Today's subject, and the first of a series of ASM articles, is the 1931 horror milestone Frankenstein, based on the legendary 1818 novel by Mary Shelley (of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein fame).
Now look, before you get upset that I'm referring to this film as "awesomely shitty," please understand I hold Frankenstein in very high regard. I've been a fan of this film since I was about six years old and I make it a point to watch it (and its first sequel) once a year during Halloween season. That said, there are quite a few flaws with the film and I'm here to point them out and probably piss a lotta people off. But whatever....
Frankenstein first emerged as a novel after its author, her husband Percy, and their friend Lord Byron were rained in one night on vacation and decided to have a little ghost story contest. Mary had a "monster" of a time (Get it? Eh??) coming up with a story idea, but it finally came to her one night in a dream - the vision of a medical student bringing life to a man he'd stitched together from parts of the dead. Eventually the tale grew into a full-fledged novel, and a literary classic was born.
The visual aspect of the story instantly lent itself to theatrical interpretation, and nearly a century later as the film industry blossomed it found itself the subject of several cinematic attempts (the first being Thomas Edison's 1910 short). But it was Universal Studios and producer Carl Laemmle jr. who would make the word "Frankenstein" a household one. Coming off the heels of a tremendously successful Dracula adaptation, Laemmle hired director James Whale and veteran actor Boris Karloff to bring the story to life. Frankenstein was a "monster" hit (I did it again, did you catch it??), spawning three direct sequels and four crossover films, and changing monster movies forever (No no, that time it wasn't a pun).
So what worked about this immortal film and what didn't? Well, I'm here to set the record straight....
In bringing Frankenstein's monster to life, makeup artist Jack Pierce and director James Whale collaborated to create one of the most instantly recognizable characters in cinema history. The flat head, heavy brow and neck electrodes were all strokes of genius, as was Boris Karloff's added touch of mortician's wax on his eyelids to give him a half-awake zombie-like appearance. This makeup immediately became iconic and it's still considered the definitive Frankenstein look, used extensively in Halloween decor and marketing.
|Such a great look|
I really love films from this era. Hollywood had just recently embraced talkies and had to import directors and actors from the theater, who could deal simultaneously with movement AND dialogue. It was also pre-Hays Code, so a film's tone could be dark and its content graphic. In 1931 many films were still very much influenced by the wonderful silent era and carried a surreal, dreamlike quality, and the crisp black & white imagery is gorgeous to behold.
Lighting & Expressionism
James Whale injected heavy doses of German expressionist visuals, with sharp angles, intense light and shadows, and impossibly gothic sets to create a theatrical, atmospheric experience. Henry's laboratory for example makes use of incredibly high ceilings and fills the entire 4:3 frame to the top. Ditto the sets for the Frankenstein house with its diagonal support beams stretching ominously across the upper frame. Many American films of this period used flat lighting and angles to simply show you what was happening, but Whale and other creative auteurs took visual risks to give their films an artist's touch.
|Love this set|
This film, like so many of the old monster movies, is by now fully ingrained in my DNA. It's essential Halloween viewing every single year, and I'm excited for my son to be old enough to appreciate it. Frankenstein is one of the great horror stories and the 1931 film version is such a pop culture phenomenon it's hard not to feel like a kid when watching it. I also love the cheesy intro where Edward Van Sloan warns the audience that this movie might be too much for an audience to endure. It's such a great piece of window dressing.
Of course this film as a whole would never have worked without Boris Karloff's understated, purely physical performance which gave the monster the pathos so vital to the story. Despite being given a criminal brain by mistake, Karloff's creature is by no means a killing machine, and in scenes like the one with little Maria he shows the character to be instinctually childlike and innocent. That Karloff was able to express such complexities without saying a single word is quite an accomplishment, and it made him a megastar.
|His role in The Criminal Code may have won him this one|
So there are plenty of great things about this film. Now let's look at the not-so-great things....
One drawback of the early talkies era is the over-the-top acting and hammy scripting. Speaking actors by and large hadn't yet made the transition from the histrionics required on the stage to the subtle nuances captured by film. Don't get me wrong, this cast is first-rate for its time. Colin Clive, Mae Clark, Edward Van Sloan and Dwight Frye were all very capable actors and I can't really imagine anyone else in these roles. It's just that Hollywood hadn't quite figured out how to make dialogue and delivery totally believable yet.
One performance/character this movie could've done without is Frederick Kerr as Henry's father. I'm sure the guy was a fine actor, but in this film his buffoonery is totally out of place and adds nothing to the story. He complains about everything almost the entire time he's onscreen and the overt attempt at a humorous character comes across as belabored. I can totally understand why Henry spends all his time away from home - would you wanna be around this senile old fool and his weird-ass neck growth (Seriously, he's got a huge lump on the back of his neck and it's disgustingly hypnotic)?
|Get this crotchety ol' prick outta here....|
Not Like the Book
As a huge fan of the novel it's sad the filmmakers strayed sooo far from the source material. I'm still waiting for someone in Hollywood to make a really true adaptation. Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelly's Frankenstein was pretty close but a) it wasn't that good and b) they changed quite a few things needlessly. But this film, aside from "There once was a guy who made a monster" has almost nothing to do with the book. Frankenstein is a rich baron's son instead of a medical student, his creation is a mute with a criminal brain instead of an eloquent, intelligent man-thing, Frankenstein doesn't abandon the monster, nor does the monster seek revenge; its murders are either by accident or instinctual. This kinda robs the monster of being a three-dimensional character with real motivation like he is in the novel, not to mention the story is way more horrific when this superhuman thing is deliberately bumping off the protagonist's loved ones. I like this movie, but let's be honest - the book tells a waaaaay better story.
|This was the edition I first read|
For some reason Universal set both Frankenstein and Dracula basically in modern times (I guess to save money?). I suppose this film could take place in the early 1900s since we never see a car or a telephone, but based on hairstyles and clothes it's most definitely not in the early 1800s like the novel. There's just something that doesn't quite fit - this story was so inspired by the early scientific breakthroughs of the 19th century it seems out of place in the 20th.
I touched on this before, but in the novel the creature gets most of the great dialogue. After studying a family in secret for months he becomes extremely articulate and we're treated to a wonderful tete-a-tete between him and Frankenstein, where he recounts his experiences and asks his creator why he brought him to life only to desert him? The profound themes of creation and parental responsibility are thus fully explored in the novel and we end up sympathizing more with the creature than with Victor. In the film though, in spite of the monster's underlying pathos we never get his side of the story and Henry is still written like a typical horror movie protagonist. The creature just has so much more depth in the book.
-First off, and this has always bugged me, why did the filmmakers change Victor Frankenstein's name to Henry? And why did they change his friend Henry Clerval's name to Victor Moritz? What's the point of switching the names around?
-Where did Henry find this hunchbacked weirdo Fritz? And how much help can the guy be when he can't even stand upright?
|'The hell good is this putz gonna do?|
-Why does Fritz take the cover off the first brain jar when he goes to steal it? Also, what's the offscreen noise that startles him?
-Would Henry really let three of his loved ones watch this highly illegal experiment? He later admits to Waldman that he stole a buncha dead bodies and sewed them together. Wouldn't his dad have him committed at that point?
-Henry also discloses to Professor Waldman that he stole one of his lab brains. And Waldman's fine with it. What the hell's going on here?
-The first time we see the monster upright, he walks backwards into the room. This feels very forced, as a way to give us the big reveal when he turns around. Couldn't they have lit the scene so you couldn't make out his features until he crossed the threshold of the doorway? Then at least he'd have been walking like a real person. That said, I do love the two closeup cuts showing us the monster's face in detail.
-Where did Henry get the monster's oversized clothes? And why'd he pick a stylish sportcoat? And especially curious, where the fuck do you get a pair of boots like that??
-Midway through the film, the monster thinks he can substitute the little girl Maria for a flower, and throws her into the lake, where she quickly drowns. My first issue here is, despite living at a LAKESIDE PROPERTY, her parents never taught her how to swim? Second, how does Maria's dad know she was murdered? He finds her drowned in the lake but there wouldn't be any signs of violence. For all he knows she just fell in by accident, and since he never bothered to teach her the art of not drowning, she's dead now.
|Jeezus Maria, you just pull with your arms and kick your legs...|
-How does the monster know where Frankenstein lives? After killing little Maria, the monster wanders right to Henry's house and terrorizes his bride-to-be. Was it just a coincidence that he found the exact right house?
-Why doesn't the monster kill Elizabeth? He chases her around the room, snarls at her, she screams and faints, and then he just leaves. This scene would've had much more substance and horror if, like in the novel, the monster specifically wanted to kill her out of revenge.
-The backdrop curtains in the film's climax are very clearly wrinkled. It looks really terrible. Did no one on the Universal lot have access to an iron??
|Tough to see in this shot but over to the right behind Boris. Wrinkle City.|
-At the end of the film the monster tosses Henry off the top of a windmill, and Henry lands gut-first on one of the blades before limply sliding off and hitting the ground below. Originally Henry was supposed to die here, but the studio insisted on a happy-ish ending. But let's be honest, there's no way Henry survives that fall without at least a severed spine and torn-up insides.
The moral of the story is, I love this movie despite all its faults. Oh, and don't mess with Mother Nature. That's in there somewhere too. Frankenstein, both in movie and book form, has left an indelible mark on all of us, whether we're aware of it or not. Everyone knows the story, everyone recognizes the Karloff version of the monster, and I'd wager just about everyone has used the phrase "I've created a monster" or "It's alive" at one time or another. There's no getting around it - Frankenstein is one of the greatest stories ever told and Universal's flawed-but-wonderful 1931 film is its most famous cinematic variation.
That'll do it for this edition of ASM, but stay tuned for another installment in which I'll tackle the even more highly-regarded Bride of Frankenstein! Thanks for reading!