Adult Swim Series Review: Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole

October: the month in which we can all openly celebrate the horrific and the macabre. We decorate our houses with the classic expected symbols of the season: vampire bats, mummies, ghosts, spiders, and skeletons all thrown into the mix. We make costumes to dress as our favorite scary characters for the month, and of course we consume a metric ass-ton of horror media. Survival horror games, scary movies, horror TV shows, death metal (well, if you’re me, at least): we all overdose on this, as we should. I know it’s a pass time I greatly enjoy around this time of season. To celebrate the occasion, I am here to review one of the spookier offerings in the library of Adult Swim’s original programming. A show about monsters, time travel, death and immortality… and the whiniest asshole to ever be labeled as a mad scientist in the history of ever. So come. Take my hand. We’re going down… the FRANKENHOLE (lightning cracks everywhere)!


 

 

    Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole first premiered on June 27th, 2010. The series was the brainchild of writer/producer/stop-motion aficionado Dino Stamatopoulos, also known for creating the Adult Swim classic Moral Orel and for his work on various other television shows, such as Community and The Jack and Triumph Show. Frankenhole aired for 2 seasons, with the final episode premiering on March 25th, 2012. Each season was 10 episodes each, although a certain episode from season 1 has never been broadcast OR released to the public in any known capacity, but I’ll expand on that later. With that information out of the way, on to the review proper.

 

Our main character: Victor Frankenstein
Our main character: Victor Frankenstein

 

Frankenstein's Creation and Elizabeth Frankenstein
Frankenstein’s Creation and Elizabeth Frankenstein

 

Taking place literally “Somewhere In Eastern Europe”, the main character of the show is Dr. Victor Frankenstein, the titular lead of the classic Mary Shelley novel. In the universe of the show, Dr. Frankenstein has managed to master and control the concepts of time and immortality. Victor, his wife Elizabeth, and his assistant Dr. Sanguinaire Polidori, have all achieved eternal life and, in addition to this, has created an infinite series of wormholes leading to his lair from every time period imaginable. The existence of the doctor and the Frankenholes are well-known throughout all of time and space, as people from all across the time stream frequently visit him in request of his distinct mad scientist services. When he’s not dealing with visitors from the past, the doctor frequently has to contend with the annoyances of his home life. These include the rocky relationship with his wife, the annoyance of his elderly-yet-still-childish children, and the presence of his creation, probably one of the few morally decent characters in the entire cast. The doctor must also deal with the various supernatural entities and other people who frequently get on his nerves, like rival mad scientist Dr. Jekyll (voiced by Community/Rick and Morty creator Dan Harmon), Dracula’s frequent attempts to have an affair with Elizabeth, and even Death himself (played by Stamatopoulos), who greatly desires the doctor’s respect since he cannot take Victor with him due to immortality.

 

The first thing to note about the series is just how phenomenal it looks from an aesthetic standpoint. The character models all have a construction paper/cardboard look to them with unnerving designs that really stand out from most other stop-motion works which rely on claymation and action figures and generally have more smooth round features. The motion of the characters resembles old silent films with an appropriately creaky-jittery sense of fluidity, essentially being a visual stutter. The sets and miniatures are remarkably well-designed, bleeding with sincere love for the visuals and iconography of old-school horror: the gothic designs of the Universal Studios monster movies (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, etc.), the updated versions of those films from Hammer Studios, and the bizarre sharp/angular designs taken from the German Expressionist style of silent films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu. Hell, Nosferatu himself is a recurring minor character within the series, and of course he can only speak in those classic silent film text boxes.

Nosferatu and Creation

 

Every frame of this series is a masterpiece from top to bottom and a feast for the eyes as you try to take in all the amazing design work put into it. This affection for horror also extends to a segment which would show in front of some the early premiere episodes of the first season, Count Dino’s Dungeon. In these bits, Dino would dress as a vampire in a deliberately cheap-looking stage setup, referencing the beloved tradition of horror movie shows featuring appropriately spooky hosts, perhaps most famous of these figures being Elvira of Elvira’s Movie Macabre. Count Dino’s Dungeon, seemed to take some if its design cues from one in particular: the long-running (since 1970) Chicago-based horror showcase Svengoolie. 

 

Why would skeletons have hair of any kind?
Top left + Bottom: Count Dino’s Dungeon. Top right: Svengoolie. Why do skeletons have hair?

It’s worth noting that much like the final season of Moral Orel, the first season of Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole employs a highly nonlinear type of storytelling and presentation, mainly stemming from both the presence of miscellaneous immortal characters and the titular portals allowing people to travel all across the time stream. It’s not even really possible to pin down an accurate timeframe across the entirety of the show in terms of how long it’s been since the doctor and his wife have been immortal. The closest I can get is that one episode mentions the “present” as being the year 3032 A.D., and Victor’s been married to Elizabeth for 1000 years, so we can assume the drinking of the immortality serum took place, at most, prior to 2032 A.D. These elements feed into a concept called eternalism which, in its simplest form, states that all points in time can be considered equally real, with the concepts of past, present, and future being completely irrelevant. To reinforce this point, the episodes of season 1 were requested by Stamatopoulos to air out of their production order. Now this isn’t an uncommon practice when it comes to television, but the way jokes and plotlines were structured within the episodes often seem highly calculated to take advantage of the two different ways of watching this season: the broadcast order and the production order.

Watching the series both ways can make for an interesting experience. Take for example the episode “LBJFK”, an episode in which former vice president Lyndon B. Johnson visits the doctor and requests swapping his brain into the body of the deceased John F. Kennedy so he can get laid as much as Kennedy did.

Also he kills Lincoln.
Also LBJ kills Lincoln.

In the official broadcast order, “LBJFK” was episode 8, but in the production order, this was the first episode. This creates a humorous bit of disconnect since if you watched the show from the beginning of its broadcast, then by now you’d be familiar with the world and its rules, so it’s funny to see Frankenhole present and explain these characters and concepts as if this is the first time you’ve seen the show. This same episode also introduces the character of Stewart Lawrence, who is this show’s Wolfman. He appears in a conversation with Frankenstein’s Creation, giving brief exposition about his ability to transform. However, in the broadcast order, Stewart’s introduction doesn’t occur until episode 5, where we actually get the full backstory of his tragic fate: getting bitten by a werewolf, seeking the doctor’s help, eventually deciding to travel back in time and have his loved one kill him, only to end up ironically turning into a werewolf and biting his past self.

 

As you may have guessed by now, the show generally follows a character-of-the-week format, with the first season focusing on historical figures and celebrities visiting the doctor and asking for his services… usually for some kind of absurd purpose. Hitler wants the doctor to perform a brain surgery that will get him to stop hating Jews, actor/producer Ron Howard wants his youth back, Blanket Jackson wants to resurrect Michael Jackson, etc. These guests are usually introduced via the opening sequence, in a rather clever fashion: the opening takes place from a first-person perspective, walking through the outer grave of the castle and eventually through the castle, with the perspective eventually turning into a mirror and revealing the guest before walking into Frankenstein’s laboratory. Much of the humor from the series comes from the time displacement itself and seeing characters from multiple different time periods interacting with the gothic locales of Somewhere In Eastern Europe, leading to scenarios like Gandhi becoming a vampire or Hitler falling in love with the Creation’s leg.

Hitler x Left Leg: the one true pairing
Hitler x Left Leg: the one true pairing.

We also get to see characters jumping around between their own time periods and other points in time, interacting with other famous characters or, in the case of the episode about Ron Howard, multiple versions of himself. One of the best jokes in the first season comes in the episode “(John) Thomas Jefferson”, in which founding father Thomas Jefferson asks Victor to replace his penis with that of a black man. They end up visiting Barack Obama in 2009, and Jefferson is just in complete and utter shock at the notion of a black man being the president of the U.S. It’s a hilariously inappropriate scene and one of my personal favorites. One recurring joke in the season is that visitors seem surprised that Frankenstein’s Creation bears absolutely no resemblance to the most famous incarnation of the monster: the film version from 1931 played by Boris Karloff. Another great recurring joke is a particular visual gag where characters are often seen reading books and magazines that are… oddly specific to their context; books can include such titles as “How To Punch Up A Montage” or “Drinking Alone Nightly”. As I mentioned earlier, there was one episode from this series that has gone unaired and unreleased: “Mother To Be-Sa”, which depicts Mother Teresa as a servant of the Frankenstein family. This is a story element that’s actually hinted at in a couple of episodes, as we do see Teresa tending to the Frankenstein’s needs, but the full episode has yet to be seen at all.

 

The second season adopts a different approach in constructing its humor and stories. While there is still some travelling across time to be found, the focus is placed less on people seeking the doctor’s services and more on sitcom-like shenanigans dealing with his everyday life. In this sense, the first season can be seen as being an overly elaborate prequel setup to get the population of Somewhere In Eastern Europe fully fleshed out. Many of the characters who were initially one-offs in season 1 are recurring characters in season 2, often seen populating the local tavern, Ye Torch and Pitchfork. The first season’s last episode (in production order) featured Blanket Jackson as a guest character, which actually makes it a solid jumping off point for the start of season 2, as the premiere episode establishes that Blanket now owns the bar where most of the supporting cast often hangs out.Ye Torch and Pitchfork Characters like Gandhi and Thomas Jefferson are seen drinking and hanging out with the village residents, like Joe the Vampire Hunter and the Mummy, a bad comedian who only ever has one joke with in him: a bad pun about being “all wrapped up” nyuck nyuck nyuck.

The episode titles and plotting of season 2 adopt their own internal trends. With the exception of one episode, every episode in this season featured the name of a prominent horror/science fiction author. Occasionally, the plots would happen to match up with the author they were named after (buckle up, kids. Time for lessons in literature). The premiere episode was called “H.G. Wells’ Scary Monster Contest”, in which the town hosts a competition to see what mad scientist can create the scariest monster. H.G. Wells was known for publishing many novels, most famously The Time Machine, The War of The Worlds, and the one relevant to the episode, The Island of Doctor Moreau. The novel was about the titular scientist who used his island to perform inhuman experiments to create half-human half-animal hybrids. The doctor himself appears in the episode, insulting Frankenstein and challenging him to enter a monster into the competition.

 

I've seen enough hentai to know where this is going.
I’ve seen enough hentai to know where this is going.

 

Doctor Moreau giving autographs.
Doctor Moreau giving autographs.

The episode “Robert Louis Stevenson’s Belushi!” features the famous Jekyll/Hyde dichotomy/serum applied to comedy actor John Belushi, turning him into Jim Belushi when he’s set off (no one likes you, Jim!). “Bram Stoker’s Loudmouths!’ appropriately deals with vampires (being named after the author of Dracula), specifically vampires who refuse to shut up in the theater and Victor Frankenstein being increasingly annoyed by this, wanting them to be taken out or silenced. One of the more interesting connections is the episode “Jules Verne’s Monster Run Rally!”, named after author Jules Verne, known for a long-running series of geographically accurate/entertaining adventure novels, Voyages Extraordinaires. You might be familiar with some of the titles in this series, such as Journey To The Center of the Earth, Around The World In 80 Days, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. The plot is a Wacky Races-style contest between all the characters and residents of Somewhere in Eastern Europe, travelling across multiple time periods and geographic locations.

The Fly motorcycle

 

Season 2 seemed to emphasize the struggles between Victor Frankenstein and Elizabeth within their relationship. The road race episode only occurs because he’s trying to impress her, after once again expressing romantic affection towards Dracula. “H.P. Lovecraft’s Vagina!” sees the two altering their genitals in a conventional “women have it easier than men” type of conflict. This is also the only episode whose title reference I can’t say I get, outside of assuming it refers to Manpussy: a creature Victor invented by just grafting a bunch of cats together into a humanoid shape.

You know... because mad science!
You know… because mad science!

The most absurd of these conflicts was in “Franz Kafka’s Jealousy!” which was about the doctor pimping his wife out to much of the village’s population. …I think the doctor might have issues of some kind. The only other episode worth paying special attention to is “Hyralius, Mutant Monster!”, a spoof of Japanese monster films. The episode features the titular monster, an Asian stereotype version of Godzilla who makes jokes reliant on Asian stereotypes. A scientist journeys through a frankenhole and seeks out the doctor’s help to stop Hyralius once and for all. The joke of this episode is that Hyralius, along with every character, is voiced over and played by exactly ONE actor: comedy actor Ken Jeong, because who else would you get to do this? This casting choice, much like the plot as a whole, comes across as an homage to a common aspect of foreign-language monster films: the bad dubbing that all sounds like it was only done by one or two people.

 

    Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole is a highly solid show, one that deserves watching for its unique comedy and distinct visual aesthetic. The show goes nuts with its time-travelling dimension hopping conceit, taking advantage of it as much as possible. I kind of wish the show was allowed to have one more season, since I think once last round of good episodes could have been obtained from this premise, but I’m happy with what we got, and the show definitely makes for a good binge watch, especially for multiple binges in the month of October. The entire series can be streamed online at Adult Swim’s website, so if you have time to kill on Halloween, I recommend giving it a watch. You will not be disappointed.

 

Victor's head exploding is a perfect metaphor for watching this show.
Victor’s head exploding … because it looks awesome.

 

Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole was produced by Williams Street Studios, Fragical Productions, ShadowMachine Films (season 1), and Starburns Industries (season 2). 

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