Frankenstein: Nine Decades Later
Even 90 years after its initial release, James Whale’s Frankenstein remains more than worthy of its status as the most iconic, culturally significant adaptation of Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking novel
A windy night complete with torrential downpour, the cracking of thunder and sharp bursts of lightning. A castle atop a hill. Machines whirring away in a makeshift laboratory inside. A bandaged figure lying inanimate on a steel table. An eccentric, wildly ambitious scientist in a white coat anxiously anticipating the birth of his creation as his disheveled assistant turns levers and pulls switches. This is a scene which should be familiar to most, even to those unfamiliar with Frankenstein (1931). These are all inventions of the film, with it having taken a lot of liberties with the Mary Shelley novel upon which it is based. And, much like the same year’s Dracula (1931), it’s arguably the culturally definitive version of the story. As is the case with numerous works within the public domain, the story of Frankenstein has been adapted and reworked in a plethora of different mediums, with many having their own distinctive takes on its characters and themes. However, most who think of Frankenstein think of the aforementioned 1931 film, its moments and its specific interpretations of the characters, most notably the monster. The first thing that is bound to spring to mind when “Frankenstein” is brought up is a tall, bulky man with green skin who appears to have been stitched together. He has bolts protruding from his neck, a head which appears to be flat at the top and is dressed in a shabby, dusty black coat with similarly shabby, dusty black trousers. He also has an unusual gait, shuffling and stumbling about while communicating in either grunts or broken English (the latter was an addition made in the sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)). This is the creature (referred to by many as “Frankenstein’s monster”) as portrayed by the exceptional Boris Karloff, who is one of many reasons why Frankenstein still looms large as both the most prominent adaptation of Shelley’s novel as well as one of the most culturally significant horror films of all time, and one that still remains an effective, impactful watch nine decades after its initial release.
Universal Studios had a smash hit with Dracula. While it divided critics at the time, with some finding its subject matter too morbid and transgressive for their tastes, audiences flocked to see it. While horror had existed as a genre of film since its inception, mainstream cinemagoers of the era hadn’t seen much like it. As such, the studio was quick to capitalize on their success and put more horror films into production. The first of these was Frankenstein. Directed by Englishman James Whale, who had only directed two films prior, the film drips with atmosphere and, while imbued with a significant level of theatricality, is more than sufficiently cinematic. It establishes its tone immediately after its opening credits (which are preceded by a quaint warning from the producers, telling audiences that the subject may be too much for some to take), as the first scene takes place in a dark graveyard. Steel gates and marble tombstones cast eerie shadows onto both the background and the faces of its Henry Frankenstein and his assistant, Fritz. These two men are introduced as they watch a funeral from a quiet distance before immediately heading to pilfer the grave after those in attendance have left. It’s an eerie sequence, and one which subtly reinforces its themes of life and death. Henry, the film’s protagonist, is established as being a brilliant, ambitious but ultimately dissatisfied young scientist who wishes more than anything to be able to harness the ability to create life. It’s later established that he leads a comfortable existence that, on the surface, should make just about anyone happy. He’s the heir to a tremendous family fortune, a successful medical student and has a fiancé, Elizabeth, who cares for him deeply. However, while he at the very least does love Elizabeth, he feels an overall lack of fulfilment with his comfortable, bourgeoise existence. Not one to be complacent, he sets out to create a man using various body parts stolen from buried and hanged men, as well as organs from his university. He’s played brilliantly by Colin Clive, who manages to capture his multifaceted nature to a tee. He is a well-mannered, socially well calibrated young man, but is restless and driven near mad by both his ambition and delusions of grandeur.
His performance is at its best in what may well be the most famous scene in the film; the one in which his creation is brought to life in a castle laboratory. It features a brilliantly constructed set, one which marries the rich, angular shadows of German Expressionist cinema with a sharp sense of industrial modernism, as bubbling liquids overflow from beakers and intricately constructed machines whizz and whirr. It’s a set that has clearly captured the imagination of many, as many mad scientists’ laboratories in various films and pieces of media in its wake have emulated its aesthetic elements to some degree or another. And, to top it off, its exaggerated nature perfectly complements the heightened theatricality of Clive’s performance. When the bandaged figure lying on the table slowly moves his hands, signifying Frankenstein’s success, his cries and exclamations of joy perfectly convey a sense of satisfaction, all while indicated that he remains deluded and may well be insane. “It’s alive! It’s alive!”, he proclaims, before going on to declare “in the name of God, now I know what it is to be God!”. This perfectly encapsulates the core theme of the film, the danger of mortals treading in the domain of God, attempting to harness and overcome the power of life and death. The censors at the time didn’t quite grasp the nuance of this, however. Frankenstein’s proclamations were construed as blasphemous and, by proxy, so was the scene itself. As such, the scientist’s proclamation that he had attained godhood was cleverly muffled by the sound of thunder upon its initial release. In spite of this, the line is now perfectly audible due to subsequent restorations and re-releases of the film. While this scene is full of iconic imagery and moments courtesy of both the incredible set design and Colin Clive’s performance, its most iconic attribute and most important contribution to popular culture lay wrapped in bandages, only to be fully revealed in earnest a few scenes later.
I am, of course, referring to the creature. Much like Dracula, there have been countless iterations of Frankenstein’s creation, many of which have numerous variations which make them distinct, this film’s take is undeniably the most seminal, culturally ubiquitous and immediately recognizable. While this is due in no small part to Jack Pearce’s peerless and inimitable make-up effects, it’s also thanks to an exceptional performance by one of the era’s most prominent horror stars, Boris Karloff. Much like Bela Lugosi, who was initially slated to play the monster but refused, Karloff was virtually unknown before his turn as the monster. Born William Henry Pratt, he had a prolific career playing bit parts until director James Whale saw his performance in The Criminal Code (1930) and was impressed enough with his presence and physicality that he cast him as the creature. The role skyrocketed Karloff into superstardom, and it’s easy to understand why. He manages to perfectly physically convey that the monster is a newborn life through his clumsy, janky gait and uncanny movements. More importantly, he perfectly performs what must’ve been a difficult balancing act, simultaneously portraying the monster as imposing and childlike. In his first appearance, he smiles upon seeing rays of sunlight gleaming through the castle’s window, before reaching out as if trying to grab them. While he is inherently volatile in nature, having been fitted with what the film declares to be an “abnormal brain”, he is nevertheless an innocent child at heart, filled with all the wonder and curiosity that entails.
His characterization is perfectly encapsulated by a sequence shortly after his escape from the laboratory. As he aimlessly roams the countryside, he happens upon a young girl playing by herself. She asks him if he wants to play, and he smiles, absolutely delighted. She then picks several dandelions, throwing them onto the lake in order to make them float. She hands several of them to him, teaching him to do the same. After doing so and being utterly mesmerized by the result, he picks her up and throws her into the water, drowning her. It’s a shocking and haunting moment, so much so that it was cut from the initial release of the film, but it’s also a deeply tragic one. He thought she would float like the dandelions, and had no concrete understanding of life and death, and it was this exact level of childlike innocence which led him to do something that would in any other circumstances be considered categorically evil. He had no malice or ill will in his heart. He just wanted to play with a little girl he’d befriended, not understanding how the world works or what the weight or consequences of his actions would entail. As such, he’s depicted as an outsider in the truest sense; unable to understand or abide by the rules of life, nature and society most are raised to understand as being self-evident.
His status as an outcast is only further emphasized as the film progresses, as the child’s body is discovered and the people living in Frankenstein’s home town come to learn about the monster’s existence. They immediately set out to hunt him down, chasing him to a windmill which gets burnt down in a powerful climax. This innocence coupled with a fundamental inability to assimilate with those around him makes him entirely unique as an early horror villain, having more in common with the Hunchback of Notre Dame than Count Dracula. Most horror of the era played on a fear of the outsider; Dracula and Imhotep from The Mummy (1932) (also played by Karloff), for example, were foreigners infiltrating Western society in order to further their nefarious ends. Frankenstein, on the other hand, was in part about what it means to be an outsider or to be perceived as such. It’s something that’s expanded on in Bride of Frankenstein, which focuses much of its attention on the monster as he tries in vain to find a friend. This may have, at least in part, been influenced by the life of James Whale. He was open about his status as a gay man, a rarity in Hollywood at the time, and it’s not hard to imagine that he would have had to face a substantial amount of discrimination and ostracization in 1930s America (homosexuality was, of course, still technically illegal there after all).
Be it for this or any other reason, Frankenstein’s depiction of marginalization and the inability to fit in never fails to come across as sincere. It’s a film that speaks to numerous universal truths, such as the need for human connections and the enigmatic nature of both life and death. This, truly incredible filmmaking that is simultaneously cinematic and theatrical as well as some immortal performances make the film an enduring classic that still resonates ninety years after it was first released.