Welcome, fright fans, to the second installment of a litlle something something your host likes to call the Silent Scream Series, a fan's tour of the roots of horror cinema.
Today we've got something extra special . . . read on, fright fan, read on.
For me, the Holy Grail of silent film horror has always the Edison Company's 1910 film Frankenstein. This 15 minute flick, shot in New York City at Edison's studios, was the first adaptation of the Shelly classic that became one of the cornerstones of cinematic horror. Presumed lost for decades, the film was known only through indirect evidence. Edison created an advertisement that featured an image of the monster: studio regular Charles Ogle in a long wig, fright make-up, and a suit of rags - a look modeled on then popular stage adaptations of Shelly's novel. Edison also produced a mailer intended to assuage any fears exhibitors might have had that the film would upset their patrons:
To those familiar with Mrs. Shelly’s story it will be evident that we have carefully omitted anything which might be any possibility shock any portion of the audience. In making the film the Edison Co. has carefully tried to eliminate all actual repulsive situations and to concentrate its endeavors upon the mystic and psychological problems that are to be found in this weird tale. Wherever, therefore, the film differs from the original story it is purely with the idea of eliminating what would be repulsive to a moving picture audience.
Modern horror buffs also had a handful of reviews. The picture was, if these surviving reviews are typical, well-received by critics.
Sadly, because Edison Studios only struck about 40 prints of any given film, their survival rate was not great. Frankenstein was among those thought lost forever. In 1980, the American Film Institute declared Edison's Frankenstein one of the ten most "culturally and historically significant lost films."
What the AFI didn't know was that a single print had survived. In the 1950s, a Wisconsin film collector named Alois Felix Dettlaff Sr. purchased a stash of old films, of which Edison's Frankenstein was one. Dettlaff eventually figured out what he had in his possession and he's guarded it like a hawk. A DVD version of the film is available from Dettlaff's own production company – though I've never seen any copies for sale.
Happily, we live in the age of the Internet, were nothing stays safe and secure for long. Over on Google videos, you can catch the entire film for free. Check it out, Screamers and Screamettes.
Perhaps the coolest bit of this flick is the creation scene. Curiously, Edison, a name synonymous with electricity, did not have his Frankenstein create his monster by harnessing lightening – the method preferred by many later film Frankensteins. Instead, the monster is created in a vat of chemicals, its body slowly taking shape out of the mists rising from the cauldron. This special effect was created by building a model of the monster and then slowly burning it. The film was then run backwards, giving the illusion that the body was slowly materializing. It's pretty boss stuff as far as early SFX go.