Thursday, May 12, 2022

Review: 'It's Alive'

A film as timeless and iconic as James Whale's Frankenstein is going to stir its share of myths and mysteries. Why exactly did Bela Lugosi not end up playing the Monster? Why did Universal's studio chief, Carl Laemmle, allow son Junior to make another one of those gruesome horrors dad found so detestable? How did the virtually unknown character actor Boris Karloff land such a career-making role? 

I won't go into the multitudinous theoretical answers to all these questions because Julian David Stone already did it for me. His new book, It's Alive, is a work of historical fiction that provides confident answers to the big questions floating around Frankenstein. Since his book includes no foreword or afterword, just the story, I'm not sure what Stone's methodology was or what sources he consulted, but ultimately when dealing with historical fiction, it's best to treat the material more as fiction than history. Otherwise, you may come away from watching Ed Wood believing all the incredibly entertaining bunk Tim Burton slapped up on the screen.

So how does It's Alive hold up as a novel? Quite marvelously, actually. Stone knows his audience because he clearly is his audience. Only a full-blooded Monster Kid would write a book like this, with its geeky glimpses into the creation of Jack Pierce's iconic makeup, Lugosi's highly self-conscious quoting from his most famous role (which I really don't doubt he did), the cameos from Mae Clarke and John Boles, and such. But it also feels real because Stone does a broad yet authentic job of capturing the personalities and voices of his three main characters. If you know anything about Lugosi and Junior Laemmle, you know that they were both tremendously egotistical but also insecure. If you know anything about Karloff, you know that he was humble and good-humored. 

Stone also captures these characters at pivotal points in their careers, which is good for developing a high-stakes plot. Laemmle wants to keep Universal moving forward instead of floating away like a dead shark, which is likely what would have happened had he not fought to get Frankenstein made. Lugosi is a massive star, but that position is highly fragile, and though the book does not show us the consequences of his poor, ego-driven decisions, anyone who cares enough about this topic to read a historical-novel about it will likely already know how things turn out for the Count. They'll also know that Karloff will become a major star with a very long and high-profile career ahead of him, but It's Alive captures him right before that, when he was hungry and desperate and unsure of whether or not he'd get the role that would make him. 

A lot of the plot points are completely new to me, such as the idea that Whale threatened to quit the job because Junior agreed to put Karloff, Whale's number one choice to play the Monster, in the picture at the last minute. Such things make me wonder if Stone uncovered some previously unknown information or if it's all pure conjecture. So I wouldn't go using It's Alive as a source for that Karloff biography you're writing, but if you're a Monster Kid, you'll certainly get a kick out of it. And I am hoping that Junior's teasing thoughts about a Bride that end the book are a hint that a sequel is in the offing...

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