Directed by James Whale
70 min.; U.S.A.; Black and White; Mono
The 1990 Simpson's Halloween special Treehouse of Horror opens with a disclaimer by concerned mother Marge Simpson. Standing in spotlight before a closed theater curtain, she warns that the show might be too frightening for younger viewers and suggests concerned parents should put them to bed instead of write angry letters to the show's producers. Nearly everything in the Halloween special, and those that followed in subsequent seasons, seems to be a take-off, homage or parody of great (and not-so great) SF, fantasy and horror productions of the past; Marge's cautionary monologue is no exception. Frankenstein (1931) begins the same way. Edward Van Sloan (who plays Dr. Waldman in the film) apears on a bare stage to warn us that what we're about to see concerns "a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God." Both Simpson and Sloan remind viewers that if they object to such material they can choose not to watch the program. According to commentary by Rudy Behlmer on the Frankenstein DVD Universal Pictures added this disclaimer well after the production was completed in anticipation of objections by religious groups over the movie's theme of "divine presumption." In 1931 the United States was sliding into the most severe period of the Great Depression and no studio wanted to face the economic impact that such controversy or, even an outright ban, would have on ticket sales. Yet I'll bet that both disclaimers convinced more people to stay and enjoy the show than turn off the TV or leave the theater in protest.
Based on Mary Shelley's 1818 novel of the same name, Frankenstein, directed by James Whale, is a horror film about Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), a scientist who seeks to penetrate "all of the electrical secrets of heaven" and use "the great ray which first brought life into the world" to animate a creature he constructs from the best pieces of various corpses. Working with a hunchbacked assistant named Fritz (Dwight Frye) in an abandoned castle, far from prying eyes, he succeeds at his gruesome task. Unfortunately, the dimwitted Fritz procured an "abnormal" brain for the creature (neither Fritz nor this turn of events is in the novel) so the results don't quite live up to Frankenstein's expectations. After suffering torture at the hands of Fritz the monster (Boris Karloff) escapes the castle and spreads fear and chaos in the nearby town of Goldstadt. When the creature threatens Henry's fiancee Elizabeth (Mae Clark), Henry and a torch bearing mob corner the pathetic monster for a fiery showdown. The film was a critical and box office success and inspired a number of sequels including Bride of Frankenstein (1935) also directed by Whale. The New York Times listed the movie as one of the top ten films of the year.
Boris Karloff and makeup artist Jack Pierce's, physical rendering of the creature is unforgettable and unlike anything else I've come across so far in this blog except maybe The Golem (1920). Under the makeup, heavy padding and weighted boots Karloff grasps and groans his way through a terrific performance that transforms the articulate vengeful archfiend found in the novel into a symapthetic and misunderstood but ultimately destructive monster, the living consequence of science gone awry. No wonder he was a prototype for Marvel Comics' smash-happy character The Incredible Hulk.
The film benefits from improvements in sound technology and recoding techniques since the advent of talkies. There's no score (music is replaced in part of the film by a raging thunderstorm) but C. Roy Hunter's team may have taken advantage of directional microphones, and lighter mics and booms then being developed to work with director James Whale's and cinematographer Arthur Edeson's long pans, tilts and lateral tracking shots. These camera movements follow action from one space into another without cutting and the sound flows too though it might have been recorded later. I also notice that they favor shots with greater depth with the foreground out of focus giving the impression that we're following events as they unfold not sitting out in an audience watching a stage play, a look that plagued some earlier talkies like The Broadway Melody (1929). Whale and editors Maurice Pivar and Clarence Kolster make some unexpected shot choices, such as introducing main characters in close-up before establishing their locations and a series of increasingly tighter close-ups to heighten suspense and guarantee maximum horror impact when they introduce the monster himself.
Frankenstein and Fritz dig up fresh specimens in a Caligari-esque graveyard.
If there is any story since Goethe's "Faust" that argues that there are some things humans are not meant to know and power we're not meant to wield it's this one. In Goethe's work Mephistopheles argues that humans are driven by reason to be too inquisitive and suffer for it. The film doesn't explore this idea in the same exact way as the novel, which seems to be more concerned with humans being responsible for the things we create and unleash upon the world, but the same basic elements are there. Dr. Waldman, Frankenstein's former professor, tells Elizabeth that Frankenstein has moved beyond scientific experimentation acceptable to the university and into ill-advised, dangerous areas of knowledge. Like Faust, Frankenstein believes that he's learned all that he can from academia yet still he is unfulfilled. He aspires to create life itself, to become a peer of the powers of the universe. "I know what it feels like to be God!" he exclaims when his ghastly progeny lives and breathes anew. Unfortunately, also like Faust, or Icarus, Prometheus, or other mythic characters Frankenstein plays with fire and gets burned. His creation runs amok, commits murder, threatens his loved ones, and Frankenstein is ultimately responsible.
While pulling these core ideas from Shelley's novel this telling of the story is heavily influenced by adaptations for the stage (see the multiple writing credits at the beginning of the film) and the look and feel of the movie owes a debt to previous horror films like Dracula (1931), The Cat and the Canary (1927), and only somewhat less-so to silent horror movies Nosferatu (1922), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). The heavy shadows, angular lines (especially in the graveyard and castle sequences) and the half-conscious pathetic creature unable to reason or control his actions strongly reach back to connect with the expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). James Whale appears to be consciously mixing these and other influences in the film, "I want the picture to be a very modern, materialistic treatment...something of Dr. Caligari, something of Edgar Allan Poe and of course a good deal of us," (Mark Gatiss, James Whale (London: Cassell, 1995), 74). There's also a much earlier film tradition to consider as, perhaps, unconscious influences. A film like The Golden Beetle (1907) sees a magician conjure life only to have it destroy him, and the trick films of George Melies often reveal the consequences of a scientist's or magician's misguided experiments. One film that doesn't appear to be much of an influence on Whale and company is J. Searle Dawley's much earlier version of Frankenstein (1910). In that fifteen minute version, made for the Edison Company, Frankenstein (August Phillips) creates his monster from ashes and dust with fire in a large mechanism. The resulting creature (Charles Ogle) is evil because he was "the creation of an evil mind." He menaces Dr. Frankenstein and his new bride, Elizabeth (Mary Fuller), for a scene or two and then the power of love simply causes him to vanish. It seems quite a coincidence that both films contain similar reconstructions of Henry Fuseli's 1782 painting Nightmare, but production techniques had advanced so far in the intervening twenty-one years that I wonder if Whale or producer Carl Laemmle Jr. even bothered to screen it before production began on this version.
There have been dozens of remakes, sequels, new imagings, and parodies (IMDB lists at least ninety-one) of this movie. Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994) is probably the closest reading of the source novel. I noticed that even the Star Wars franchise mined Frankenstein for inspiration: in Revenge of the Sith (2005), Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiamid) relates the myth of Darth Plagueis, a Sith master who discovered the power over life and death, and paid for that knowledge with his own life. I think it's safe to predict that we haven't seen the last screen version of this tale.
Frankenstein, and it's immediate predecessor Dracula helped to establish and codify the horror genre in the sound era with semantic elements—a mad scientist, an ancient castle, grave robbing, a flashing thunderstorm, bloodcurdling screams, an uncontrollable force—and syntactic elements that give meaning—meddling with dangerous knowledge, divine presumption, and punishment for such transgressions. Watching Frankenstein today its easy to forget that audiences in 1931 hadn't seen these horror genre elements used, re-used, overused, and parodied on the screen quite as much as we horror fans have now. Since 1931, the image of Frankenstein's monster has become a true icon of horror cinema (bet you knew what movie this post is about just from looking at the photo at the top) but does it retain the power to scare today? It's hard to fear an image that's used to promote everything from bubblegum to pinball machines. Suspend that knowledge for seventy minutes and you can still have a frightfully good time with this movie.