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Director: Herbert L. Strock
Starring: Whit Bissell, Phyllis Coates, Robert Burton, Gary Conway, George Lynn
“Speak! You have a civil tongue in your head. I know, because I sewed it back myself!”
AIP weren’t wasting much time with their teenage horror cycle in 1957.
A mere five months after releasing I Was A Teenage Werewolf, the Universal monster vault was pillaged for inspiration yet again, resulting in a youth-in-revolt updating of Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece.
Unlike its predecessor, I Was A Teenage Frankenstein features a sympathetic protagonist, to an extent at least. The metaphor for the hell of being a teenager neatly repackaged in a hideous creature, created by an old square who doesn’t understand him and who just wants to go out and be with people his own age and maybe even meet a nice girl.
Needless to say, things do not go to plan.
Visiting America on a guest-lecturing trip from England, Professor Frankenstein (Bissell), convinces Dr. Karlton (Robert Burton) into becoming his accomplice in his secret plan to assemble a human being made up parts of different cadavers.
Setting themselves up in a laboratory under Frankenstein’s home, they enlist Margaret (Coates) as a secretary and to keep prying eyes away from their work. After stealing more parts, Frankenstein had enough to build the body of a young man, but the only face he has is horrifically disfigured.
Margaret and the Doctor get engaged, but her curiosity leads her to discover the secret in the laboratory and when a teenager is discovered to be murdered, she admits to her fiancé that she knows the truth.
Frankenstein is more ruthless than anyone anticipated though, as is his creation and both are prepared to kill to achieve their desires…
Okay first off, let’s get the English thing out of the way. Whit Bissell is as American as they come. Why, oh why would Herbert L. Strock insist on him playing Frankenstein as an Englishman, with no effort being made to even attempt the accent? Worse, they draw attention to it with the Doctor referring to people as “You Americans!”. There’s no need whatsoever, other than to give him somewhere to plan on escaping to at some point. Madness.
Anyway, apart from that glaring and unnecessary nonsense, I Was A Teenage Frankenstein is a huge improvement on the Werewolf film that came before it.
It’s a nasty little affair, sadistic at times and featuring a great central villain in the Doctor. Completely amoral, he’s equally ambivalent about abusing the woman he supposedly loves as he is stealing body parts, allowing murder to procure new ones and feeding anyone that gets in his way to the alligator he keeps in a pool under his laboratory. He’s a black, black villain and Bissel brings him to odious life marvellously. Every time he’s on the screen, he just radiates cold, calculating evil and is the main reason this film is so effective.
The other is Gary Conway’s teenager monster. In his initial form he’s nothing short of horrific, his face nothing but a damaged mess, incongruously sitting on top of a regular, athletic body. The contrast between the two helps no end in constantly reminding you that this is a thing that should not be, an abomination that thinks it’s a man. The effects on the mask aren’t the best, but they work all the same. For the time and even for now, they work.
Things are no less horrific when the creature gets his handsome new face. After murdering a young boy for it, it’s transformation into what should be a fine specimen of a male feels so, so wrong. The scars around his face don’t help, but it’s his mounting resentment as his isolation that really unsettles.
You can’t help feel sympathy for him though, as much as he is a monster. Deep down, he’s still just a teenage boy. Okay, a few teenage boys, but his wants and desires are the same. Eventually he realises he’s not going to achieve them though and it’s alligator time. He’s a tragic character then, but one that’s capable of terrible actions. Just like his literary inspiration.
That inspiration is lifted from the Universal movie too, in a wonderful homage to the window scene in the 1931 classic. This time the creature is less childlike and possessed with more adolescent urges and it ends uglier, but it’s brilliantly done at the same time.
Oh and that finale, where the film cuts to vivid and garish colour for the first time for a last look at our monster? Inspired.
I Was A Teenage Frankenstein is a cut above the average exploitation flicks that the new youth culture would inspire. It’s a trashy thrill ride sure, but it has a brain too. Just not its own…
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy