"Life Without Soul" is based on Mary Shelley's novel "Frankenstein", but it takes considerable liberties with the novel's text. To protect the sensibilities of early movie audiences, the violent acts of the synthetic monster have been downplayed, and the main action has been transformed into an extended dream sequence. No, I haven't spoilt the ending: the film's narrative makes it absolutely clear that the events onscreen are merely a dream or nightmare of the main character.
Victor Frawley (played by William Cohill) is a well-to-do physician In modern (1915) Manhattan. When not treating his high-society patients or courting his fiancee Elizabeth Lawrence (Lucy Cotton), Frawley conducts experiments which have enabled him to discover "the chemistry of life" (whatever that is). Victor's sister Claudia (Pauline Curley), his friend Henry Claridge (Jack Hopkins) and Elizabeth all urge him to give up his experiments. Alone in his laboratory (which is large and uncluttered, and has no discernible lab equipment), Frawley falls asleep whilst reading a copy of "Frankenstein".
The main action of the film is clearly a dream, in which Victor Frawley imagines that he is Victor Frankenstein, and other characters in Shelley's novel are depicted by Victor's friends and family: his fiancee becomes Elizabeth Lavenza, his best friend becomes Henry Clerval, his sister becomes Justine Moritz, and so forth. The dream also has a modern (1915) setting: a title card announces that we are in Europe, but it sure looks a lot like America.
In his lab, Victor moulds a clay effigy of a man and then somehow brings it to life. This creature (identified in the title cards as "the Creation") looks like a normal human -- he even comes into the world with a shave and a haircut -- but with a few subtle details missing: in the lab sequence (the only time we see the creature naked), the actor's nipples and navel have been concealed with fishskin and make-up. Was this a clever ploy to subtly indicate the creature's synthetic origin, or were the film-makers simply intending to spare 1915 cinema audiences from the hideous sight of a man's nipples and navel? The creature is played (very well) by a stocky and coarse-featured actor with the ill-fitting name Percy Standing.
The synthetic man proves he has his priorities in order: he insists that Victor create a synthetic woman. Victor constructs a she-creation, and he begins to instil her with life ... but realises the danger just in time, and he destroys the female. The male creature goes berko and immediately kills Justine, Henry and Elizabeth. These murders are depicted with a minimum of violence and no bloodshed.
Victor pursues his unholy creation across the Atlantic. There is an exciting shipboard sequence in which the creature battles an entire crew of sailors, easily strangling two at once and chucking them overboard. (But the ship is laughably small for an Atlantic crossing.) Eventually, Victor chases his monster into the deserts of the Southwest, to a ravine which a title card identifies as the Grand Canyon. (I don't recognise the location: it's impressive, but it's definitely not the Grand Canyon.)
SPOILERS COMING NOW. The film's climax reminds me of Erich von Stroheim's "Greed", although the action is different. Using himself as bait, Victor lures the monster into a cavern filled with dynamite. Victor escapes, then blows up the cavern with the monster inside. We've been told that the monster is immortal and indestructible, so apparently he's going to stay trapped forever beneath a mountain of rubble. Victor Frawley awakens from his dream. He hastily destroys his experiment and rejoins Elizabeth, telling her he will never again "tamper with nature".
There are some good scenes and performances in "Life Without Soul", but the overall effect seems to be a desire to AVOID shocking or distressing the audience. We know the events are a dream, so we can't get too engaged or scandalised. As the two Victors, William Cohill is neurasthenic enough to resemble Colin Clive, without a shred of Clive's acting ability. Pauline Curley is attractive and talented, with too little to do in her dual roles. Percy Standing gives a standout performance: ironically, the synthetic man conveys a wider range of emotions than anyone else in this movie. But much of the film drags, and too many incongruous details (the too-bare lab, the too-small ship) make this movie ludicrous and implausible. I'll rate "Life Without Soul" 4 points out of 10, mostly for Standing's athletic performance.
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