First things first: it’s “Fronkensteen!”
You know, I thought of another problem with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that I neglected to mention last week: it’s absolutely humorless. Even Dracula, as reservedly Victorian as it was, had the dry wit of Van Helsing now and then. But Frankenstein has nothing funny.
Well, if you know anything about Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, you know that will not be the case with their adaptation of the story.
The premise: Wilder plays Frederick Frankenstein, a descendant of the original mad scientist who is trying to distance himself from the bad reputation his family has acquired.
Of course, the film is really riffing on the Universal Pictures’ 1931 interpretation of Frankenstein more than the book. I didn’t bother reviewing that film, or any of the sequels, because they are all basically uninteresting. They are very different than the book, and while I didn’t like the book, I can’t really say that any of the changes the Universal films made were improvements.
Young Frankenstein, on the other hand, is absolutely an improvement. I often say that, disregarding the fact that it is a Mel Brooks comedy, and all that entails, it’s actually the best retelling of Frankenstein there is. Peter Boyle’s interpretation of The Monster is surprisingly nuanced and well-thought out. And Wilder’s Frankenstein seems more human than most of the other one-note megalomaniacal portrayals.
And, believe it or not, there are some generally creepy atmospheric scenes, despite the overall effect being played for laughs. I generally don’t like black-and-white, but Brooks uses the limited palette well.
That said, it is a comedy. It’s most definitely a comedy, and not exactly a sophisticated comedy. But you know something? The story of Frankenstein is too over-the-top to be taken entirely seriously. While it does contain serious themes about the meaning of life, the dual nature of man, and other such folderol, it can’t be tackled without a bit of levity to, er, leaven it.
You just can’t take on the great mysteries of Life, the Universe, and Everything without being able to recognize the humor in it. And that, in my opinion, is why Young Frankenstein tells the story better than both the original source material and almost all derivative works.
So, in closing… stay close to the candles. The staircase can be treacherous.