The Universal monsters have become iconic since their first appearances. Lon Chaney as The Phantom of the Opera (1925) brought the tragic character on screen. Bela Legosi as Dracula (1931) provided the baseline for future cinematic vampires. Boris Karloff as The Mummy (1932). Claude Rains as The Invisible Man (1933). Lon Chaney Jr. as The Wolfman (1941). But the most endearing character may have been Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster, in the 1931 Frankenstein. Karloff portrayed the Monster as a child, with a wonder about him as he discovers the world around him, turning the character from the vengeful being in Mary Shelley’s novel to a tragic victim hunted down by villagers.
The success of Frankenstein led to sequels, including Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Son of Frankenstein (1939), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Classics beget spoofs, much like the Abbott and Costello movie. With a film that has permeated pop culture, further parodies were due. Thus steps in Gene Wilder. Because both Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein had scared him as a child, Wilder had an idea for a script that rewrote the ending of both movies. He had set it aside when his new agent, Mike Medavoy, suggested that Wilder team up with Peter Boyle and Marty Feldman for a movie, actors that Medavoy also represented. Wilder reworked a scene from his script and submitted it.
The resulting movie, Young Frankenstein (1974), was co-written by Wilder and Mel Brooks, with Brooks directing it. Wilder starred as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, pronounced “Fron-ken-steen” as he tried to distance himself from his grandfather Victor. Boyle played the Creature, portraying the Creature with the same child-like approach that Karloff used. Feldman played Igor, pronounced “Eye-gor”, the grandson of Victor Frankenstein’s assistant. Frederick is a famed neurologist, teaching at a university, when he is found by a lawyer for his grandfather’s estate.
Frederich makes the trip to Transylvania, meeting Igor and Inga, played by Teri Garr. Igor takes Frederick and Inga to the Frankenstein castle, which has been maintained by Frau Blucher, played by Cloris Leachman. Blucher is excited for Frederick’s visit; it’s a chance for Victor’s experiment to live again. The movie then follows the beats of the original movie, from the theft of a suitable body for the Creature to raising the body up to be hit by lightning to even the Creature meeting the little girl. All through this, though, are bits of humour, which is the true draw of the film. Young Frankenstein diverges from the original when Frederick makes the decision to take care of the Creature, unlike Victor’s attempts to subjugate his Monster. Frederick’s efforts lead to a song and dance number that goes wrong, leading to angry villages with torches and pitchforks. Even with that, everyone gets a happy ending, from Frederich and Inga to the Creature and Elizabeth, Frederich’s former fiancée played by Madeline Kahn, and even the angry villagers.
The beats aren’t the only factor at play. Young Frankenstein was filmed in black and white, making it an outlier where every other movie being made that decade was in colour. But it’s not just being in black and white that adds to the mood. The credits, the cinematography, the music, all were done in the style of the original movie. Brooks even had the original lab equipment on hand, thanks to Kenneth Strickfaden, who built the equipment for the original movie. Young Frankenstein maintains the mood of the original, thanks to lighting, while still being funny, a difficult task pulled off with style.
Beyond just aesthetics, the cast raised a good movie into a comedy classic. Wilder, Boyle, and Feldman worked well together. Wilder admitted in a bonus feature on the Young Frankenstein DVD that several roles were good until their actors took them, whereupon the roles became great. Kahn was originally thought of as Inga, but she preferred Elizabeth. Garr read for Inga in a German accent. Kenneth Mars took the role of Inspector Kemp and elevated what was written in the script. Leachman as Frau Blucher dominates her scenes. Even Gene Hackman in his role as the Blindman is more than what was written for the scene.
While Young Frankenstein is a parody, it builds off the original, using /Frankenstein/ as the base to hang the jokes on while still keeping the mood. Young Frankenstein works as a sequel of the original as much as it does a parody. The effort put in by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks pays off.
Since the series first aired in 1966, Star Trek has made inroad into not just geek culture but global culture. It is rare to find anyone unfamiliar with the concepts of the series and unable to name at least one Captain. The show’s prominence and tropes also make it ripe for parodies. Each series and movie in the Trek franchise has been fodder for humourists. The franchise even was featured as the first review here at Lost in Translation.
Fan films are getting less expensive to make. With CGI, many effects that would be too expensive to do practically, like crashing a car or blowing up a model starship, now just needs a skilled artist. The camera equipment needed has also fallen in price while becoming digital and smaller. The Canadian low-budget horror movie Manborg was made for around Cdn$1000 and featured extensive green-screening and stop-motion animation. The Four Players used limited sets and CGI in four separate shorts featuring the characters from Super Mario Bros. Today, it is very possible to equal the effects of the big screen with inexpensive software coupled with skill and talent.
Star Wreck started as a series of shorts on YouTube. Five friends in a two-room apartment used blue-screening technology to digitally add the sets needed. Outdoor sets were found in the Finnish outdoors. The sixth, Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning, received a budget sliightly under 14 000 Euros and a feature-length DVD release. The version watched for this review was the Imperial Edition. Star Wreck followed the exploits of the CPP Potkustartti, or as the subtitles call it, the CPP Kickstart*, her captain, James B. Pirk, and her crew, including Commander Info, an android, and Commander Dwarf, a Plingon. The end of Star Wreck V saw Pirk, Info, and Dwarf stranded on Earth in the early 21st Century, trying not to change the course of history.
In the Pirkinning begins with Pirk drunk and tired of being stuck in a primitive era. He reunites with Info and Dwarf and, armed with the knowledge of where the Vulgar (Vulcan) ship that made first contact is, starts working to build a new Kickstart. Unfortunately, the man who contacted the Vulgars, Johnny Cochbrane (Zefram Cochrane), sold the ship to the Russians. Pirk takes his crew, all two of them, to a Russian nuclear facility and convinces them to overthrow capitalism to bring back the Soviet Union. Among those working at the facility is Sergey Fukov** (Chekov), an ancestor of one of Pirk’s former crewmen. Sergey also worked at Chernobyl, where he had accidentally turned off the wrong cooling unit instead of the unit in his quarters.
With his newly Soviet Russian army, Pirk convinces President Ulyanov to assist in the building of the new CPP Kickstart. With control of the Russian army and the new Kickstart and her sleds (shuttlecraft), Pirk overthrows Ulyanov, declares himself Emperor, invades Europe and then the United States. No country can withstand the invasions, which is sold via propaganda as liberating the invaded nations. The P-Fleet is built, with all vessels having twist drives (warp drives), shove engines (impulse drives), twinklers (phasers), and light balls (photon torpedoes). Too bad the P-Fleet was built by the Russians; the maximum speed the ships can maintain is Twist Factor 2.
Another problem Emperor Pirk faces is the overpopulation of Earth. He sends the P-Fleet out to scout for new worlds to colonize. Most of the close ones aren’t suitable for human life, as the expendable redshirts would attest to if they hadn’t died demonstrating the lack of suitability. However, the CPP Kalinka, commanded by Sergey Fukov, discovers a maggot hole (worm hole) from which an alien ship emerges. Following Pirk’s General Order 3, the instant destruction of any alien vessel, Fukov orders the alien vessel destroyed. After investigating the wreckage, though, it turns out the occupant was human.
The P-Fleet arrives at the maggot hole to investigate and, if needed, to conquer any worlds beyond for colonization. The Kalinka is ordered into the maggot hole, Pirk figuring that the rust bucket and her captain would be no major loss to the P-Fleet. Instead, Fukov reports back that the inside of the maggot hole changes colour. The rest of the fleet enters the hole and spots two larger alien vessels that use a signal to exit. Pirk’s crew figures out what the signal was and uses it to exit as well.
At this point, the breadth of science fiction knowledge of the creators is shown. There’s a space station, the Babel 13 (Babylon 5), sitting near the hopgate (jump gate). When negotiations break down with Commander Jonny Sherrypie (Commander John Sheridan), Pirk orders the P-Fleet to strike. The resulting battle is something that many pre-CGI filmmakers could only dream about. The P-Fleet has the early advantage, with their twinklers and light balls, but once ships like the Backgammon (Agamemnon) get in range, they open fire. The ships from the Trek part of the parody have special effects similar to what was seen in The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. The Babylon 5 portion, though, use special effects that wouldn’t be out of place on the original series. The resulting scene is one that should be studied as an example of how to get details right.
During the battle, the Excavator, commanded by Psy-Co (Psy Corp) officer Festerbester (Alfred Bester) appears and targets the P-Fleet’s flagship, mainly because Pirk’s ship is the only one with enough light balls to continue the battle. Festerbester is portrayed by the same actor playing Fukov, just as Walter Koenig played both Chekov and Bester. The battle is decided by a twist core split resulting in an explosion that destroys both the Kickstart and the Excavator.
The difficulty in reviewing In the Pirkinning is not just working out how well the parody captures the essence of both Star Trek and Babylon 5, but dealing with watching a foreign language film relying on subtitles. There is a culture gap between Finland and Canada that Star Wreck demonstrates. The treatment of Russians was the first indication of the difference between Finnish and Canadian humour. The subtitles assisted; whenever a Russian spoke, ze subtitles bekame a form of accent as the Russians happily overthrew kapitalism to bring back kommunism. The subtitles for the unintelligible Scottish engineer were just as unintelligible.
It was obvious while watching In the Pirkinning that the cast and crew knew their science fiction, that they had watched both Trek and B5. Sherrypie’s penchant for long-winded speeches, the entire mirror universe vibe of Emperor Pirk’s P-Fleet, the dual role of Fukov and Festerbester, the exploding plasma consoles on the Kickstart all show the level of detail and knowledge. The parody still respects the original works even while poking fun. Only a fan could get both series well enough to parody without being mean-spirited. Some of the details may have been lost in translation***, but, overall, the parody managed to pull together two distinct TV series and keep their tone while adding to the work.
Next week, Daredevil.
* For ease, I will stick to the English translation, mainly to keep the pun of the name.
** Pronounced exactly as you’re thinking.
*** So to speak. *cough*