This is the holy grail of horror films, a one-reel silent adaptation
of Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN made under the auspices of Thomas Edison
back in 1910. Is it any good? Frankly, no. It is, however, required
viewing for anyone with an interest in the evolution of horror cinema.
The full story of this film’s making and reception can
be found in the 2010 publication
EDISON’S FRANKENSTEIN by Frederick C. Wiebel, Jr.
While many of the details have been lost to history, Wiebel does an
excellent job filling us in on the particulars of the film and its
The actors in this FRANKENSTEIN all go unbilled (as was
the custom at the time). They include Augustus Phillips, a regular in
Edison films, as Dr. Frankenstein. Frankenstein’s monster was played by
the tall and imposing Charles Ogle, another Edison mainstay who went on
to become a prolific supporting player in countless silent films. Mary
Fuller played Dr. Frankenstein’s sweetheart; she was one of the Edison
Company’s biggest stars but never succeeded in making the
feature length films. The writer/director J. Searle Dawley was an
innovator who pioneered many of the techniques modern filmmakers take
for granted. All four, alas, have been largely forgotten and are now
known solely for the film under discussion.
Regarding that film, it was evidently filmed and
packaged like Edison’s other productions of the time: running just
fifteen minutes, it was shot in three days at the Edison Studios in the
Bronx, New York. It was the world’s first true horror film, although it
wasn’t apparently advertised as such--the Edison Company doesn’t appear
to have had any idea of what it put in motion!
This FRANKENSTEIN was believed lost for decades, and
indeed might well have been were it not for one Alois Felix Detlaff,
Sr., who acquired the only surviving print back in the 1950s. It’s that
print, faded and decayed though it is, that now provides our sole
glimpse of this vital piece of history.
The young Victor Frankenstein leaves his family
for college, and two years later discovers the “Mystery of Life.”
Frankenstein writes his girlfriend to inform her that he’s about to use
his skills to create the world’s first “Perfect Human Being,” after
which he’ll return home and take her for his bride.
The none-too-Perfect being is created from chemicals in
a vat in Frankenstein’s laboratory. Upon seeing his creation
Frankenstein is horrified and retreats to his bedroom. But the creature,
a tall, bushy-haired monstrosity with big feet and a mighty large
forehead, peeks in on Frankenstein in his bed--and then abruptly
As promised, Frankenstein returns to his family home to
propose to his sweetheart. The monster follows and, finding itself
jealous of Frankenstein’s relationship with his bride-to-be, torments
its creator incessantly.
Things come to head on Frankenstein’s wedding night.
Frankenstein’s bride spots the monster in the living room and faints,
after which Frankenstein succeeds in banishing the critter from the
room. Back in Frankenstein’s bedroom the monster sees itself in a mirror
and, apparently “Overcome by Love,” disappears.
To really comprehend this film one has to understand
the limitations faced by moviemakers in 1910. Films back then rarely
lasted over 15 minutes, which is about the length of this FRANKENSTEIN
(although the surviving print is actually a couple minutes short). Being
outgrowths of the stage, where the present director J. Searle Dawley got
his training, films of 1910 were much like plays: close-ups were a
no-no, with narratives presented in a succession of fixed-camera wide
shots that began with someone entering from one side of the frame and
concluding after they exited through the other, with textual intertitles
delineating the particulars of the narrative. This explains what
nowadays feels like a glaring omission: we never get a good look at
Frankenstein’s monster, who is seen only in long shot.
There are some interesting elements herein. The special
effects of the monster slowly forming before our eyes are
beyond-primitive by today’s standards but were unprecedented for 1910.
The use of mirrors is equally interesting, with the monster visible in
several scenes solely through the door-sized looking glass in
Frankenstein’s bedroom, suggesting the creature may be a refection of
its creator’s own baser impulses.
The scene of Frankenstein’s monster looking in on its
creator in his bed, taken directly from Mary Shelley’s original, is the
only such scene in any FRANKENSTEIN movie and, together with the wedding
night set climax, hints at the sexual panic of the novel. However, like
so much else about this film, we’re left desiring more such hints--or at
least a more fully rounded presentation of same.
Some background info on the story and characters might
have helped matters. We never learn much--make that anything--about
what led Frankenstein to create his monster or precisely how he goes
about doing so, nor the college he attends or the home he’s so eager to
return to. For all we know, he pulled the spare body parts from his
collection in a pods storage unit. Clearly Mary Shelley’s classic was not ideal material for a
Ultimately, what you’ll see here are the seeds of
something far greater. Virtually everything in this FRANKENSTEIN, from
the special effects to the scare scenes to the histrionic performances
to the disturbing sexual undertones, formed the basis of what we’ve come
to recognize as horror cinema.
FRANKENSTEIN (a.k.a. EDISON’S FRANKENSTEIN)
Director: J. Searle Dawley
Screenplay: J. Searle Dawley
(Based on the novel by Mary Shelley)
Cast: Augustus Phillips, Charles Ogle, Mary Fuller