Body of a boy! Mind of a monster! Soul of an unearthly thing! So say the posters for 1957’s I Was a Teenage Frankenstein – the less charismatic but intriguing semi follow-up to American International Pictures’ I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Flatly directed, statically shot, but with enough pseudo-scientific positing to enjoy, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein is strangely enjoyable. Whilst this is not a well-made film, one can certainly find gleeful entertainment in its gruesome aesthetics.
Professor Frankenstein (Whit Bissell) intends to succeed where his “great ancestor” failed: to create a living being. But this time, the Professor intends to use “only the ingredients of youth” to bring forth a being whom he can instruct and control. Conveniently, just as the Professor is explaining his plans to his assistant, Dr. Karlton (Robert Burton), a group of teenagers crash their cars outside the Professor’s home. Naturally, this prompts the Professor to steal one of the dead teenagers’ bodies for his experiment. As the Professor acquires more bodies, his youthful creation begins to take shape – in the form of Gary Conway. Conway’s monster, once awoken, wastes little time before longing to see the outside world. However, Professor Frankenstein reminds him of why this isn’t possible: by showing him his scarred and twisted visage that lies beneath his bandages. From here, the teenage monster makes an escape, killing a girl in the process, and complicating the plans of the calculating Professor Frankenstein.
In June of 1957, Hammer’s groundbreaking The Curse of Frankenstein hit U.S. cinemas. With its bright, Eastmancolor blood, the brilliantly malevolent performance of Peter Cushing, and the striking look of Christopher Lee’s creature, the film arguably remains effective to this day. Indeed, one can see its effects front and centre in I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, released in November that same year. The film has its share of gore (severed legs, decapitated heads, and the face of the teenage monster itself), which certainly lends it an edge over its relatively tame contemporaries, but the impetus for this may well have been Hammer’s box office success.
Whit Bissell’s performance as Professor Frankenstein is difficult to read. On one hand, the cold, manipulative performance of Bissell is sometimes effective. Bissell’s Professor is passionately obsessed with the completion of his work, leading him to neglect and eventually physically abuse his fiancé, Margaret (Phyllis Coates). In part, this is absolutely down to Whit Bissell’s acting abilities. His projection allows for much of the pseudo-science the script churns out to seem convincing; the words of a pompous man focused on proving his scientific prowess to the world. Bissell projects a man whose ease in manipulating others is unsettling.
However, one wonders whether the Professor being so evil was a conscious effort on the part of the filmmakers, or whether it was an accident of clumsy writing. Part of what makes the character so unlikeable is his casual (and sometimes aggressive) sexism, and one wonders whether this was intentional, or just a byproduct of contemporary social dynamics. It would be easier (and indeed more desirable) to believe that the script was written to intentionally paint a picture of a selfish man if it wasn’t riddled with lines that illuminate its ineptitude, such as “Speak! You’ve got a civil tongue in your head. I know you have, because I sewed it back myself!” Maybe it was a conscious decision, warranting further consideration and praise of Bissell’s performance. Sadly, that “civil tongue” line lingers. Perhaps we’ll never know.
Gary Conway’s monster is sympathetic, but perhaps this is more so because of the extra-textual knowledge that one is meant to sympathise with the Frankenstein monster. That being said, at times Conway genuinely does evoke our sympathies as we watch him stumble about a world unfamiliar to him. Sadly, the film does not explore more meaningful avenues of thought regarding the monster. We feel sorry for him, but from a disengaged perspective.
It’s interesting to note that when Richard W. Nason reviewed the film in 1958 for The New York Times, Nason seemed affronted at the prospect of the film aggravating the “mass social sickness euphemistically termed ‘juvenile delinquency’” It’s a fascinating contemporary anxiety to consider, especially when one can alternatively read the film making a point (if it makes any points at all) not about teenage violence, but rather the damaging influence of authoritarian parenting. Professor Frankenstein orders his creation about remorselessly, only thinking of what its being means to his success. He is enamoured with its existence, not its personhood. And of course, it isn’t hard to imagine what kinds of trauma this leaves.
This is a flatly shot film; its simple setups allow the actors to casually amble through expository dialogue without any visual flare that could have alleviated from such lines as, “Isn’t that the way of women? They make us poor men suffer for their blunders” The cinematography displays little creative innovation, perhaps due to it (and double feature partner Blood of Dracula) being written and put into production in just four weeks – according to producer Herman Cohen. Perhaps the only noteworthy point regarding the visuals is that in the film’s final act, the film bursts into vibrant colour. This was a trend American International Pictures played with for several of their horror and science fiction films at the time (also used in the final acts of War of the Colossal Beast and How to Make a Monster – both 1958). Admittedly, it is a fun gimmick.
I Was a Teenage Frankenstein is not a good film. And yet, it’s a film that one can very much enjoy. This isn’t to do so condescendingly – as so many critics and scholars tend to do with 1950s science fiction and horror. Rather, whilst accepting the film’s shortcomings, one can still find fun and entertainment in a horror picture that very clearly wasn’t aiming for high art. The inclusion of I Was a in the title arguably hints at some comedic implication, even if the film predominantly plays for horror. At the very least, one can certainly enjoy the visage of the teenage monster and the bang of the colour finale.