5 Movie Monsters in Search of an Existential Crisis: AntiFilm School Presents the 3rd Annual Halloween Horror Movie Spooktacular!

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Steve Hasbrat (Theater Management) over at Anti-Film School has graciously given me the opportunity to join their 3rd Annual Horror Movie Spooktacular in time for Halloween. And I get to chat about five movie monsters that I consider to be my favorites. If you know me by now, you’ll understand that asking me to narrow down anything to a mere 5 is quite a challenge. But I venture to say that if I cheat and mention a few who would have made the list, angry villagers won’t be hurling flaming torches at my porch if I do…

A little bit about Anti-Film School’s blogging philosophy from their About page!

“Founded in July of 2011, Anti-Film School is a film website that reviews both new and old films while also heavily focusing on grindhouse cinema, exploitation flicks, cult cinema, B-movies, and classic horror. Since its launch, it has gone on to receive 100,000 views, become a member of the Large Association of Movie Blogs, and be featured on Total Film online under “3 Cool Film Blogs to Visit,” GuysNation, Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights, Furious Cinema, and the Grindhouse Cinema Database. It is all tied together by a retro drive-in aesthetic. We apologize in advance for any missing reels, the sticky floors, shady audience members, stale popcorn, and broken seats.”- 

Oh those woe begone days of broken velvet covered creaky seats, your feet sticking to the floor from spilled coke and milk duds… the smell of popcorn, salty sweat and the tallest person in the theater sitting directly in front of you when there’s loads of empty seats left…! I wonder why that always happens to me all the time…?

When you think of existentialism, well, when I the MonsterGirl nerd of all time, thinks of EXISTENTIALISM, Camus, Sartre & Kierkegaard immediately come to mind. When Steve asked me to think of 5 movie monsters that endeared themselves to me, I started to think of what it was, that essence of the thing, that impressed itself upon me so much about each monster’s character. It’s that they are Monsters in Search of an Existential Crisis.

EXISTENTIALISM

Descarte said “I think, therefor I am.”  Existentialists say “I am, therefore I think.”

This philosophy emphasizes a radical skepticism and the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience, an individual who is inhabiting an indifferent universe. Existentialism regards human existence as unexplainable and completely free. In this universe there is no guiding Dogma that can help us. We’re all faced with equally unfortunate choices which ultimately lead to doom and despair. All human endeavors are meaningless and virtually insignificant, so when faced with the fact that existence, humans feel despair. Existential angst is when we are aware of the awful pointlessness to our existence. So life is an unknowable concept with strange forces that spring from this mysterious existence, with nothing that has any meaning, and fighting it is futile. Cheerful stuff…

Without further ado, here are our 5 monsters stuck in an existential landscape of despair, angst & searching for an identity in a cruel cruel universe.

Frankestein's Monster an existential man

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curse of the demon

What is it about monsters that we love? What truly remains with ‘us’ classic horror fans is something deeper and eternally soldered into our collective psyche’s. Something about ‘the monster’ has either caused us to ‘identify’ with them or has triggered a profound fear response that lasts a lifetime.

All monsters, you could say are inherently existential figures because they come from a place of alienation, the unknown and live outside the realm of perceived normalcy. ‘5 Monsters in Search of an Existential Crisis’ seeks to understand how these particular characters are either the epitome of the existential ‘deviant’ (not to suggest deviancy in the context of being perverse but in the sense that they deviate from the norm of ‘accepted’ human nature, like a freak or a sword swallower or a drag queen), or have been placed in the middle of an existential environment.

When you think of the quintessential films that introduced themes of existential alienation into the narrative I think of Jack Arnold’s masterpiece The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) written by the late Richard Matheson, Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and of course William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders from Mars (1953).

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956 Dana Wynter and Kevin McCarthy
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Luce Potter as the Martian Intelligence in William Cameron Menzies fantastical Invaders from Mars 1953
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Jack Arnold’s quintessential journey of the existential transcendent man Grant Williams in The Incredible Shrinking Man

But poor Grant Williams was not a monster, he was only a transcendental man on a journey, projected into a monstrous world where the ordinary becomes a nightmare landscape for him. Films based on stories where the alien, be it from space or here on earth, are a figure used to criticize rationality, conformity, tolerance and lack of empathy and often creates discord between science and the military. They raise the question of fear of losing one’s identity amidst the cold war environment, or just to show that there are sinister threats from without & within!

Writers like Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury were great at conjuring these “Outsider’ themes. I’d love to have included It Came From Outer Space (1953) with the amorphous Eye creatures that happened to be friendly aliens who crash land in a desert cave.

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It Came From Outer Space 1953 Richard Carlson and Barbara Rush

I love these existential fellas, scary as they may be. Like Grendel who is the consummate existential literary figure and he was hideous, yet he’s one of my favorite characters in literature. Grendel struggles with the eternal question, am I a monster or a hero?

While these movie monsters may be hideous to some, I find them compelling and heroic in their journey to claim their place in a hostile world. Except for those nasty soul eating land crabs whom I love just because they’re so cheeky, cheesy and entertaining as hell!

For me the quintessential existential man/monster, (and that’s not a pants monster ) is Mary Shelley’s literary Prometheus re-imagined by Jame’s Whale’s flagrant masterpiece. A man made from the scraps of robbed corpses and brought to life by the electrical secrets of heaven. Yes, Frankenstein’s Monster portrayed by the great Boris Karloff manifested a truly complex enigma of conception, creation, and existential angst who’s both fearsome yet sympathetic.

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We can sympathize with the monster, as with Frankenstein, & The Gill Man from Creature From the Black Lagoon. We can find our involvement (at least I can), as one viewed with empathy toward the monster’s predicament. Depending on how much the film constructs it’s viewpoint which leans toward creating pathos in the narrative. Usually permitting these monsters to express human desires, and then making sure that those desires are thwarted and frustrated and ultimately destroyed. ‘The Outsider Narrative” can be seen so clearly in the horror/sci-fi hybrid Creature From The Black Lagoon. Film monsters like The Gill Man form vivid memories for us, becoming icons and laying the groundwork for the classical experience of good horror.

I think Creature From The Black Lagoon is quite a perfect film, as it works on so many different levels. The most obvious is that scientists have invaded a unique creature’s habitat only to force their domination and belligerence on him. And in the midst of this evolves a sort of a skewed Romeo and Juliet romance. The Gill Man never intends to threaten Julie Adam’s character Kay Lawrence. Quite the contrary, it’s the two opportunistic men who tote phallic harpoons around like extra penises on hand to fight each other about questions of ethics, how to conduct scientific research and over Kay like spoiled children.

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My favorite five are…! (the Curtain lifts)

1) FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER: As portrayed by the great BORIS KARLOFF

Boris Karloff, Frankenstein

“Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!”- Henry Frankenstein

Boris Karloff’s poignant yet terrifying transformation into the Frankenstein’s monster, thanks to the great make-up artist Jack Pierce is the most memorable, indelible ‘classic monster’ for me. Boris Karloff said in 1957 Jack’s words still echo in my mind: ‘This is going to be a big thing!'”

Mary Shelley created a transfixed symbol of existential angst..The gentleness that Boris Karloff imbued his character with will always touch my heart so deeply. Most memorable for me is the scene with the blind priest who breaks bread and shares his humble shack with his new ‘friend’ in Bride of Frankenstein my favorite of the three films where Karloff portrayed the monster.

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From Wikipedia-Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is a novel written by Mary Shelley about an eccentric scientist Victor Frankenstein, who creates a grotesque creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment. Just a brief mention in regards to the literary source, Victor Frankenstein, is told by the monster that he refers to himself as “the Adam of your labors”, and elsewhere as someone who “would have” been “your Adam”, but is instead “your fallen angel.”

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The opening narrative of the film goes like this: “We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation.; life and death”

Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.”
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
“Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it.”
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
“If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear!”
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
“How dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to be greater than his nature will allow.”
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
“I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel…”
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

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Victor Frankenstein possessed great hubris. As many a mad scientist seeking the secrets of life tend to be. I suppose you must have that kind of insane drive to push back against the boundaries of the knowable to discover what lies beyond. BUT, when a man tries to act as God himself, one who creates life from the dead, challenging the biological fact that it is ‘women’ who give birth, who produce that life in the end. Ultimately, Victor Frankenstein’s monster is an existential failure. He justifies his work to Dr Waldman “Where should we be if nobody tried to find out what lies beyond? Have you never wanted to look beyond the clouds and stars, to know what causes trees to bud and what changes darkness to light? But if you talk like that people call you crazy…! Well, if I could discover just one of these things, what eternity is, for example, I wouldn’t care if they did think I was crazy.”

That scene is shattered with the imposing first sight of the monster. Jack Pierce’s, extraordinary make-up on Boris Karloff combined with the actors facial expressions and gestures are sheer brilliance.

The first glance

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Boris Karloff conveys a dead man’s angst who’s brought to life by a heretical scientist, inhabits his new world with such wonder, conflict and rage, so exquisitely it’s actually painful to watch as he is scorned and tormented as a ‘thing.’ who never asked to be created in the first place.

For the sake of brevity I’ll call him Frankenstein although he is ‘the monster.’Frankenstein has become an accepted name for Victor’s/Henry’s in the film version scientific yet unorthodox achievement.

And like that of Grendel, Frankenstein is the ultimate existential monster and Karloff gives him a child like quality that wrenches at your heart with pathos. Born into an unknown world, unaware of his purpose in life, why he was created and essentially who he is.

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Karloff recalled “I don’t think the main screenwriter Bob Florey, really intended there to be much pathos inside the character. But Whale and I thought that there should be. We didn’t want the kind of rampaging monstrosity that Universal seemed to think we should go in for. We had to have pathos, Whale wanted to leave an impact.” And they certainly achieved that with Karloff’s performance and Whale’s vision.

And I say this because he is born a black slate, tabula rasa. Only to have men of science and the surrounding community, some inherently belligerent, some like Henry’s assistant Fritz who are abusive and brutal who torture the monster, defining who he is because of his ‘difference’. It’s after Frankenstein’s first rampage that the monster evokes our sympathy.

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Frankenstein still

At first the monster is like a new born infant. Henry tells him to sit down, but he doesn’t understand the word yet. He follows the doctor’s gestures and hand signals.

Again Karloff,“Whale and I saw the character as an innocent one {…} Within the heavy restrictions of my make-up I tried to play it that way. This was a pathetic creature like us all, had neither wish nor say in our creation and certainly didn’t wish upon itself, the hideous image which automatically terrified humans whom it tried to befriend. The most heart rending aspect of the creature’s life, for us was his ultimate desertion of his creator-it was though a man in his blundering searching attempts to improve himself was to find himself deserted by God.”- from Karloff More Than a Monster- Stephen Jacobs

Boris Karloff in

This sentiment is at the essence of why Frankenstein is such a profoundly existential character, his crisis of alienation and detachment from his creator. In Cynthia Freeland’s book, The Naked and The Undead she cites Gregory Mank: “From the beginning Karloff’s approach to his ‘dear old monster’ was one of love and compassion. To discover and convey such sympathy was an outstanding insight.-considering that rarely has an actor suffered so hideously by bringing to life a character.”

The hours of make-up and constructing the heavy suit Karloff had to endure, wearing it on the set during long days of shooting eventually crippled his legs, and left him extremely bow legged and in immense pain.

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Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) go to a graveyard and steal a body. The fanatical Dr. Frankenstein believes that life can be created from death. He challenges the systems of morality for an ambiguous crack at being God like. We therefore shift our allegiance and empathy toward the monster who becomes the central figure of the story. And now that he’s been forced into existence he wants Henry to create a mate for him and why not! All god’s children got a girl…

Again if I could have had a few more choices The Bride would have been on my list in a flash of lighting! I adore Elsa Lanchester and Franz Waxman’s score is perhaps one of the most evocative themes I just can resist becoming ebullient when ever I hear it!

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With his bizarre experiments Henry defies the laws of nature, and the mortal contract with the universe and dares to try to give birth to his own creation. When he sends his assistant to steal a brain, the cruel knucklehead mistakenly takes a criminally insane brain without the Dr. realizing it. Shutting himself off from the outside world and his fiance Elizabeth (The gorgeous Mae Clarke) she arrives at the castle to see what’s going on. Meanwhile, the constructed body from scraps, sewn together from various bodies of several dead men is strapped to the slab and raised up into the violent electrical storm. Lightening surges into the body of the monster and soon… “Look! It’s moving. It’s alive. It’s alive… It’s alive, it’s moving, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, IT’S ALIVE!” – Henry Frankenstein.

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Frankenstein emerges from his electrifying awaking into a dire world he did not ask to come into. To be shunned and controlled and reviled within only a few moments of his awareness. He has no chance to make his own choices or choose his own journey, He’s automatically an outsider who threatens those who perceive him as different thus dangerous.

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Frankenstein is an ‘object of the grotesque’ in this typified mad scientist /monstrous creation movie where a scientist is obsessed with the ‘secrets of life itself’, his creation turns out to be a monster, the assistant is deformed in some way and often is antagonistic to the monster setting off a provoked rampage, and the lab is fabulous with scientific regalia and various apparatus in an isolated setting.

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Ken Strickfaden’s designs or ‘special electrical properties’ buzzing light shows knobs and bottles and tubes in Henry Frankenstein’s lab are astounding. Charles D Hall’s art direction & set aides in the creation of an ambivalent scenery where science and morality conflict. The outside world is lenses as an ordered world, stylistically counter posed to the clandestine dark and unorthodoxy of Henry’s laboratory. James Whale injected a lot of camp into the Gothic sensibilities.

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Frankenstein is labeled a ‘monster.’ Therefor, he causes suffering to others and perpetuates the idea that he is in fact ‘a monster’ But most of us can see him as an existential anti-hero. It is the law of the existential philosophy that says HE must be responsible for his actions. Actions that have justification but still have no bearing on the violent things he does. We are conflicted because we sympathize with his dilemma. Like a confused child who asks where do I come from?. Why am I here? Who is my creator? Why have they abandoned me and what is friendship? Watching Frankenstein journey through a hostile landscape is painful for me as he’s chased by angry villagers with flaming torches.He only wanted to see the little girl float like the flower… He’s strung up on a cross like an obvious Christ figure, beaten, chained, drugged and sought after to be deconstructed, he is a figure in an eternal existential crisis. A monster who doesn’t understand if he’s a man or truly a monster.

Interesting note: Bela Lugosi turned the part of the monster down because he didn’t want to grunt and John Carradine refused to play monsters at all, also rejected the offer to play Frankenstein.

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