Gods and Monsters

Happy Hallowe’en.

I was watching The Bride of Frankenstein yesterday; appreciating the fact that James Whale invented the self-analysing comic horror film decades before Wes Craven thought it would be tremendously cute to have characters in a slasher film talk about the narrative rules of slasher films.

At one point, the insane, camp, gin-swigging Dr Pretorius (played by the ridiculously watchable Ernest Thesiger) shows Frankenstein (Colin Clive) his collection of creations: tiny people that Pretorius grew from cultures and… well, it’s pretty much indescribable.  Watch it for yourself.  If you’ve never seen it, you need to.

It isn’t explicitly said, but clearly both Pretorius and Frankenstein anticipate (the former with relish and the latter with fear) the breeding of a new race.  Pretorius, for all his campness and his disdain for every human female he meets, seems interested in the breeding potential of these creations of science.

Meanwhile, Frankenstein’s monster turns out to have survived the first film and, having learned to talk, expresses his demand for a “friend”… by which he is taken to mean a woman with whom he can mate, though he doesn’t express this desire himself. What the children of Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester would have looked like is odd enough to contemplate by itself, without imagining babies with cuboid heads and electrified, badger-striped hairdos.

It got me thinking about the origins of the novel Frankenstein.  I don’t mean all that stuff that’s supposed to have gone down at the Villa Diodati, which is depicted at the opening of Bride of Frankenstein as an arch costume drama, rather than the hazy blur of bullshitting and indolence and copping off that it probably was.  I mean the work and influence of Luigi Galvani, who suggested in 1791 that electricity was an innate property of animal life, and that it might even be the “vital force”… supposedly after noticing the legs of a dead frog kicking when he touched the nerves with his scapel during a lightning storm.  (I’m told he was searching for the testicles, having formed the theory that frogs kept them in their legs.)  Galvani’s conclusions about animal electricity were flawed and were superceded by Volta, but ‘galvanism’ caught on as an idea.  And as morbid, gothic entertainment.  Galvani’s nephew Giovanni Aldini became something of a hit, giving demonstrations of how dead bodies could be made to react to electrical charges.

In one famous incident in 1803, Aldini had the corpse of a just-hanged murderer, George Foster, brought from Newgate to the Royal College of Surgeons, where he electocuted the body, causing its jaw to twitch and one of its eyes to open.  When Aldini probed its rectum, the body is said to have arched and kicked and raised its fist as though in fury.  Well, you would, wouldn’t you?  This was one of many such experiments carried out by many scientists at the time.  There was another guy who claimed to have briefly reanimated some decapitated kittens. …

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