Can a monster ever be human? What do we make of a creator that repels its creation? And what of the desire to know our creator? When Mary Shelley wrote “Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus” in Geneva more than 200 years ago, she created an archetypal, pitiable, grotesque character that, in her uniquely structured horror novel, becomes more human the closer we get to its story.
The Chicago troupe Manual Cinema has visualized Shelley’s formula of telling Frankenstein’s tale in multiple POVs and styles using its signature combination of film, puppets, silhouettes, live music and sound effects. The audience watches the troupe expertly create live-action movies projected onto screens above and behind them, cleverly using costumes, props, and quick changes. It’s a unique sensation: “film” usually implies its work has been created in the past, but here it’s live-feed cinema.
For those who are familiar with the book (or other Frankenstein film iterations), the story opens true – a lone figure, fleeing across forests, islands, finally alone on an ice floe. From there, the narrative pulls back to Shelley herself, writing in a cold London winter, 1815, balancing her creative flow with the demands of motherhood. When tragedy strikes, she and her husband Percy Shelley travel to Geneva to summer with Lord Byron. That rainy, gloomy summer (due to a volcanic eruption in Asia) shuts them in, and a book of ghost stories launches a writing contest between them which inspires another creation and taps her imagination.
The muted colors, sepia tones, and stained yellows, periodic intertitles, combined with silhouettes – a popular type of portraiture in the 18th century – efficiently telegraph another age. The narrative moves from Shelley to Victor Frankenstein, and in telling his tale the form moves to black and white cinema using cues from German Expressionist films and silent cinema close-ups. Sarah Fornace (who plays both Mary Shelley and Victor) has an expressive face that conveys horror, delight, and madness.
The original music by Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman beautifully builds up the tension, with creative passages and sound effects (and even steampunk-style automated percussion instruments placed across the stage). The music in the silent film is integral to the experience, and here the musicians and periodic vocals add a spooky atmosphere.
The visual idiom changes again for the Monster’s narrative, one of the most poignant passages of the work. Rather than shocked by its horror, I saw it as pitiable, rejected by the world of man and its creator. Plagued by its human desires for love, family, and belonging, it searches fruitlessly for unity and becomes as cold and horrific as it is perceived.
A later intertitle shows a Shelley quote: “I became capable of bestowing animation of lifeless matter.” So she and Victor give birth to a monster whose suffering still inspires the twinned feelings of compassion and revulsion, and it’s here that the work succeeds in tapping those contrary emotions.