Room Over the Garage Double Feature!

Frankenstein (dir. James Whale, 1931)

James Whale’s Frankenstein concludes with the line, “Here’s to a son… to the house of Frankenstein!”  To the character speaking, the convivial chortler Baron Frankenstein, the line is a sincere yet blissfully ignorant wish for his son to produce a suitable heir to the Frankenstein estate.  To the viewer, the line smacks with grim irony.  The baron’s son, Dr. Henry Frankenstein, has indeed already produced – and murdered – a legacy.

This ill-fated offspring of sorts is Frankenstein’s monster, a hulking, square-headed potpourri of freshly deceased body parts, jolted “aliiiiiive” by a lightning-fueled experiment.  Played with an inimitable mixture of heavy-lidded depression, lumbering awkwardness and a childlike sense of self-preservation by Boris Karloff, the monster is heart-wrenchingly human.  His tragedy is that of being brought into a world ready for his physicality but not his consciousness.  Neither Henry Frankenstein (played by Colin Clive in a performance of jittery, trembling focus) nor the inventor’s demented, saucer-eyed assistant Fritz can provide proper parenting for the inchoate being who awakens in their shadowy laboratory.  With no actual preparedness and more than a little fear of their creation, the doctor and his assistant resort to acts of abuse, imprisoning and tormenting the creature in a wrongheaded attempt at discipline.  As with so many unhappy children, the monster runs away from home (and not without violence of his own), and heads for the hills.  There, the alternately angry and gentle giant discovers a friend, loses her, and seals his fate as a tragic hero.

Frankenstein is cinematic gold, due not only to its unbeatable casting, sympathetic approach to horror and aesthetic nod to German Expressionism.  The fervent desire felt by Henry Frankenstein to create something in his likeness – something familiar yet surreal – speaks to the allure of films and filmmaking.  Henry’s burden is the burden of an artist.  And while he executes his vision catastrophically, the film he exists within is brought to life perfectly.

Splice (dir. Vincenzo Natali, 2010)

Appealingly slick, icky and sexually deviant, Vincenzo Natali’s Splice is a Frankenstein tale for the post-millennial ethicist.  Clive and Elsa (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley, both convincingly egotistical yet sympathetic) are hot-shot bio-engineers, basking in the sweet glow of a recent Wired magazine cover and seemingly successful DNA mash-up experiments.  When their progress is unceremoniously halted by the pharmaceutical company footing the lab bill, the couple (or rather, Elsa, with the whimpering and ineffectual Clive along for the ride) initiates a secret experiment in which they combine human and animal DNA.

What results is Dren (a terrific Delphine Chanéac, ornamented with palpably real CGI physical features).  An otherworldly creature, Dren blossoms from a petulant little girl into a darkly tempestuous, sexually confused young woman, scarred by the hidden life she is forced to inhabit and by her manipulative “parents.”  This isn’t to say that Clive and Elsa don’t love Dren, each in their own special way (and, in the case of Clive, his love manifests in a particularly special way).  Indeed the golden, sun-streaked scenes of Dren’s upbringing in an isolated farmhouse – with Elsa adoringly handing her Barbie dolls and tiaras – communicate a familial compatibility and youthful nostalgia, a time of childhood peace before the storm of adolescence.  But the storm sets in violently, and as mother and child quickly become malevolent enemies, Natali intelligently converges themes of scientific ethics, narcissism, psycho-sexual impulses and abusive family dynamics into a hurricane of sci-fi queasiness.

Unfortunately this convergence is a bit premature, leaving the third act with few places to go except jarringly run-of-the-mill horror terrain.  That aside, Splice is an unusually artful, thought-provoking stab at the state of contemporary creation, unafraid to expose the beautiful and horrifically unwieldy end-product of scientific conceit.

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