans and immediately get Don Glut on an express shuttle to their vaunted writer’s room so that we might get a good and proper restoration of one of their cinematic evergreens.
There’s also more of a hint of those great old Hammer Frankenstein productions, too. This is on full and gory-ous display in the first outing of the film, My Creation, My Beloved. A deformed ancestor of the original Doctor Frankenstein attempts to bring back to life his great love (a stunning Lilian Lev who mixes a potent cocktail of Susan Denberg and Elsa Lanchester to startling effect). Naturally, things go awry.
The sophomore installment of Tales of Frankenstein – Crawler from the Grave – forced me to break out my fifth grade lobster bib as Glut wisely cast longtime comic book pro and legend Len Wein as Helmut Frankenstein, a descendent of Victor Frankenstein who has a thing or two to teach a greedy grave robber (John Blythe Barrymore).
Madhouse of Death and Dr. Karnstein’s Creation round out this gem of a movie, the latter mashing up the Frankenstein tropes with that of the vampire to bloody good effect.
Tales of Frankenstein is a loving pastiche for all horror film fans who ever felt any affinity for one of filmdom’s greatest Outsiders, the Frankenstein Monster. Don Glut more than ably fulfills the promise of theologian Thomas Merton’s prescient rumination that “art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” The great discovery of Glut’s work is just how much the Frankenstein story still resounds over two hundred years after Mary Shelley dreamed into reality her haunting tale.