Tuesday 1 February 2011 – Insights
Horror is a genre that often loves excesses and, where there is exaggeration, there is inevitably parody. Furthermore, it is physiological in horror to push the threshold of the unbelievable to the maximum by requiring spectators to have an equally maximum suspension of disbelief. In this way, the stories are populated with unrealistic and even not very credible facts, but they keep their visionary, metaphorical and above all entertainment skills intact. All of this produces fertile ground for turning fear into laughter, with just a few tweaks of tone. The parodies have therefore accompanied horror since the earliest times, finding it easy to play in joking the most monstrous and unreliable aspects. An easy game, but the success that is anything but obvious. Many times the jokes fall flat and the farce does not produce an acceptable comedy. The simplest mechanism is to put a comedian – generally presented as timid and fearful – in front of one of the classic monsters. There are many examples and, to remain solely with Italian films, just remember Hard times for vampires in which Renato Rascel faced the vampire par excellence Christopher Lee or A monster and a half in which Franchi and Ingrassia are involved in a story that mimics that of Frankenstein. Or, in more recent times, the delusional – but by no means despicable – Fracchia against Dracula.
The perfect parody
Frankenstein Junior however, it is a completely different thing and has mapped out a path that few others have managed to take with merit. One thing is in fact a comic film that takes up stylistic features and characters of a certain cinematographic genre and places them within a simple structure – such as that of farce generally – to draw comic ideas; quite another thing is a real parody that takes with respect and affection a film or a series of films to draw something autonomously valid and genuinely hilarious. Mel Brooks’ purpose when he realizes Frankenstein Junior is to make a tribute to a cinema he loves – that of Universal in the golden years of horror and in particular the cycle of Frankenstein – through his good-natured mockery. The deep and perfect knowledge of the model allows Brooks to make precise cinephile references that go beyond the reference to the most well-known and banal external aspects. From the darts game of The son of Frankenstein at the meeting with Frankenstein’s blind hermit, there are many scenes recreated in order to maintain the aesthetics but managing to change the spirit with a perfect choice of comic timing. That Brooks wants to recreate the visual charm of the films of the 1930s is evident not only from the choice – decidedly against the current – to use black and white, but also from the great care in the scenographies pushed up to the use of original elements used in the old films of Frankenstein, including laboratory machinery. All this creates a rich and priceless atmosphere, but it does not overwhelm the comic spirit lavished by Brooks and Gene Wilder in a lively and brilliant script. The director maximizes the comic effect by inserting the gags in a context that meticulously echoes that of the films subject of the parody, without being hasty in aesthetic values. And many of these gags have remained proverbial testifying to a very rare happiness of writing.
The perfect cast
In addition to the qualities of writing, setting and direction (a Mel Brooks never so supervised and attentive), the film also has the advantage – typical of those situations in which everything seems to go right – of a perfect casting: the actors they are all right in their respective roles and for some of them this is “the” role of their career. This is certainly true of Marty Feldman, the comedian with bulging eyes, who paints a perfect portrait of a character, that of Ygor, who could easily have been reduced to a speck. In the hands of Feldman, Frankenstein’s assistant becomes instead the lunar projection of a worn-out prototype, giving it life and meaning. From Dwight Frye’s Fritz (Frankenstein) to Bela Lugosi’s Ygor (The son of Frankenstein), Feldman draws inspiration from hilarious nonsense that have made history and school. Gene Wilder – the real engine behind the very existence of the film – perfects the acting made up of expectations and subtleties, managing to find a balance of humor and irony that takes his style to levels of effectiveness even greater than his best previous successes (Please don’t touch the old ladies and the episode of the sheep in Everything you ever wanted to know about sex but never dared to ask by Woody Allen). Peter Boyle, a robust character actor, manages to find a way to give subtlety and humor to perhaps the most difficult characterization, that of the Frankenstein monster, already reduced to inert caricature in so many films that it is difficult to imagine a new dimension of parody. Yet, Boyle succeeds, giving warmth and humanity to the monster and making it a cause for laughter without making it a laughingstock. But even the actors of the minor roles are spot on. Above all, just remember the talented Cloris Leachman, in the role of the austere and sinister Frau Blücher who, in one of the best known and most absurd gags of the film, causes horses to neigh every time her name is spoken.
A cocktail of intelligence and humor that has remained unique
Many other films have tried to exploit the wake of Frankenstein Junior to make people laugh by making fun of the typical horror monsters, but the cocktail of intelligence, affection, humor and knowledge of the reference genre of this film has remained unique, probably also due to the fortunate coincidence of the meeting of different creative spirits at the peak of their brilliance. When, many years later, Mel Brooks tried again with the other great horror myth by realizing Dracula dead and happy the result was quite different.