Dark Designs: Tales of Mad Science
Science without limits. Madness without end.
All proceeds from the purchase of this ebook will be donated to Doctors Without Borders / Medicins Sans Frontieres.
This is a warning. What you are about to read violates the boundaries of imagination, in a world where science breeds and breathes without restraint. A world very much like our own.
Within these shadowy corridors you will discover characters seeking retribution, understanding, power, a second chance at life—human stories of undiscovered species, government secrets, the horrors of parenthood, adolescence and bullying, envisioned through a warped lens of megalomania, suffering, and blind hubris. Curious inventors dabble with portals to alternate worlds, overzealous scientists and precocious children toy with living beings, offer medical marvels, and pick away at the thin veil of reality.
You can run. You can look away. But don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Witness our Dark Designs.
David Cronenberg, infamous director and storyteller of body-horror movies such as The Fly (1986), Shivers (1975), and Videodrome (1983), once said, “Everybody’s a mad scientist, and life is their lab. We’re all trying to experiment to find a way to live, to solve problems, to fend off madness and chaos.” This statement of Cronenberg’s is a rather optimistic one. And not altogether inaccurate, we are after all trying to find ways to live in harmony and in doing so we must solve problems that arise to get there. But that’s not really the genesis of the purpose of mad scientist stories. The notion of “mad science” is self-explanatory, that there is something strange or “mad” in the unknown realities that surround us. Even today, quantum theorists are often seen as “mad” scientists, practitioners of metaphysics more than actual provable science. And in some ways, there’s some truth in that metaphysics and quantum mechanics often overlap, which brings us to one of the most exhilarating and equally terrifying aspects about science, that is, it’s never ending, always searching, constantly discovering something new, something previously unknown, beyond us. In part, our understanding of science; or more to point, our misunderstanding of science has become the inspiration over centuries for what has been deemed the quintessential “mad scientist.” Not for reasons given by Cronenberg above, that we are all in the same pursuit, but out of fear, fear bred from the unknown, and fear of what all these discovers, these advances, will bring us. And even more alarming, how far are we willing to go to achieve the impossible?
My first impression while surveying the history of “mad science” was that Victor Frankenstein, created by the imagination of a twenty-one-year-old Mary Shelley, was the first of the mad scientists to be conjured into the literary world. I was wrong. It was actually Dr. Faustus, written in 1604 by Christopher Marlowe, that should be credited as the first “mad scientist.” Dr. Faustus was perhaps more alchemical in nature than traditional science, but still the story serves as asking the proverbial question all mad scientist stories ask, “How far are we willing to go…?” Some of the more popular “mad scientists” who defied boundaries and terrified audiences with their audacity against “nature” include, Dr. Moreau, an H.G. Wells story penned in 1896, and Danforth & Dyer in “At the Mountains of Madness” by H. P. Lovecraft, published in 1931. These stories are typically told from the perspective of a layman looking into nightmarish worlds, boiled in a cauldron of obsession and forbidden knowledge. H.P. Lovecraft would go on to create a few more characters in this realm of unrestrained science with Dr. Herbert West, one of my personal favorites, and Charles Dexter Ward.
Growing up, the one “mad scientist” story that ignited my imagination and kept me glued to the edge of my seat was Steven Spielberg’s science-fiction epic Jurassic Park (1993). Even in my pubescent years, the memory still rings clear today, the duel realities of science, that in the wonder of watching a baby dino hatch or Dr. Grant’s first realization of what was going on as the Jeep drove through the part to the Visitor’s Center, first realizing that those massive tree trucks were moving and were not in fact trees, being held prisoner in a sort of child-like spell, and then suddenly seeing it all go wrong, demonstrated the dangers of unrestrained science, that even now the question of trust must be asked. Ian Malcolm, played by a black leather clad Jeff Goldblum, has one of the more illuminating statements in the film, a statement that has rung in the minds of audiences for over four-hundred years, when he says, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Today, “mad scientist” stories have for the most part found themselves kicked to the kid’s corner, in such books as Meet the Creeps or Franny K. Stein. Sadly, there isn’t much being offered in way of adult entertainment. This was the prime motivation for raising the question to my Shadow Work Publishing cohorts of collaborating on a mad scientist anthology. While science continues to evolve and new discoveries are being made every day, the question posed in 1604 still remains relevant today, “How far are we willing to go” in the pursuit of said discover what consequences, if any, will we face? We landed on the title, Dark Designs, more or less on the alluring sinister quality, but not just that, also, as our quote says, “Science without limits. Madness without end,” there is a certain amount of ambiguity regarding science, that without limits perhaps we could possibly go “too far,” and in reaching such limits, madness is sure to follow. Here, as you turn the page, you’ll find yourself in a world without limits, where science breeds and breathes without restraint. You’ll walk these corridors with characters seeking retribution, understanding, revenge, and perhaps for some a second chance on life. These are human stories through the spyglass of mad science, of undiscovered insects, government secrets, horrors of parenthood, adolescence, and bullying, about curious inventors dabbling in portals to alternate worlds, of ambitious biologists and overzealous children tinkering with things they probably shouldn’t, and stories that stretch our understanding of the boundaries of life.
From Shadow Work Publishing, and the sixteen authors of which contributed to this charity anthology for Doctors Without Borders, thank you and bid you welcome our Dark Designs: Tales of Mad Science.
You can get YOUR copy of Dark Designs: Tales of Mad Science for $0.99!!!
Creature Features in Review: The Fly (1986)
Welcome, my friends to the start of a brand new series here on Machine Mean. I’m more than ecstatic to present to you the first of many Creature Features that will be reviewed during this duration. And what better way to kick things off than with one of my favorite horror sub-subgenres, mad science. Looking over the landscape of Creature Feature movies, there seem to be plenty that fit the bill of mad science, including, I would argue, those radiated atomic age giant sized monsters. How could we not include those? Did Dr. Oppenheimer and the rest of the Manhattan Project not considered (if not to each other to be) mad scientists? Following a successful test of his bomb, Oppenheimer dedicated his life to restricting the use of such a device. His intellect pursued the impossible and when said impossible was achieved, he drew back in quiet revulsion. Mad science…and even creatures of the macabre have a tendency to show us the things we most fear. Considering the mad scientists of the atomic era, they created and let loose upon the world a weapon so powerful that it changed the global culture and set us into a new age. Most had their own motivations, no doubt about it, but I would be confident to assume a majority of those motivations were intellectually based. Pushing the boundaries, so to speak. Creature Feature movies come from a similar vein. Unresolved fears gleaming into a new dawn. Numerous what if scenarios. Of invaders. Of the future. Of what lurks in the basement or in the woods or under the bed or out in the swamps. And some relate to our unresolved fears within our own bodies…and our minds. David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) is a masterpiece of body horror, also known as venereal horror. Let’s take a closer look.
Here’s a synopsis of the film from the always wonderful IMDb:
“A brilliant but eccentric scientist begins to transform into a giant man/fly hybrid after one of his experiments goes horribly wrong.”
This IMDb synopsis isn’t wrong. It just feels horribly simplified, right? There’s so much more to say about The Fly. One could point out the romantic triangle between the “mad” scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) and his newly minted lover/journalist Veronica (Geena Davis) and her ex-lover/editor Stathis Borans (John Getz). One could also point out a possible allegory of puberty, as Seth undergoes “changes” in his body, pimples, and other oozing features while becoming obsessed with his physique and sexual intercourse. Or we could go with the basic plot of an eccentric scientist and his doomed experiment. But neither of those feels quite right, do they? No. Something deeper is going on.
Before we consider The Fly, we ought to consider the director. David Cronenberg, also known as the King of Venereal Horror, back in the 80s and late 70s, set in motion a series on what film nerds refer to now as organic-horror, biological horror, or simply body horror. Anything to do with the horror of the human anatomy. For Cronenberg, we can look to Dead Ringers, Videodrome, Scanners, Shivers, The Brood, eXistenZ, and Rabid that could arguably be counted toward his run on body horror themed films. Each one taking on a different aspect or story regarding our humanistic fears about our own bodies juxtaposed to our vulnerability to disease or technology or parasites. In The Fly, this fear seems to be centered around the fear of mind versus body. Fear of what our minds create, that is technology, doesn’t feel dominate, though it definitely plays a part in Cronenberg’s philosophy.
We cannot ignore it.
Seth Brundle admits during the first hour of the movie that he has extreme motion sickness and he feels that this is a crippling condition. He cannot travel very far without getting sick. So, motivated by this horror he feels handicaps him by isolating him, scientist Brundle sets out to create a teleportation device, so that he may beam from one point to another without ever getting sick. His endeavor works. He has invented and created a teleportation pod, or tele-pod. But there’s a catch. The machine cannot properly read or understand flesh. This failure is clearly and disgustingly seen in the teleportation of Baboon #1 as the poor monkey is turned inside out. The machine doesn’t understand flesh, just as the character Seth does not understand flesh. He works exclusively alone, isolated from even his peers until he can no longer tolerate being alone. As he says to Veronica, the reason why he sought her out in the first place was because he had been alone for too long, he desires, craves, lusts for human contact. In a way, this illustrates the drama taking place between mind and body. His mind wants to continue its intellectual pursuits, but the body demands human interaction and thus intervenes and creates obstacles in the path of his goals.
While the mind is presented as being purely objective, the body is thought of as being subjective. During the duration of the movie, these ideas of mind and body are turned inside out, just as the Baboon was, and exposed for the ugliness this philosophy can bring upon us. Ideas become twisted. Seth creates a machine to solve his motion sickness problem. Okay, but he’s alone and finds solace in journalist Veronica. His bodily craving is resolved, for now, until more fleshly desires present themselves when Veronica puts the moves on our bumbling scientist. Suddenly he understands the dilemma between mind and body due to his ignorance of body and correlates his discovery with the tele-pod machine. He then successfully transports Baboon #2. They celebrate. Unfortunately, Veronica has to, as she says, “scrape off the heel” of her shoe the problematic ex-lover/editor Borans. Unschooled in the ways of human interaction, let alone women, Seth believes his new girlfriend is cheating on him or whatever and gets drunk and decides to go through the pod himself. Abandoning mind for bodily created jealousy. Unknown to him, a fly joins him in the pod and away they go. The machine wasn’t programmed to account for two separate genetic codes and so decides on its own, or more likely a fallback program, to splice them together. Seth emerges from the other pod in a cloud of white smoke seemingly unharmed or changed, instead, he is glistening and muscular, perfection one might say of both mind and body…but as horror fans, we know all too well there are no such guarantees.
Something went wrong.
It is interesting how Cronenberg differed here from the original 1958 film. When scientist Andre Delambre (played by Al Hedison) emerges from his pod he is instantly changed. His head is that of a fly’s head and his once human hand is a mandible-like claw. Differing, in this 1986 adaptation, Seth Brundle emerges seemingly unchanged but then goes through a slow and grueling deformation of his flesh and eventually his mind too. At first, he denies what’s happening, as any good horror character will do. When Veronica realizes something is amiss and tries to make him realize he is different, Seth screams at her, “You’re afraid to dive into the plasma pool, aren’t you? You’re afraid to be destroyed and recreated, aren’t you? I’ll bet you think that you woke me up about the flesh, don’t you? But you only know society’s straight line about the flesh. You can’t penetrate beyond society’s sick, gray, fear of the flesh. Drink deep, or taste not the plasma spring! Y’see what I’m saying? And I’m not just talking about sex and penetration. I’m talking about penetration beyond the veil of the flesh! A deep penetrating dive into the plasma pool!”
The pacing of this film is magnificent. Shortly after the above scene, Seth witnesses the first of many parts of his body that begin to fall off. Slowly, with each stage of decomposition, which quickly is realized as a perverted form of evolution, his bodily-humanity is degraded, ruined, being transformed into something else. At first, Seth accepts this new discovery, jokingly referring to his medicine cabinet as a Brundle Museum of Natural History. But the more insect he becomes, the more he realizes his once beloved intellect will also slip away into the obscurity of a brutal body-dominate fly. This realization is made in one of the movies best lines when Seth asks Veronica is she “ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects… don’t have politics. They’re very… brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can’t trust the insect. I’d like to become the first… insect politician. Y’see, I’d like to, but… I’m afraid, uh… I’m saying… I’m saying I – I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over… and the insect is awake. I’m saying… I’ll hurt you if you stay.”
Seth quickly goes to work to try and resolve this transformation before he loses his mind to the bug. The machine analysis in an algorithm that he would have to splice two or more pure humans to reverse the insectoid growth. Devastated over Veronica’s departure, Seth discovers she is pregnant and chases her down when she seeks an abortion. Ina dream, Cronenberg himself plays the gynecologist, which is stoically brilliant. Seth, of course, crashes into the changing room and takes her away, imploring that she does not kill what remains of his humanity. She cannot and so he goes about his last-ditch attempt to reverse the progression of the insect with one of the best transformation effects ever conceived on screen as Brundle becomes a fully matured Brundlefly. The attempted abortion and the splicing algorithm give clues to this “other” possibility of resolving the conflict between mind and body. The mind can take action to destroy physical progression. Consider how people are outside of the movies. Why do people pursue cosmetic surgery? Why do we have organ transplants?
The Fly calls to our extremes. The war between our minds and body’s. Seth ignored his body, pursuing only the mind, to end up pursuing his physical desires over the discovery his intellect had made, only to realize all too late the need for an equal relationship between both mind and body. The Fly is definitely one of my favorite 1980s horror flicks and one of my favorite Cronenberg films. Great composition. Amazing practical effects. Top notch character acting. And gratifying gross-out scenes. But not just that, The Fly also has a deeper meaning that I find equally satisfying to all the blood and guts and giant humanoid insects, what would I be without my mind? What would I be without my body?
My Rating: 5/5
Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel, Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Apocalypse Meow. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, both Dwelling and Emerging and Conceiving (coming soon), are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can keep up with Thomas and all his strange books by joining his author newsletter, at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.
Creature Features in Review: COMING SOON!!!
Greetings folks! Ladies and gentlemen. Boys and girls. As we begin this new year it is my great pleasure to announce the start of a brand new “In Review” series. Creature Features…beloved by many, loathed by some, irrefutable masterpieces that tell a tale of where the world is during each era of release. From the nuclear wastelands of Hiroshima in Godzilla and the radiated test sights in Them! to the hideous shadows in swamps and space fiends coming to terrorize quiet small town America in Critters and Swamp Thing to the worlds of mad science and mythology to humanoids and mutations, Creature Feature films have been at every turn in pop culture. Spanning decades, here at Machine Mean, thanks to our mob of talented and twisted guest writers, will bring to you beginning this Thursday and running until December, on every Thursday a Creature Feature in Review. Set your clocks and mark your calendars.
The fun begins this Thursday on Jan 5, 2017.
Follow the series on Twitter at #MonsterThursday
The Black Scorpion (1957)
Narrator: For centuries, the prayers of Mexico’s peasants have been their only shield against the devastating furies that have wrecked their homes and destroyed their lives. And so today, again they kneel, terrified and helpless, as a new volcano is created by the mysterious and rebellious forces of nature. The Earth has split a thousand times. Whole acres of rich farmlands have cracked and dropped from sight. And millions of tons of molten lava are roaring down the slopes, in a quake recorded on the seismograph of the University of Mexico as the most violent of modern times. To the benighted citizenry of this remote countryside, the most alarming aspect of the phenomenon is the fact that its unabated hourly growth is without precedence, having reached a towering height of nine thousand feet within a few days. And with each added foot, it spreads its evil onslaught into a wider circumference. But what is now most feared is that rescue work will be severely hampered by the hazardous inaccessibility of the terrain.
As we enter into The Black Scorpion, we’re greeted with the above narration, giving no clues to the future horror in which we will soon behold. The premise is basic and strangely different from a majority of sci-fi movies during this very Cold era. A volcano erupts in a little hamlet near Mexico City and the local villagers and animals, mostly cattle, are vanishing. The corpses that have been found are infected with a strange wound and a puzzling poison, biological, natural, and otherworldly found within their bloodstream.
As the story progresses, American geologist Hank Scott, played by well-known sci-fi actor Richard Denning (who looks a hell-of-a-lot like Kenneth Tobey from The Thing from Another World), and his local partner Dr. Artur Ramos (Carlos Rivas), travel to the sight of the temperamental volcano to conduct research and investigate why the sleeping giant has decided to wake. Their investigations lead them into an odd series of findings that eventually reveal the true source of the disappearances of locals and cattle. On their initial venture, they stumble upon a small pueblo that has been completely decimated. They find only one survivor, an infant. The only other person the duo happen upon is the missing constable, eyes frozen in terror and an eerie puncture wound on the back of his neck.
Team Hank then travel to San Lorenzo, which seems nearly overrun with panicked villagers who believe the disappearances and the destruction of their homes are the cause of a demon bull. Hank and Artur seem un-phased by the frenzy or by Major Cosio’s pleading for them to remain in San Lorenzo, not for the safety of the scientists, but so that if something were to happen to them, the Mexican army would not be forced to waste their time in a rescue mission instead of working where they are needed more, with the scared and frightened villagers. Hank simply laughs and continues on with his expedition, which to me seemed odd. They haven’t specified if he was there to investigate the vanishing people and cattle, only that they were there to survey and study the volcano.
Well, this wouldn’t be a quasi-American 1950s sci-fi movie without at least one damsel in distress. For this role, we’re given the lovely Sunset Boulevard showgirl, Playboy Playmate (1958) Mara Corday who plays cattle ranch owner Teresa Alvarez. No stranger to cult sci-fi movies, Mara has been in a few well-known classics, including Tarantula, The Giant Claw, and a number of spaghetti westerns, such as A Day of Fury and The Man from Bitter Ridge, to name a few. Teresa is thrown from her white horse and as one might expect, Hank comes to her rescue. The two seem to fall in love at first sight (barf) and are invited back to her ranch for…well, more than tea I imagine. Before venturing off, Dr. Artur discovers a strange volcanic rock and takes it back with them to the ranch.
At this point, if you’re still watching the film, you might be wondering, where are the giant bugs? And I would agree with you because this is what I was gripping about when I screened the movie late last night. Everything thus far has been “setup, setup, setup,” with little to no release. We’re given a little tease at the beginning, an eerie ringing off screen, but nothing satiable. Don’t worry. The movie is about to pick up the pace.
At the ranch, while Hank and Teresa nauseously flirt, Dr. Artur, after splitting open the rock, discovers what he originally thought to be a fossilized scorpion, is actually alive and scurrying about on the pool table. Here we can almost feel the mood of the film change, slightly. How can a scorpion survive being capsulated in a rock inside a volcano? It doesn’t make sense. It breaks the laws of nature as we know it. Soon after, Teresa makes contact with her phone repairmen who are suddenly attacked by the true villains of all these bizarre disappearances of people and cattle. Giant black scorpions strike and kill the repair men. Special effects guru Willis O’Brien, who created the stop-motion effects for the original King Kong, gave his talents to the creature of these creatures. And let me say, here and now, without his work, this movie would have absolutely flopped.
Well, for many reasons actually. The script was the oddest mod podge of traditional ‘50s sci-fi (think Atomic-age, mad science), western, horror, and a mix (rip off) of Them! and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Most of the acting was great, but there were cringe worthy moments when you’re going, “Did they really just say that?” Case in point, when Hank and Artur are with a local laboratory scientist, Dr. Velazco, the very “mad” looking fellow asks his assistant for alcohol, distilled water, salt solution, and tequila before conducting his experiment on the poison he found in the blood system of one of the found victims of the scorpions. Hank asks, “Well, the alcohol, the distilled water, the salt solution – I can understand that, but what’s the tequila for?” And, right on cue, the good doctor says, “Well, in your country I believe they call it a coffee break” (enter drum roll here).
The mood of the movie is hard to place. Something strange is going on in the story. People are being horrifyingly eaten alive by giant freaking scorpions. Whole towns are vanishing. Cattle are being devoured. And when you see the scorpions on screen, it is insanely terrifying. O’Brien really did a phenomenal job. Stop-motion has certain qualia about it that get under my skin, especially when used with horror. But the cast seems nonchalant about it all. Hank and Artur venture into the subterranean realm of these beasts, discovering a variety of forgotten species, a very Jules Verne Journey to the Center of the Earth type place, made up mostly of only insects, making it even creepier. But still, these scientists don’t seem all that scared. They’re cool. Too cool.
The ending was even more scandalous. After discovering that the all the creatures were not destroyed with the cave-in, they watch as the “granddaddy” scorpion straight up murders the smaller scorpions, making him king scorpion, as if he wasn’t already. The witty humans lure the uber-giant scorpion into an arena, away from civilians. While the Mexican army batters the beast with tanks and gunfire, Hank manages to finish it off by using an electric cable attached to a spear, of which he somehow was able to thrust into the scorpion’s throat, it’s only vulnerable spot. Finally, electrocuted, the monster is slain.
As the scorpion lays there, smoldering, Hank begins to walk away. Artur and Velasco beckon him to stop so that they can conduct research on the creature. And, I shit you not, in more or fewer words, Hank takes the voluptuous Teresa across her hips and smiles, “I’ve got my own research to do,” or something like that, and the two rush away for what we assume to be…well…you know, while the remaining cast and crew grin in that stupid way people did back in the day when something funny was said.
Okay, my tone is probably giving away more of my feeling of the film then needs warranting. And yes, mentioning again the fantastic work of special effects master Willis O’Brien, and how the scorpions on screen really were disturbing, especially that scene with the phone repairmen, truly horrifying. The rest of the movie though seemed short on talent. I’m not saying it was the fault of the actors, most were really good, despite laughing to myself as it seems a habit of Hollywood to cast Anglo-American in roles that ought to belong to someone else. Also, the use of the ringing effect with the scorpions was (lets no dance around it) a total rip off of Them! Not to mention the whole idea of a prehistoric species surviving and returning to the present day is very reminiscent of The Gillman movies.
The upside to all these failings eventually leads the movie to be featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 back in the early 1990s. So…there’s that. Overall, The Black Scorpion is mildly entertaining. Not the best of what the ‘50s had to offer in sci-fi; not the worst either.
My Rating: 3/5
Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character-driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel, Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Lanmò. His paranormal-thriller series, The Subdue Books, including Dwelling, Emerging, and Conceiving, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he does reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can check out his work on the altar of Amazon here.
Before you go, Thomas has a new book out he’d like to mention. Conceiving (Subdue Book 3) will release on 11/29. Preorders are available now on Amazon for those looking for eBooks. Paperbacks coming soon. If you haven’t read Subdue Books 1 & 2 (Dwelling and Emerging), no problem. While sure, this news may bring a tear to the author’s eye, he has ensured us that new readers can follow the story easily without having read Dwelling or Emerging. You can preorder YOUR copy of Conceiving here.
Universal Monsters in Review: The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
Just when you think you’ve seen all Universal has to offer in the monster department, when perhaps you believe all that remains are nothing but phoned-in poor imitations of the forebearers, there comes a movie that pleasantly surprises. Nothing brings me more joy than to admit how wrong I am…at least when it comes to movies. My disposition or assumption (I should say) is due to the lack luster attempt of the previous film, The Son of Frankenstein. I know. I know. How can I say such a thing? Well, its true. Despite the charismatic lead of Boris Karloff as the monster and one of the more tantalizing roles for Bela Lugosi as Igor, the story and direction seemed flat and untangle and the motivations felt totally absurd, especially for the creature and his resurrection. Karloff had evolved the monster in Bride of Frankenstein to a talking, understanding, wanting thing, only to be thrown back into the pit of mindless wanderer/murderer in the sequel. And you can tell on screen how much Karloff was done with the role. He’d taken it as far as he could. After that, what can you do but walk away? And so he did. Let me say, quickly, before I eat up more time here, that I adore Karloff. His signature role will always be the Creature/Monster, the unwanted child of Baron Frankenstein; however, with that said, I was equally impressed with Lon Chaney Jr.’s role as the Creature. Despite being tethered to the flat-lined story of Son of Frankenstein, you can feel his excitement in having the opportunity at playing the Monster. And Bela…oh my. It may be blasphemy to say this, but I think he makes a better Igor than he did as Dracula. Before you start igniting those torches and sharpening your pitchforks, let me say before I hand over this review to our esteemed and more talented guest author, I absolutely loved Ghost of Frankenstein. The acting was top notch. The story made tangible sense. And the plot had deeper meanings than just the typical phone-in message we’ve been getting with other Universal monster sequels. Okay…I’ve said far too much probably! Without further delay, let’s see what our guest has to say about The Ghost of Frankenstein.
THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN
By: David Sgalambro
Just when you believed the “Frankenstein” Monster had truly perished in the boiling sulfur pit, at the end of the third film based on Mary Shelly’s beloved novel, he and his creators spirit both return in the fourth installment of the series titled The Ghost of Frankenstein.
The film was released in 1942 by the infamous monster makers, Universal Studios and directed by Erle C. Kenton. The movie has the signature black and white shadowy feel from start to finish, but the drastic change from its previous predecessors is that Lon Chaney Jr. (known the year prior as The Wolfman) replaces Boris Karloff as the horrifying monster. We once again see the return of the maniacal loner Ygor, played by Bela Lugosi who reprises one of his finest roles, and the incredible talent of Make-Up Artist Jack P. Pierce providing all the fun ghoulish disguises.
I personally am a big fan of all the Frankenstein movies (the first always being my favorite) so the chance for the monster’s story to continue is more than welcomed by me and especially coming from the masters, Universal Studios. Just like all their pictures, I can get visually lost in this one as well. All the scenes ranging from the old quaint village to the Frankenstein laboratory, the film holds you firmly with its intriguing backgrounds and its petrified motionless landscapes.
All these classic monster movies were a huge part of my childhood that I carried over into my adult life because in my eyes, they are always a wonderful reminiscing treat to watch. I would rank The Ghost of Frankenstein right in the order that the series was numerically released, placing it fourth, as my favorite Universal Studios Frankenstein movie (excluding the incredible & hilarious masterpiece Abbott & Costello Meets Frankenstein).
A group of angry villagers are once again complaining to the town’s mayor that the Frankenstein name has a curse upon them. With destructive intent, they return to the infamous castle only to find an unfriendly Ygor (played once again by Bela Lugosi). With deadly explosives, they think they killed two birds with one stone, but unknowingly they awoke and unleashed the murderous Monster from the castles’ now cracked and exposed dried sulfur pit. Igor is thrilled to be reunited with his old friend and swears to find the second son of his creator Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein (played by actor Cedric Hardwicke) who specializes in Diseases of the Mind, and convince him to bring back the strength to his father’s creation.
As the film progresses forward we are introduced to Dr. Frankenstein’s two laboratory assistants Dr. Kettering (played by Barton Yarborough) and Dr. Theodore Bohmer (played by Lionel Atwill) who along with the great doctor, have just successfully removed, repaired and replaced a damaged brain from a patient’s skull. Next we meet Dr. Frankenstein’s daughter Elsa (played by Evelyn Ankers who was also in The Wolfman) and her boyfriend prosecutor Erik Ernst (played by Ralph Bellamy) whose job is to basically keep the angry villagers at bay.
There are a few touching moments in this film (just like every Frankenstein film thus far) that deserves an honorable mention which included a child by the name of Cloestine Hussman (played by Janet Ann Gallow). We once again see a subtle side of the creature as he comes to her aid and rescues her ball, but unfortunately kills two villagers in the process (that’s just poor Frankie’s luck). The big guy is apprehended but of course breaks free and escapes with the help of his buddy Ygor. They show back up at the Frankenstein residence and of course chaos erupts with Dr. Kettering being the unfortunate victim.
The title and the premise of the movie happens midway through the film when a ghostly apparition of Dr. Frankenstein’s father (also played by Cedric Hardwicke, but in an elderly state).appears and gives him advice with regard to saving his creation by transplanting the deceased Dr. Kettering’s brain into the skull of the monster.
With beloved inspiration from the past, Dr. Frankenstein is set on a new path and calls in the aid from his last living assistant Dr. Bohmer. The sudden ruckus of the laboratory brings the attention of Ygor to the lab who suddenly joins in on the fun. Once he hears the details of the operation, he begs the Doctor to use his brain instead, but was quickly denied. A later secret conversation between Ygor and Dr, Bohmer leaves the films promising ending now horrifically speculative.
At one point the Monster gets a full explanation about his upcoming brain transplant operation and decides to leave the Frankenstein residence. He walks back to town and kidnaps little Cloestein with intentions of wanting the Doctor to use her brain in the transplant instead. With a little convincing, the child is returned into the arms of Elsa and the evening’s normal procedures will move forward as planned. Hours before Dr. Frankenstein’s operation, Dr. Bohmer upheld his end of the verbal contract he had made with Ygor and removed his brain. Working solely, he ultimately presents Ludwig with Igor’s contribution.
The operation was a success but left us with a comedic image of Lon Chaney Jr. lying down with a huge bandage upon his monstrous head. The new Lugosi/ Chaney twist to the story and the whole build up to the end is somewhat brilliant, with the results now pending by the assistant’s underhanded scheme. I personally thought the idea was perfect for the film, giving the audiences exactly what they wanted back then … a shock!
The film then plays out that two weeks have passed before the villagers once again storm the Frankenstein residence demanding answers about Cloestein Hussman and Dr. Kettering disappearances and their unbelievable alibis. They send in Erik Ernst first giving the good doctor a chance to explain his intentions for the operation on a more calm and intelligent level. He states that he finally made amends for his family’s dark past and that the monster now has the brain of Dr. Kettering instead, and that all the problems for the villagers were solved.
He brings the prosecutor into the room where the Monster had been hiding, and for the first time since the operation, he speaks to the Monster and after a long pause from the giant … The Doctor was shocked when he heard …??? … Igor’s voice behind his father’s infamous creation. Definitely a great highlight in the film as Lon Chaney Jr. does his best lip-sync job, mimicking Bela Lugosi’s brutal and demanding lines.
The movie’s dramatic finale begins with the anxious angry towns’ people busting down Frankenstein’s front door and entering the residence in an uncontrollable rage. They are able to quickly get little Cloestein out safely, but some of them are quickly subdued by wall vents that release a knockout gas that the doctor had installed in case of violent patients.
The now Ygor/Monster, Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Bohmer are back in the laboratory when all of a sudden the Igor/monster suddenly goes blind. He reaches out and grabs Dr. Bohmer demanding an explanation when Dr. Frankenstein comes forth and tells the reason for the failure. He says that the Monster and Dr. Kettering had the same type blood, but not the same as Igor’s, which caused the brain to react incorrectly with the sensory nerves.
The now blind Ygor/Monster grabs Dr. Bohmer and begins blaming him for the tragic results from the botched brain transplant. Then with his temper flaring, the Ygor/Monster pushes the doctor into a large piece of laboratory equipment which instantly electrocutes him to death. The now blind giant is left stumbling around the laboratory and begins clumsily knocking over everything which sets the place ablaze. The final scenes show the Frankenstein Monster engulfed in flames and sporting a hideous melting face, which I’m sure made the audiences scream. Then they show the helpless monster becoming trapped under beams of burning rubble, as the large residence begins collapsing around him.
Surprisingly the movie never goes back to Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein character after his medical speech to Dr. Bohmer and the Ygor/Monster, so I am going to assume that he also met his demise by the unruly fire. But luckily, the majority of the town’s people managed to escape from the burning home along with Elsa and Erik, who wind up walking off into a dark cloudy “sunset-ish” type night and ending the classic film on a somewhat happy note.
My Overall Review:
Like most of the Universal Studios monster movies, what’s not to love about them? Yes some are better than others, but every single one of them captures a moment in time where a film can just be scary based on its premise, musical score and overall feel. Just because we are now four movies into the Frankenstein saga doesn’t mean there’s still not an intriguing tale left to be told. I once again congratulate the studio for coming up with a brilliant and sinister idea to keep the franchise alive. I felt the role of the monster was played a bit over the top at times by Lon Chaney Jr., but he was still able to incorporate a level of fear into us as the abnormal creation. Bela Lugosi on the other hand definitely nailed another monumental part in these ageless classics as the one and only suffering Ygor.
The only complaint I have about the film is that Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein is probably the most boring (mad) doctor in all of the Universal Monster films. I’ll assume the studio writers probably went with the more subtle approach to the story, being he was the second son of the lunatic creator, but actor Cedric Hardwicke practically performed a lobotomy on me with his dullness.
But between loving the unexpected ending, featuring the lip-syncing dialogue from the Ygor/Monster and the overall feel of another ageless B&W Universal Studios classic monster movie, I still recommend this film to everyone of all ages. My advice is start from the beginning and watch them all in the chronological order they were made in, to achieve your best Frankenstein viewing experience.
Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars.
DAVID SGALAMBRO is a horror writer at J. Ellington Ashton Press and a contributing Writer at Resident Rock Star Magazine. He was born in New York, but spent the majority of his life sweltering down in Florida. Growing up, he was obsessed with every 1960’s Monster magazine on the newsstand (He still has hundreds of them that he can’t bear to part with ….ever) and any Horror movie his eyes could watch (He blames some of his lunacy upon seeing the original Night of the Living Dead at the age of nine). His continuous love for the genre has kept him in movie theaters throughout his life indulging in all of the decade’s bloodiest moments, but not up until recently has he tapped into his own dark inner voice as a writer, and brought forth his compelling debut novel published by J. Ellington Ashton Press titled NED. It’s his first attempt at the literary game and he credits his love of Horror for its terrifying content. David is currently working on his second novel which once again explores the darkest depths of his maniacal mind for inspiration and creativity. David’s other current literary escape is as a contributing writer for a music publication called Resident Rock Star magazine out of Colorado. With them he gets the freedom to write about what’s happening in the current music scene pertaining to his own personal taste, Heavy Metal.
In David’s own words, “I would would like thank Thomas S. Flowers for asking me to be one of his reviewers on this very important and very cool webpage. I am also honored to find myself on a list that includes such amazing and talented authors in the literary world of Horror. And as always…. Stay Brutal !!! – David Sgalambro.
Universal Monsters in Review: Abbot & Costello Meet The Invisible Man (1951)
Vaudeville comedy has a certain kind of charm. An allure that brings in audiences for a quick laugh. An appeal developed by legendary talents, such as The Three Stooges, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd, to name a few of the pillars that made up the vaudeville slap-stick house. For Abbot & Costello, their era of fame started in 1940, with One Night in the Tropics, and ended with Dance with Me, Henry, in 1956. Lou Costello, the bumbling “dim-wit” of the duo, would eventually pass away in 1959, leaving Bud Abbot, the “straight man” of the pair, searching for a new partner in Candy Candido, but eventually calling it quits because, “No one could ever live up to Lou.” Bud passed away in 1974. For me, I think the 1940s is really when the duo shinned the brightest. It was an era of heighten stress due to the war in the Pacific and in Europe. War time audiences were looking for distractions from the woes of loved ones deployed and of uncertain outcomes in the development of world powers. Our featured film for this review is Lou and Buds second to last Universal Monster flick, released in 1951, and you can begin to see the struggle of defining their roles in a new era. The movie itself plays out as part mad science, part detective/noir, part boxing, and part loony tunes. As our honor guest reviewer has pointed out in his review below, there moments of genuine entertainment, but for the most part, the film was dragged out and ultimately boring. Well, I shall not delay any longer, lets see what our guest writer has to say.
Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man
By: Lewis Duncan
I have to admit, the Abbot and Costello films were never something I went out of my way to watch or indeed find copies of in recent years. They linger in my memory, part of my childhood, part of growing up and watching whatever the grown-ups were watching. In our house, it was either Westerns or War films, both which I hated until I discovered Clint Eastwood. Black and white films were to be snubbed as old and boring. It wasn’t until I discovered the genius of the Marx Brothers that I gave black and white a chance. I think it was my Granny’s fault. She used to eat them up. I remember her doing the ironing in the living room with the television blaring on a wet Saturday afternoon. I would be on the sofa reading a Beano or playing with Star Wars figure and these great brays of laughter would echo around the room. It was the television. Something on there had got her going. I was intrigued.
The Marx brothers made me laugh out loud and although it wasn’t until my teens that I appreciated the genius timing of Groucho’s gags and the on-screen chemistry between the brothers, I still needed to see everything they had done. Thankfully my uncle had just purchased a VHS video recorder and would rent various video tapes at the weekend. One of those tapes was ‘Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein’. I can remember enjoying it without knowing what I know now and how it featured some of the greatest names in cinematic history. Looking back, I really enjoyed watching it but don’t ask me to tell you the plot. Kids don’t do plot. They do slapstick and action and Bud Abbot and Lou Costello did it perfectly.
Having been asked to write a review of a film I was given a list of possibles. I chose ‘Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man’ for one reason and one reason only. I had never seen the film. I had heard of it but I had never actually watched the thing. Also, I’ve never reviewed a damn thing in my life apart from a few lines here and there on Amazon about books I’ve read so bare with me.
The title itself suggests horror but we know it’s not going to be an all-out horror flick is it? No, of course not and to be honest there isn’t any horror in the film whatsoever. It’s a comedy, it’s a vehicle for Lou Costello and Bud Abbot to showcase their vaudeville skills and put them on the big screen and they do it perfectly. Don’t they always?
Since agreeing to review this, I’ve sat down with the laptop, loaded up the film and ate some crisps and drank some soft drinks, clear head required and I must say each time I’ve watched the movie it has been as enjoyable as the first. Even that Universal music during the opening credits gets me going. Big old Earth spinning around is a definite cue to go grab some nibbles because you know you’re in for a treat, you’re in for a quality hour and a half’s entertainment. They just do it right.
So here we go, Lou Costello, or Lou Francis as he is called in the movie, is skipping, tripping and dancing up to graduate from Detective School, misses the chair and falls on his arse. The start of it. Lou is informed by his partner, the very brilliant straight guy of the duo, Bud Abbot, that he slipped them twenty bucks to let him graduate. I think this is the first time of many that Lou looks directly at the camera. I have my doubts about that though. It’s a fun thing to do in a film and an fourth wall effect I love but I sometimes wonder if Lou actually relies on prompts from off-screen. I guess we’ll never really know.
Anyway, the unlikely detective duo are in their office when the boxer, Tommy Nelson walks in, all cagey like and makes a phone call. It’s Lou that recognizes who he is. Bud is still in the dark. That old straight guy/fun guy thing really working full speed.
Tommy needs to go to the Doc’s place and ends up getting injected with invisibility serum. He needs the comedy duo to help find out who murdered his manager, a murder in which he has been convicted of. They agree and drive him to meet Dr. Phillip Gray, the posh doc played brilliantly by Gavin Muir. His accent is just sublime. I just wish he was in the film more.
The Doc refuses, the cops arrive, and Tommy takes the serum on his own. It doesn’t work straight away but it eventually does when he is alone with Lou and the handshake scene is priceless. It’s the first glimpse of how the invisibility effects are going to pan out. They work, there is no denying that. I don’t think there is one moment throughout the film that features the invisible man that you think, yeah, I know how they did that or I can see the strings. It doesn’t happen. I won’t list them here but each invisible man sequence is perfectly done and when you watch it you will agree. Be it spaghetti or playing cards.
A character that has to be mentioned is the detective played by William Frawley. His lines are sharp, delivered well and his frustration with Lou is just class. He sends him to a psychiatrist and Lou ends up hypnotizing everyone he comes across in a scene which includes a reference to a nursery rhyme about mice running up a clock. Again, I don’t want to give much away but it’s funny as hell.
This is where the film falls into two segments, the build-up to the big fight and the fight itself. We find Lou and Bud in a fancy restaurant with Tommy (invisible) at the table. They order food and the food scenes are the funniest and best scenes in the whole film. It is also the first time we see that Tommy might be starting to lose his mind a little. He gets this huge ego thing going and Lou and Bud try to keep him cool. It doesn’t work and all hell breaks loose in the restaurant, resulting in Tommy getting knocked out by some revolving doors. They get him back to the Doctors. Tommy is full of remorse, well acted by Arthur Franz who is a constant star throughout the film. A straight talking guy that compliments Lou and Buds slapstick brilliance.
Here we go then, fight night. You know what’s going to happen. Fight scenes will ensue, Lou Costello will camp it up and bounce about the ring like a fool but it will entertain you, it will make you smirk, maybe not laugh, but smirk and the bad guys will get their just reward. I can’t be bothered detailing all the scenes and quotes that matter, there’s no point. If you want to watch it then do so. I recommend that you do.
I’d like to say one final thing about this film, Abbot and Costello Meet The Invisible Man, this is not a horror movie, it’s not even a comedy. It does entertain, it has those old moments, those, ‘Why, I outta…’ moments, but that’s standard with an Abbot and Costello film. You know what to expect. Did I enjoy it? Yeah, of course, I did but I’m not going out of my way to talk it up like a lot of folks do. It is what it is. I’m a fan but if I had the choice of spending my Saturday afternoons watching this or a Marx brothers film, I would go all out Groucho. That’s just me. I like horror and this isn’t. I like comedy and this is dated. Worth a watch on a rainy Saturday afternoon if you have nothing else to be doing but don’t go out of your way to check it out. It is what it is. Too much film on a really slim plot.
My rating: 3/5
Lewis Duncan is an up and coming writer and graphic artist. You can find his work on numerous book covers recently released this year, including books by Dawn Cano, Duncan Ralston, and myself (Thomas S. Flowers). He also has upcoming projects with the likes of Kit Power and Rich Hawkins. Some of Lewis’s publishing work includes Violent Delights, in which he co-wrote with Dawn Cano. He is an avid reader and supporter of fellow indie writers. His artwork is stylized in a retro, space-age grunge, 70s grindhouse. You can follow Lewis on Facebook to keep up with all his latest work.
Universal Monsters in Review: Revenge of the Creature (1955)
The safe word today is, science runs amok! A familiar theme with Universal Monsters. And come to think about it, nearly all of the monsters, at one point or another, have been tethered to mad science. Even Dracula, who in Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein, ole Draco mixes himself up in some strange business with bolts and laboratories, in an attempt to resurrect the infamous monster in his own image. And lets not forget the amazing Werewolf of London, to which the werewolf curse is passed on to a botanist who then attempts to use science to cure himself. The main theme people typically walk away with is that science never solves anything, but that doesnt sound right, does it? No, science in itself is not the enemy, nor is nature singularly the enemy either. Maybe we can look from the perspective of the characters, and with those characters, sure, nothing ever seems to go right. Considering, if science is by definition man’s way of understanding nature and the world around him, mankind sure seems to always blunder any attempt to understand his world. The more these characters force to understand nature, the more we get the impression that maybe there are some things we shouldn’t know. Last night, during my first screening of Revenge of the Creature, the running thought in head during the duration of the film was basically the idea of man attempting to concur nature, and failing, because nature is something that cannot be tamed or easily categorized (yup, borrowed that one from Fox Mulder). And perhaps there are some things mankind should not know, or perhaps is not ready to know. The Gill-Man returns in form with some excellent script writing for this round-about sequel to Creature of the Black Lagoon. I found myself routing for the monster, especially due to its mistreatment and shameful exposure for paying customers of the Ocean Harbor Oceanarium, which became, for a time, the new Freak Show. Well, I think we’ve all had enough of my own ramblings, lets see what our esteemed guest has to say regarding, Revenge of the Creature.
Revenge of the Creature
By: Jeffery X. Martin
It’s not easy being the missing link. People keep trying to capture you for research, and there’s no Anti-Vivisectionists League for bizarre aquatic creatures. If they can’t capture you, then they just try to shoot you. Tranquilizers, bullets, anything that can be fired out of a gun, humans will shoot it at you, just because you’re different. Oh, and forget dating. It’s one thing to have psoriasis or contact dermatitis, but full-on scales and gills? No woman puts that on her list of likes.
The end of The Creature from the Black Lagoon shows our old buddy, the Gill-Man, in precisely that situation. He’s been dynamited, shot, and after eons of hunting for a nice girl, he finds one. But as soon as he tries to take her home, the humans get all twitchy. They take the girl back, and they shoot the Gill-Man a few times for good measure. That’s a bad day, y’all, and if I were he, I would want revenge, too.
In 1955, the Gill-Man returned in Revenge of the Creature. There’s not much actual revenge in the movie, but the story of the Creature does take an interesting turn. Although we were led to believe the creature died in a hail of bullets at the end of the first film, that’s not the case. He is captured with ease back at the Black Lagoon and taken to the Ocean Harbor Oceanarium, a waterpark much like Sea-World. Scientists there hope to study the Gill-Man and find out what makes him tick.
This goes exactly as well as you think it will.
Revenge of the Creature is a low-budget production. It stars John Agar, and that makes it feel even more low-budget than it actually is. He’s not an actor normally associated with high-quality work. He’s handsome, all right, but what did it get him? In this movie, he’s nothing more than a giant chin and hormones, as he tries to get into the pants of the “lady doctor,” played by Lori Nelson.
Nelson’s character finds herself in one corner of a love square between John Agar, the Creature’s caretaker, Joe Hayes (John Bromfield), and the Creature himself. Every main male character in the movie (including the Creature) is a sexist schmuck, attempting to mold Nelson into some kind of precious doll that needs to be protected. Never mind that she’s a brilliant student of ichthyology, perfectly capable of taking care of herself. There are so many “step aside, little lady” moments in this film, she may as well be doing the Electric Slide instead of walking.
Joe and John Agar fight over her. The Creature and Joe fight over her. John Agar and the Creature fight over her. No one wants to fight alongside her, or get to know her as a human being because that would make their testicles fall off.
The main point of the film involves the scientists’ attempt to communicate with the Creature. I’m not sure why this is important. It’s not like the Gill-Man has read any good books lately and would love to discuss them. Their big idea for communication is teaching the Creature involves shocking him when he does something wrong. This kind of Pavlovian conditioning elicits responses, but that’s no more communication than someone grunting when they stub their toe.
At least the Creature still looks cool. In a movie filled with wonky science and terrible human relations, he’s the high point. He’s got those huge eyes, webbed hands, and the tendency to open his mouth wide, gasping for air, when he’s on land. He’s a scary monster, difficult to humanize, because you cannot tell his intentions from his face. He can’t raise an eyebrow, give a sly glance, or smirk. There’s no way to tell what he’s thinking, which may make the Gill-Man the scariest of all the Universal Monsters.
It’s a shame this sequel isn’t better. It feels cheap and the script is shallow. If anything, it feels like Jaws 3-D was a remake of Revenge of the Creature. In a lot of ways, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen the other. While the shark is an eating machine, the Creature just wants to fertilize some eggs and go back home. Maybe, in that way, the Gill-Man is also the most human of all the Universal Monsters. The Frankenstein Monster and Dracula have their own particular pathos. It’s part of why we love them. The Creature from the Black Lagoon has no personal demons to be dealt with, no extended back story. He has aught but the instinct to survive.
This singularity of vision makes the Creature hard to love, but easy to fear. It certainly makes him worthy of a better sequel. This isn’t it.
Jeffery X. Martin, or Mr. X to you, is the published author of several stories that are sure to shock, including those in the Elder’s Keep universe and Tarotsphere. He also published a fantastic tale in The Black Room Manuscripts. You can find his work on Amazon. When Mr. X is not writing creep mind-benders, he’s the host and/or contributor to several podcasts and blogs, including, but not limited to, Pop Shiftier and Kiss the Goat.