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The Gothic Villains Dracula And Frankensteins Monster English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 4907 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The gothic villains Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster have inspired generations of movie producers, as “the honor [of being the fictional character who has been played by the largest number of performers in film adaptations] goes to Count Dracula, played to date by 121 actors, followed by […] Frankenstein’s monster at 102” (Film Adaptation & Its Discontents, pg. 207). It was in the early 1930s, when Boris Karloff starred as Frankenstein’s monster in Frankenstein (1931) and Béla Lugosi appeared as the Count in Dracula (1931) that the popularity of the characters they depicted in these movies exploded. Those two particular movies have had such an impact on the film industry and audiences that the “avuncular” and the “campy tone” opinion of today that encompasses the monsters of Lugosi’s Dracula and Karloff’s Frankenstein are a “measure of the extent to which these figures have become icons of popular culture” (Classical Film Violence, pg. 53). These movies are not based solely on their literary predecessors, but rather on live theatre versions that have “already done the hard work of whittling the material down” to the appropriate “size for an evening’s entertainment” (Film Adaptation & Its Discontents, pg. 99). When those faithful adaptations lost their novelty, sequels with new characters and stories, such as Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and multi-monster crossovers like House of Frankenstein (1944) began to exploit the originals’ fame and settings. However, as these “classic” gothic movies and their direct successors lost their novelty and appeal to audiences after the horrors of World War II, a great number of independent movie producers and counterparts have made attempts to cater to spectators by having the “old” villains face settings and problems that are contemporary to modern times.

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These loose adaptations were instantly distinguishable to audiences by the employment of recognizable gothic villains, but also tend to differ drastically from the original novels and the earlier movies. They have given way to new themes and villains, which have shared similarities with their literary predecessors, but are also different in the way that they conduct evil to reach their goals, and can be described as “adaptations not of an earlier story” but instead of a previous “character, setting, or concept” (Film Adaptation & Its Discontents, pg. 120). An analyzation emphasizing on characteristics and motivations of these particular new, but also familiar villains and themes in non-mainstream Dracula and Frankenstein movies such as Frankenstein 1970, Flesh for Frankenstein, Blacula, and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires reveal exactly how much these fictional villains and movies are products of their times.

2. Frankenstein 1970

Despite the title, Frankenstein 1970 was actually filmed in 1958. Contrary to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is written as a fictional account of past events, Frankenstein 1970 is based on the science fiction craze of the 1950s, which is primarily reflected through the force of nuclear power in the movie. Frankenstein himself needs “an atomic reactor to reproduce rebirth” (F1970 31:35). While the wonders of nuclear power thus replaces the novel’s trust in “electricity and galvanism” (Frankenstein, pg. 39) as the key to creation, the movie is also not silent in showing the dangerous side effects of this power – both Frankenstein and his monster perish in the end due to radioactivity.

The opening scene’s in-film shooting of Frankenstein 1970 is very self aware of the cultural effects of the Frankenstein franchise. This is portrayed by the fictional film crew, which is creating a documentary about the “original” Frankenstein family in order to “celebrate the 230th birthday of Frankenstein” (F1970 00:04:28). In addition, Frankenstein 1970 ignores the literary background of Shelley’s Frankenstein in favor of the pop phenomena that has surrounded the Frankenstein franchise since the 1930s by using the classic movies from that time as a reference point. The director of the documentary emphasizes this by telling Baron Victor von Frankenstein that he “got the whole thing figured out [and that he wants] [coffins], epitaphs, lightning, thunder and [Baron Victor von Frankenstein] down in the vaults, giving us the low down on [his] great-great-grandfather, the first Frankenstein, the one who created the monster” (F1970 00:08:55).

The distance from the original novel is even more apparent when the vault of the Frankensteins is revealed. Not only does the original Frankenstein family not reside in a castle in Germany as members of the national nobility, but the novel’s Frankenstein is not named “Richard, Freiherr von Frankenstein I” either. The abandonment of the novel in favor of the 1930s Frankenstein movies is further manifested, when the actor behind “Baron Victor von Frankenstein” is made clear in the movie credits to be Boris Karloff, the man who played Frankenstein’s monster in Frankenstein (1931) and defined the creature’s modern image.

Baron Victor von Frankenstein is the driving force behind his creature, thus establishing himself as the main villain of the movie. He also mirrors the classic movie image of the “mad scientist,” which is enforced through various points. One of these would be his choice of residency, which is the unsettling family castle that houses the Frankenstein family crypt, and moreover, a hidden laboratory below the vault. Additionally, he is also the “last of the house of Frankenstein” (F1970 00:07:29), thus carrying the burden of his ancestor’s legacy and having to live with the dire prospect of not leaving an heir himself. Lastly, he also suffered evil himself through the Nazis, who physically and psychologically tortured him for his refusal to collaborate with them during World War II. It is needless to say that Baron Victor von Frankenstein is a broken shell of a man.

His evilness is further alluded to when he speaks to the director of the film crew and expresses to them that, “your coming here may be the solution of all my problems” (F1970 00:10:23). Having a double meaning, the solution to his problems does not only encompass solving his financial problems so that he can afford to buy his own atomic reactor(!), but also because the process of finishing his work on the creature in the hidden laboratory relies on this technological device. The creepiness of Baron Victor von Frankenstein is enhanced when he then starts to laugh maniacally, followed by him playing a creepy tune on his organ for the uneasy film crew, and also later on in his laboratory, when it is made clear that he has the ability to spy on the crews’ guest rooms with the help of another piece of modern technology; hidden and remote-controlled microphones.

Even though the monster does not share many characteristics with his literary counterpart, this second villain is also created from various body parts taken from a morgue. The exception is the monster’s brain, which was the former property of Frankenstein’s butler Shuter, and which the Baron “would [rather not] have chosen, but at least [Shuter is] obedient” (F1970 00:52:42). This submissive obedience to Frankenstein is not only what kills Shuter when he agrees to have himself sacrificed for the Baron’s experiments after he stumbles upon Frankenstein’s lab, but also the source of evilness that springs from the monster, as Frankenstein sends it out repeatedly on a mission to fetch a new pair of eyes for the sightless monster, which leaves several of the blindly-chosen film crew members dead. But as in the original novel, it is a woman who turns the monster against its creator. While the absence of a female companion brings down the wrath of the creature upon the novels Frankenstein, it is the main female actor of the Frankenstein documentary who pleads for her life and thus manages to reach what is still left of Shuter’s personality inside of the monster. The retained spark of humanity can be heard when the monster goes on to kill Frankenstein and itself by destroying the nuclear reactor. While dying, the monstrous groans change into human-sounding sighs, reinforcing the notion that there was still a bit of humanity and self-determination left in that monstrous hull. This also offers an interesting counterpoint to the novels creature, which did not have any human memories and developed a complete new personality upon his birth, making him the more complex character.

The ending of the movie is also interesting in that it portrays Frankenstein’s position on the creation of life. While on the one hand Baron Victor von Frankenstein openly criticizes his ancestor’s creation as a “challenge [to] God, the only true creator for whose merciful forgiveness [Richard Frankenstein] prayed” (F1970 00:14:10), he himself aspires to become godlike. This coincides with the goal of the original Victor Frankenstein, who wants to “renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption” (Frankenstein, pg. 52). However, Baron Victor von Frankenstein wants to go further. Just as god created “man in his image,” Frankenstein wants to create the monster “in [his] image, so that the name of Frankenstein [would] survive” (F1970 1:22:20), which is a goal that he could not achieve naturally with a body and mind that have been broken by the Nazis and made him unattractive to members of the opposite sex – such as the main actress.

3. Flesh for Frankenstein

Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) is a child of the early 1970s, which followed the era of the socially progressive late 1960s, when open depictions of sex and violence became acceptable to be used in artistic (and less artistic) ways, found their way into movie theaters and finally became mass-compatible. The word “Flesh” in the movie’s title does not only refer to the various body parts Frankenstein needs for his creation, but also hints at the sexual themes of this movie. However, Flesh for Frankenstein is more than just a typical exploitation film of that time. Within the movie, themes such as class struggle, eugenics and racial superiority play an important role.

To be the father of a “creation that will replace the worn out trash that now populates and repopulates [Earth]” (FF 00:32:50) is the motivation behind the antagonist Baron Frankenstein. However, it cannot be just any random human-like creation. The body parts for this purpose have to be chosen in such a way that they “represent the finest feature of the Serbian ideals,” (FF 00:05:15) because “the Serbian race comes in direct descent of the glory from the ancient Greeks,” who are often considered to be the “root” of Western Civilization (FF 00:05:30). Continuously creating members of the Serbian race by himself in his lab is not quite enough though, since Baron Frankenstein wants to finish the male “Adam” for his already finished female “Eve,” so that she “will bear [him] the children [that he wants] [as they are] going to be a true start of a new race, which is entirely created by [him], responding only to [his] bidding” (FF 00:20:30). Thus, Baron Frankenstein’s goal and motives have an uncanny resemblance to a similar obsession of the Nazis, who wanted to foster the racial superiority of a “white race” while claiming to be descendants of an “Aryan race” themselves, and also the views of Adolf Hitler, who demanded total obedience from “his” people. This idea of racial superiority is parodied in spite of the Nazis being obsessed with light skin and blue eyes, and the main ideal of Baron Frankenstein’s Serbian race is denoted by his search for the perfect “nasum,” or nose, for the male creature’s head. [1] 

The struggle between the social classes is shown with the Frankensteins representing the upper classes through their nobility, while the members of the working class are depicted by the villagers and servants of the Frankensteins. Baron Frankenstein and his wife Katrin treat the lower classes with contempt, going so far as to calling them “creatures” (FF 00:05:50). However, the Frankensteins are not flimsy in recognizing the value of the villagers when it comes to exploiting these people for their own means and schemes. For example, Katrin Frankenstein hires a villager as a servant, just so she can use him to fulfil her sexual and emotional needs as her “husband does not love her [since] it’s a marriage in name only [and] for the children, for the property” (FF 00:37:00). Furthermore, Baron Frankenstein uses various body parts from the townspeople whom he resents so much in order to build his own perfect beings. Otto, the Baron’s assistant, also holds contempt for his master’s higher social rank, as “each day the Baron worked in the laboratory, [Otto] worked two,” (FF 01:23:33) and he also looks down upon Frankenstein for never having “finished medical school” (FF 01:23:40) while still claiming superiority over his assistant.

That said, being a popular subject of movies after the sexual revolution of the late 1960s, Flesh for Frankenstein uses sex in a mixture of graphic depictions and peculiar subjects. Besides the already mentioned sexual exploitation of the underclass, the movie also touches on the subject of incest. It expands thus on the original novel, where Elizabeth was adopted by the Frankenstein family and grew up as Victor’s sister and cousin before becoming his wife. However, while there is a clear ancestral distinction between Victor and Elizabeth, it seems to be far less clear in the movie, as Katrin tells her children that the townspeople “tell awful tales about [Baron and Katrin Frankenstein]” and that “some of the things they say are true” (FF 00:08:50). Conversely, incest is not the only “shocking” topic taken up to draw in audiences. Baron Frankenstein takes advantage of his yet unfinished female creature, after which he remarks to his assistant Otto that “to know death […] you have to fuck life in the gall bladder” (FF 00:45:35). Katrin also uses the resurrected male creation for her pleasure after falling out with the villager Nicholas. Both acts can be considered as necrophilia.

These themes culminate in the end, as the sexual exploitation of the male creature leads to the death of Katrin, who is crushed and choked to death, while the Baron has his hand-symbolizing his tool of creation-cut off by his male creature in defiance, before being finally impaled by him. With his last breath, Baron Frankenstein utters that he is “not going to die in vain” and that his “work has not been finished” (FF 01:29:59). And while it first seems as if the Baron’s prophecy is fallacious, for his male creature disembowels and thus destroys himself, the Baron’s evilness seems to carry on by the means of his own real offspring. Influenced and twisted by their fathers taste for experimenting, they can be seen using puppets as “guinea pigs” in a warped version of a children’s game of “doctor” during the opening scenes of the movie. In the closing scenes, they are shown as moving towards and lifting up the captured protagonist of the movie, while carrying scalpels, as if to prepare him for a dissection, serving both as a fulfilment of the Baron’s vision as well as warning against child neglect.

4. Blacula

The title of the movie Blacula (1972) is a mixture of the words “black” and “Dracula,” and it expanded the “blaxploitation” genre, which was created in the late 1960s, into the realm of horror movies. In blaxploitation movies, “black characters [are] installed in roles that in the past had been reserved for white performers […] [and which in turn] either rendered white characters as villains or marginalized them” (Historical Dictionary of Horror Cinema, pg. 37). With its heritage in the blaxploitation genre, Blacula thus deals heavily with racism and the emancipation of African Americans since the Civil Rights Movement.

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Unlike the remainder of the movie that is meant to depict the early 1970s, the opening scenes of the movie take place in Transylvania in 1780, which is more than a hundred years before the setting of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It also sets the stage for defining the antagonists. For instance, while Blacula is seen as a force of evil for the remainder of the movie, we learn that it was the original Dracula’s action that resulted in the vampiric state of Mamuwalde, which was the real name of Blacula before Dracula “baptized” him into vampirism and gave him this mock-name. This, and the live entombment of Mamuwalde and his wife Luva establish the movie’s Dracula as the ultimate, albeit only shortly present, white(!) antagonist, while Blacula is a victim whose successive acts of evilness are cause of the condition forcefully imposed upon him. Before his transformation, Mamuwalde seemed to be a refined gentleman with modern 20th century views on the value of human life. His travel to Castle Dracula was organized by his tribe in the Nigerian Delta, who wanted the Count to help put a stop to the international slave trade [2] and bring his “ancient culture into the community of nations” (B 00:01:36). Dracula is also initially portrayed as a gentleman by offering Mamuwalde’s wife a seat and conversing with the African couple in a sophisticated manner. However, his manners are tainted by representing the European ideas of the late 18th century, as he labels Africa the “Dark Continent” (B 00:01:04)-which was seen in contrast to the “enlightened civilization” in Europe-and he believes that “slavery has merit” (B 00:02:19), a position that would also fit Bram Stoker’s Dracula and his willingness to control and influence “lesser” beings and creatures.

“Movies with an ethnic slant usually dramatize the tensions between the dominant culture and the beleaguered values of a minority community,” and the beginning of this movie, which focuses on the late 18th century, points these out by showing the dominance of “white” societies of that time through the mistreatment of non-white societies (Understanding Movies, pg. 394). Furthermore, there are hints during the movie sections that take place in the early 1970s that the progressive ideas against racial discrimination of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement have not fully penetrated into the society by then. Segregation still seems to linger, as an embalmer notes that he does not “get many whites [at his funeral home]” (B 00:21:57). It is also of interest to note that a blaxploitation film cannot have a black antagonist without having a black protagonist. The title of the protagonist goes to an African American named Dr. Gordon Thomas, who seems to be a merger of the multitude of personalities of protagonists of Bram Stoker’s novel, and who also saves the lives of inapt Caucasian police officers multiple times.

Unlike the two previously discussed Frankenstein characters, the antagonist Blacula seems to be rather close to his literary model. He uses superficial powers like Dracula does, but also shares the Count’s weaknesses. Blacula is immune to bullets, possesses superior strength, is able to turn himself into a bat, seems to have telepathic powers (see B 01:19:00), and can turn others into vampires with only a bite. The people that Blacula has turned to vampires seem to be rather mindless and show more zombie-like behaviors than Dracula’s victims. On the other hand, he also needs to rest in his coffin during the day, as sunlight kills him just as well as fire or a stake through the heart, and he holds an aversion against Christian crosses. He is also one of the few movie Draculas in adaptations who, while not possessing the age or ethnicity of Dracula, spots a moustache just like the Bram Stoker’s Dracula [3] . Still, Blacula seems to be not utterly evil. Not only was the vampiric behavior forced upon him, but his only motivation for being alive steems from his feeling of love towards Tina, in whom he sees his reborn wife.

Another interesting point is that just like Frankenstein 1970, Blacula is self-aware of the popularity of “Dracula,” as his movies are seen as the “absolute creme de la creme of camp” (B 00:10:47), thus establishing also a kind of critical meta-awareness about the quality of Blacula as a movie.

5. The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974) is similar to Blacula, in that its main theme is a mash-up of different genres. In this case, it follows the raising popularity of Eastern martial arts movies among Western audiences, which was kicked-off by the popularity of actor and martial arts fighter Bruce Lee in the early 1970s. The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is a movie that not only exploits this popularity, but also tries at the same time to minimize cultural alienation between western and eastern audiences by mixing the popular western story of Bram Stoker’s Dracula with a Chinese setting, and additionally featuring a multiethnic cast of antagonists and protagonists, while also claiming to be a direct successor to the original Dracula.

The questioning of traditional gender roles and the depiction of interracial relationships are used as another way to draw in female and ethnic audiences. “Feminism-also known as the Women’s Liberation Movement, or simply the Women’s Movement-was one of several militant ideologies that emerged during” in the 1960s, and with its emergence came along the change of traditional gender roles in movies (Understanding Movies, pg. 397). Examples such as Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1966) depict women who were just as cunning and able to fight as men [4] , and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires caters to this newly socially accepted role of women in society through two examples. Firstly, the seven Chinese protagonists have a sister who is a martial arts fighter. Secondly, the Swedish Vanessa Buren, who insists on accompanying the two Van Helsings on their journey to the interior of China and thinks “that a vampire hunt would be exiting” (L7GV 00:34:17) does not hold back either when it comes to fighting the undead. Both women thus offer a counterpoint to the two female characters in Bram Stoker’s novel, Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker, who represent the Victorian ideal of women (when not under the influence of Dracula). Furthermore, interracial relationships, which were not publicly displayed until the 1960s [5] , can also be found between the leader of the seven brothers, His Ching, and Vanessa Buren as one couple and His Ching’s sister and Van Helsing’s son as the second one.

Dracula appears in his original form as the Count only at the beginning and end of the movie, since he forcibly takes over the physical appearance of the Chinese priest Kah. Being “the arch-vampire” (L7GV 00:21:14), he leads the “7 Golden Vampires” for the remainder of the movie. The motive for this take-over of Kah is the same wanderlust that brings him to London in the original novel, as he calls his Transylvanian castle a “miserable place” (7GV 05:34) and his urge to want to take “vengeance on mankind” (7GV 06:33). According to the book, a further motive for his travels is to leave “his own barren land – barren of peoples – and [to come] to a new land where life of man teems” (Dracula, pg. 266) so as to “satiate his lust for blood, and [to] create a new and ever-widening circle of semi-demons to batten on the helpless” (Dracula, pg. 45). The seven Chinese vampires seem to fit the job perfectly, as they lay dormant and await someone to wake them again. Their fictional existence is even supported by Bram Stoker’s novel, which states that “[the vampire] is known everywhere that men have been…and in China, so far from us in all ways, there even is he, and the peoples fear him at this day” (Dracula, pg. 198). However, there is a flaw in the movie’s logic, as it does not bother to describe how it was possible for Dracula to lead the Chinese vampires while at the same time being defeated by Van Helsing in the late 19th century, or why he still continues to exist in China in 1904 after being defeated in the novel.

The seven golden Chinese vampires mentioned in the title of The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires take on the role of the antagonists for the remainder of the movie, and differ from Dracula in some interesting ways. First of all, unlike Dracula they do not feel the need to spread their reach of terror but instead focus their efforts on one single village in the Chinese province of Szechwan, which is pillaged every year “at the time of the seventh moon” (L7GV 00:10:51) and where they abduct seven young women, who are not just simply bitten, but sacrificed together in an unexplained ritual. Furthermore, they are “not constricted to Christian evil” (L7GV 00:45:40) like Dracula, but instead they cannot touch items or images that are sacred to the “Lord Buddha” or blessed, or else they burn to death (see L7GV 00:19:07). Thirdly, they all need to carry a golden “life medallion” in form of a bat, which is a symbol of their undead life force. If taken away, they slowly lose power and are defeated and cannot be restored unless the medallion is retrieved by one of their undead brethren. They also rely on horsemanship and use swords to fight, while the novel’s Dracula relies on much more subtle methods. They also hide their faces behind masks, since their bodies do not seem to be able to put on a non-undead appearance like Dracula does. Finally, they do not just work alone, but are able to summon other kinds of undeads, such as zombies.

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires was a pioneer in the collaboration between Euro-American and Asian cinema, and would be closely followed by titles such as the Western The Stranger and the Gunfighter (1974) and the blaxploitation movie Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975). Their genre-bending heritage can still be felt in contemporary times through famous box office hits like Shanghai Noon (2000) and Rush Hour (1998).

6. Conclusion

Whether it is the science-fictionesque Frankenstein 1970 with its themes of nuclear power, self-awareness of the Frankenstein pop phenomena, and the shadow of Nazi Germany still fresh in memory in the 1950s; the artsy and exploitative Flesh for Frankenstein and its depiction of class struggle, eugenics, and full-blown sex and gore; the blaxploitation movie Blacula addressing racial problems of the past and (then) present, or the Eastern The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires fighting for and with feminist power and interracial relationships; the themes in those non-mainstream movies differ widely from their literary predecessors, and these differences are highly influenced by the times and circumstances, but also the recognition and diversification of possible target audiences these movies were created for. And as for the physical and psychological changes in the cinematic offspring of the original characters Dracula, Frankenstein, and Frankenstein’s monster, it can be said that, “how and why what frightens us is in some respects historically conditioned and may indeed change over time,” which is exactly the reason why these seemingly “timeless” villains are dragged out of their retirement every now and then and presented to us with a fresh make-up, so that they can live up to their fearsome reputation and the movie-producing companies’ financial goals (Horror Film and Psychoanalysis, pg. 44).


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