Feature: Kubrick Meets Frankenstein

by Steve Habrat

In many of Stanley Kubrick’s films, we see characters that slowly descend into madness. With this slip into madness, they usually end up committing some sort of atrocity to someone around them. But if we examine these characters descent into madness closely, we can conclude that their madness is created by another character in the films. If we look back at the 1931 film Frankenstein, the structure of Frankenstein seems to fit with the creation of madness and characters becoming monster-like in a good majority of Kubrick’s films. Kubrick could almost be considered the mad scientist of his films, as he takes certain aspects from Frankenstein and uses them to construct several of his films.

If we first look at Kubrick’s 1956 film The Killing, we subtly see a Frankenstein reference within the film. One of the characters, George (Elisha Cook Jr.), is married to Sherry (Marie Windsor) who has no interest in him other than money. George is in on a racecourse robbery with several other men and if the robbery is pulled off, the men can stand to make two million dollars. Near the beginning of the film, we see Sherry with another man named Val (Vince Edwards), who Sherry is having an affair with, as they discuss killing George and the other men and taking the money for themselves. Through the scene, we can see that Sherry is creating a vicious monster and implanting a criminal mentality in Val. At the climax of the film, Val storms an apartment where George and the other men are regrouping after the robbery. A gunfight breaks out and everyone except for George is killed. George ends up making it out of the apartment even though he is severely wounded. He lunges outside and gets into a car and drives off to find Sherry. Sherry has unknowingly created another monster. George is a rather weak man who will not stand up to Sherry in the beginning and at the climax; he is on a murderous quest. Even through George’s movements, he moves very similar to the monster in Frankenstein. He lurches into his home to find Sherry and then viciously guns her down. Sherry is like Henry Frankenstein because she dabbled into an operation that was out of her control and ends up falling victim to her own manipulation. Henry Frankenstein tried to artificially create life when he should have left the natural process of creating life alone. Sherry tries to override the bank robbery and she ends up with a monstrous creation. She has awoken the killer in George and rather than remaining content with what she would have gotten out of the robbery, she was greedy and tried to take it all. While the comparisons are rather minor in The Killing, there still seems to be a hint of influence from Frankenstein in the film.

In 1962, Kubrick released Lolita, and the similarities to Frankenstein appeared once again. In Lolita, the monster takes shape in Humbert (James Mason), who at the beginning of the film has entered the mansion of Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers). Humbert, similar to the monster, seems primitive as he searches the mansion for Quilty. We learn that Humbert is there to kill Quilty for stealing Lolita away from him. Throughout Lolita, we watch as Humbert and the young Lolita begin a sexual relationship. Clare Quilty, who is a famous playwright, is also pursuing Lolita. Near the end of the film, Quilty ends up stealing Lolita away from Humbert and starting an affair with him. Humbert learns of this affair only after some time later when Lolita writes to Humbert that she has married and needs money. Lolita broke off the affair with Quilty after he tries to persuade her to be in one of his films. The spectator can assume that this “film” is of pornographic nature and that Lolita had no interest in Quilty’s perverse vision. Through the act of stealing Lolita away from Humbert, he creates a vengeful monster in Humbert. At the end of the film when Humbert desperately tries to persuade Lolita to come away with him, he takes on the primitive form as he weeps and lunges to his car and sets out to find his “Henry Frankenstein.” Just like in the Frankenstein film, he is out to find his creator and destroy him. This is where we learn that the beginning of the film, which shows us the confrontation between Humbert and Quilty is actually the ending of this story. If we take into account the setting of the climax, which is Quilty’s mansion, it takes on a similarity to the castle that Henry Frankenstein inhabits at the beginning of Frankenstein. So now, we have the monster shuffling about through his creator’s eerie mansion, setting out to commit such atrocities as murder. Humbert proceeds to kill Quilty and is caught shortly after the murder takes place. Similar to Frankenstein’s monster, it is cornered by the law and is captured. While a burning supposedly destroys the Frankenstein monster set by outraged villagers, Humbert dies naturally in the hands of his captors.

In 1964, Kubrick released Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and once again, the Frankenstein structure would be present. This time, however, Kubrick would predominantly use the structure as the backdrop for the film. If we compare the Cold War to the Frankenstein structure, we see some very shocking similarities. We first have to look for a Henry Frankenstein, which could be found in the people who created the nuclear bomb. With all the scientists that helped create the nuclear bomb, we have a large amount of mad scientists or Henry Frankensteins that have created a monster that is a scientific breakthrough. With this breakthrough, we have created a bomb that can level an entire city. Since we have identified the Henry Frankenstein, it becomes obvious that the monster comes in the form of the bomb itself. Just like we will see later with the Kubrick’s 1987 film Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick is using a situation to build the Frankenstein structure for Dr. Strangelove. But we still have to identify a storm that would set off the creation of this monster. That storm could be a hypothetical storm in the form of the Cold War paranoia that was sweeping over the citizens of the United States.

If we explore Dr. Strangelove, we can see the structure of Frankenstein present within the film. We have Brigadier General Jack Ripper who orders a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. General Ripper is the delusional mad scientist who thinks he is doing the United States a favor by protecting our countries “precious bodily fluids.” General Ripper has unleashed this monstrous creation, the nuclear bomb, out into the world where it will cause destruction and death to anyone who is around it when the monster eventually explodes. Kubrick seems to imply that one day, a mock Henry Frankenstein will allow this monster out into the world where, rather than using the monster for scientific study, it will bring about the destruction of humanity. We then watch the helpless creators of this bomb try to race to stop the monsters trail of destruction before it is too late. If we compare Dr. Strangelove to Full Metal Jacket, we can see that Kubrick likes to use the Frankenstein structure to tackle America’s creation and reaction to the conflicts it has found itself in throughout the years. In the case of Dr. Strangelove, it is the Cold War and as we will see in Full Metal Jacket, it is the Vietnam War.

In 1968, Kubrick released 2001: A Space Odyssey, which featured a sequence incredibly similar to the story of Frankenstein. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, we meet a creation named HAL, which is hailed as a scientific breakthrough. HAL 9000 is a computer on board a space station that interacts with the crew of the ship. We learn that HAL is in charge of running the space ships major functions. Also on board the ship are five crewmen, three of which are in a cryogenic hibernation. The two who are not are two scientists named Dave (Keir Dullea) and Francis (Gary Lockwood). The first obvious similarity is that HAL is a creation of scientists just like the monster is in Frankenstein. HAL is deemed a marvel by the media but not necessarily a monster. In Frankenstein, Henry Frankenstein’s fiancé Elizabeth and her friend Victor watch in horror as the monster awakens from his miscellaneous parts. We even get a reaction from the “public”, or in Frankenstein’s case, “the villagers”, as they react in utter horror to the monster and they begin their quest to destroy it. As HAL becomes more and more monstrous, he kills Dave’s partner in their work. If we look at Frankenstein, the monster first kills Fritz, the partner of Henry Frankenstein. Through this murder, and the murder of the three other crewmembers in the cryogenic hibernation, Dave becomes more aware that he has to stop this artificially created monster before it can do more harm, even though it is not necessarily his creation. One could even view the murder of the three helpless crewmembers that are in cryogenic hibernation as the little girl who is murdered by the monster in Frankenstein. She, as the three crewmembers are, are helpless against this strong and dangerous creation. As HAL wanders his own village or castle or in 2001’s case, space station, he searches for Dave as if Dave is the creator. Dave feels the need to destroy the monster in the same vein as the villagers do in Frankenstein. Just as the villagers do, Dave corners HAL and then proceeds to destroy the monster before it can do anymore harm.

With 2001: A Space Odyssey and two of his films that followed, Kubrick really began borrowing from Frankenstein. Kubrick’s next film, A Clockwork Orange, would also have several references to the 1931 horror classic. The first important aspect I want to analyze is the character of Alex de Large (Malcolm McDowell) at the beginning of the film. When the events kick into motion, Alex is unruly youth who wanders the futuristic landscape causing trouble and committing unspeakable acts. He is a monster by choice and he doesn’t seem to have a creator. It could almost be said that Alex is his own Henry Frankenstein. But what strikes me as odd is the fact that every time Alex commits a truly horrific crime, he wears a mask. When Alex breaks into the home of Mr. Alexander, Alex and his droogs wear masks while they viciously beat Mr. Alexander and rape his wife. Later in the film, when Alex breaks into the home of the cat lady, he once again dons the same mask. What should be established about Alex is that he is actually a very refined young man. He likes Beethoven and at one point, scolds and physically attacks one of his droogs for making fun of a woman who breaks into Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It seems that when he goes out and causes chaos, we are not seeing the real Alex. When Alex is caught after murdering the cat lady, he is then chosen for a experiment that is supposed to “fix” his destructive behavior. In Thomas Allen Nelson’s Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze, Nelson describes the device that holds Alex:

“Later, he is bound in a straightjacket inside a theater—his head wreathed by the straps and electronic plugs of a Frankenstein crown of thorns, his eyes held open by lidlocks—and forced to watch, but not participate in, hackneyed film versions of his past history, namely droogs tolchocking a man (the tramp scene) and raping a devotchka (the casino).” (Nelson, 157)

Nelson describes the device as Frankensteinesque and once Nelson points out the horrific nature of the device, it does seem like the device that creates the monster in Frankenstein. Just as in Frankenstein, the device is going to create a monster, but not a murderous monster. Rather than implanting the brain of a criminal, they are implanting the brain of a normal, harmless citizen. The scientists are making Alex sensitive to the sight of murder and rape. But the execution of this scene does not seem to be a comforting point of the film. This scene is particularly chilling as we are in essence seeing the creation of a new monster. Violence was normal to Alex and now, we see someone who isn’t the same. We see Alex become physically ill by the violence. Another striking aspect of this scene is the use of Beethoven’s music in the background of these images. Could this be suggesting the perversion of a refined brain? It is possible, as the real Alex does not seem to exist after the experiments.

Shortly after the “treatment” that Alex receives by the Henry Frankenstein’s, Alex is then put on display in front of a room of scientists so that can marvel at what a scientific breakthrough that he is. He is called 655321 by his captors and is never referred to by his real name. He has lost his identity, he uniqueness and is now looked at as a science experiment rather than a human being. This seems to go hand and hand with Frankenstein’s monster. Frankenstein’s monster isn’t an individual and he lacks a name to his creator and his captors. When Alex is presented on the stage to the room of scientists, you almost expect one of them to exclaim, “It’s alive!” just like Henry Frankenstein does when he realizes his experiment is a success. When Alex takes the stage, an actor comes out and proceeds to slap and abuse him. Could this actor be mirroring Fritz, as Fritz taunts and abuses the monster? In Frankenstein, the monster attacks Fritz, but in A Clockwork Orange, when Alex tries to defend himself, he becomes ill at the thought of violence. Alex is a different monster than the monster in Frankenstein, but mad scientists create them both and they both Alex and the monster lack an identity.

Another interesting similarity comes when Alex is released into society. People do not view him as a “reformed” human being, but rather a freak who is part of an experiment. Alex’s parents reject him and have replaced him with a new “son”. Alex then flees his parents flat and wanders the futuristic “village” and is attacked by a group of homeless men who could be mirroring the villagers in Frankenstein. Two policeman break up the attacks on Alex by the homeless men, but then they proceed to beat Alex as well. It turns out, that these two policemen are two of Alex’s former droogs. They take Alex to the outskirts of the town, beat him and then leave him for dead. The droogs also tell Alex they will see him around, almost implying that if Alex shows his face in town again, they will destroy him. Alex, who is left bloodied and covered in mud then shuffles about the outskirts of the “village” in a similar way that Frankenstein’s monster does in Frankenstein. It is also important to point out that Alex is stumbling around in a strong storm. This storm forces Alex to unknowingly seek shelter in the house of Mr. Alexander, whom we have met earlier as Alex and his droogs attacked him. What Alex does not realize is that he has also created a monster in Mr. Alexander, so Alex is the monster and is also a Henry Frankenstein. Because of the storm, which forces Alex to Mr. Alexander’s “castle”, he creates a monster in a storm. Mr. Alexander takes Alex in and realizes he is the boy that the government performed experiments on but he does not recognize Alex is the one who beat him and killed his wife until Alex begins singing “Singin’ in the Rain”, which is what Alex sang during the rape. While Alex sings the song, Mr. Alexander’s monster is awakened. Once again, we almost expect someone to exclaim, “It’s alive!” as Mr. Alexander becomes an entirely different person. Rather than the kind Good Samaritan that took in Alex, he is now the monster who is seeking revenge on his creator. What is also striking is that Mr. Alexander seems to have his own personal Fritz, as Fritz seems to appear in Julian, the man that is residing with Mr. Alexander. Julian performs Mr. Alexander’s dirty work. Mr. Alexander is especially interesting because he acts as monster and destroyer of the monster. Through Mr. Alexander’s vengeance, he almost kills his creator. He drives Alex to try to commit suicide as Alex is becoming physically ill at the sound of Beethoven. This scene is especially intriguing because it could almost mirror the climax of Frankenstein, when the monster throws Henry Frankenstein off of a roof, nearly killing him. Alex is nearly killed and even though he chooses to jump out the window himself, he is still driven to suicide by a monster that he has created. Mr. Alexander also works as outraged villager by destroying the nameless monster that Alex has become. Alex has reverted right back to his old ways of ultra-violence in the end. It is also important to note that Alex has gained his identity back. Alex is recognized as a normal human being by society and his parents rather than some horrific experiment.

The final Kubrick film that has references to Frankenstein is Kubrick’s 1987 film Full Metal Jacket. From the first shot of the film, we can tell Kubrick is still interested in borrowing aspects from Frankenstein. We see several men who are receiving haircuts from a military barber. We watch as they all stare blankly at the camera as all of their hair is shaved off. It becomes obvious that this haircut is all just part of the process of turning innocent young men into blank, identical monsters. Shortly after this scene, we are introduced to the man who is acting as the Henry Frankenstein. He goes by the name Gny. Sgt. Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) and his job is to breakdown this young soldiers and turn them into mindless killing machines. When we first meet Hartman, he tells the young men: “You will be a minister of death praying for war. But until that day you are pukes. You are the lowest form of life on Earth. You are not even human fucking beings!” Right from the start, Kubrick subtly slips in that these are monsters in progress. If we compare Hartman to Henry Frankenstein, they are in essence the same person. Both Hartman and Frankenstein are both creating mindless monster that will all go out and kill. Just as Frankenstein implants a criminal brain in his creation, Hartman will do the same exact thing. In one particular scene in Full Metal Jacket, Hartman is lecturing about firing weapons to a large group of marines. This is the conversation that takes place in the scene:

Hartman: “Do any of you people know who Charles Whittman was?” (No one raises their hand) “None of you dumbasses knows?”

Pvt. Cowboy: “Sir, he was that guy that shot all those people from that tower in Austin, Texas, sir!”

Hartman: “Anybody know who Lee Harvery Oswald was?”

(Everyone raises their hands)

Pvt. Snowball: “Sir, he shot Kennedy, sir!”

The point of this exchange is to show the young maries that killers emerged from the marines and to point out that they were skilled in killing too. Hartman is exactly like Frankenstein in how they both instill criminal mindsets in their monsters.

The first monster that we stumble across in Full Metal Jacket is Pvt. Pyle, who at first seems rather harmless. As the training sequences go on and Hartman gets further into the head of Pyle, we start to see the harmless, clumsy young man descend into madness. During the discussion about Whitman and Oswald, we get a close up shot of Pyle, who has a blank expression on his face and it appears that his eyes are rolling back into his head. His appearance seems almost monstrous like Frankenstein’s monster. What is also notable about the discussion about Whitman and Oswald is that there seems to be a storm brewing in the background. In Frankenstein, the monster is created during a rather violent storm. After this sequence, Pyle seems to be more and more primitive in his actions. This all leads up to Pyle’s murder/suicide that he brutally commits. Pvt. Joker, one of the main characters in the film, is on watch duty one evening and he finds Pvt. Pyle sitting on a toilet with a weapon. When Pyle starts to raise his voice and act out in the typical primitive way, his Henry Frankenstein, who is Hartman, emerges to try to stop his behavior. Pyle then successfully murders Hartman and then turns the gun on himself. Pyle cannot live with what he has become and he acts as terrified villager and kills himself, which destroys the monster.

After this training and murder/suicide sequence, the film then travels to Vietnam, which is what the soldiers are training for. This is where we begin to follow to other monsters that were created by Hartman’s Henry Frankenstein. We follow Pvt. Joker and Pvt. Cowboy and their experiences in Vietnam that climaxes in their showdown with a Vietnamese sniper. What is interesting about Pvt. Joker’s appearance is that he has written on his helmet. Scrawled across his helmet says Born To Kill and at one point, he gives an explanation as to why he has that written on his helmet. I believe that this keeps tradition with the installation of the criminal mindset. Joker was installed with a criminal mind and, just like Frankenstein’s monster, was born to kill. Pvt. Joker and Pvt. Cowboy seem less monstrous until they are faced with this sniper. When the group of soldiers that they are traveling with gets attacked and several of their men get killed, they decide to storm the building that the sniper is located in and kill them. Joker eventually stumbles upon the sniper and just as he gets ready to shoot the sniper, his gun jams and he gives away his position. Just as tries to go for his pistol, another marine storms in and kills the sniper. What is important to not about this scene is that the sniper is a young, terrified girl and the abandoned building that she hides in is burning. The marines all stand around the young girls body and try to figure out what to do with her, as she lies dying. They all have the smallest bit of remorse on their face, similar to the monster in Frankenstein. What is interesting about the fire that surrounds them is the fact that it was fire that killed Frankenstein’s monster. Could Kubrick be implying that these men will all burn for being the monsters that they are? They are one big group of created monsters, who after killing the young Vietnamese girl, march on while casually singing the Mickey Mouse theme song. They march on and sing a children’s song and they never stop to reflect on the violence that they inflict. They are marching about a primitive looking environment where terrified villagers are trying to corner these strange monsters and destroy them. What is also interesting is that we strictly see the marine’s silhouettes. We do not see any detail and it becomes impossible to distinguish one from the other. These men are one collective, primitive and created monster that lunges through the night and kills.

Another interesting aspect of Full Metal Jacket is that Kubrick decided to explore the Vietnam War. America entered the Vietnam War with the intentions to help the southern part of Vietnam fight back against Communists from northern Vietnam. But as the years passed and the death toll of American troops kept rising, the Vietnam War started becoming extremely unpopular. If we compare the Vietnam War to Frankenstein, we can start to see some similarities. We first have to look for the “mad scientist”, or in this case “scientists”, which could be the U.S. Senate and President Johnson for the escalation of involvement in the conflict. The war last from 1964 to 1975 and every year the war lasted, it spiraled more and more out of control. So the Henry Frankenstein’s in the case of the Vietnam War would be the U.S. Senate and President Johnson and their monstrous creation would then have to be the Vietnam War. If we look at the American backlash of the Vietnam War, we could even say that the American public was the outraged villagers. They protested the creation of the monster. Young men did not want to be sent to die in a war that they were unclear on. If we look at the similarities of the war and the film to Frankenstein, Kubrick was referencing Frankenstein of multiple levels. It clearly emerged in certain scenes, situations and characters within Full Metal Jacket and it if we looked close enough; it was in the subject matter that Kubrick was using as the backdrop for the film.

In 1999, Stanley Kubrick released his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, which thematically seems to be interested in other topics. It does not seem to borrow from Frankenstein and seems to have other interests on its mind. I believe that these similarities are quite striking and seem to dominate much of his later work. While Eyes Wide Shut and his 1975 film Barry Lyndon seem to steer away from these trends, I believe that Kubrick was heavily interested in the creation of monsters. The Frankenstein structure is just one of the layers to Kubrick’s multilayered films. This is what has made Kubrick so fascinating, that the more you study his films and peel back the layers, the more you will find. In this case, Kubrick is a regular Henry Frankenstein. He has created some films that we are still marveling over after all these years.

Works Cited

Nelson, Thomas A. Kubrick: Inside A Film Artist’s Maze. Pg. 157. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2000. Retrieved: 9 Dec, 2009 Print.

The Killing is now available on Blu-ray for the first time. The Kubrick Collection is also available.

Posted on August 25, 2011, in FEATURE and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Man, you’ve got to check this out. Been reading it all night about Kubrick and The SHining and it blows my mind.

    http://kubrickfilms.tripod.com/id4.html

    I need to watch the film again right away.

    • I checked out the link you left here. Very interesting indeed. I really admire Kubrick and I love his entire body of work. Such a multilayered artist and his films have stood the test of time. We still scratch our heads over aspects of them.

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