dir. James Whale
1931

It’s 1931, and Tod Browning’s “Dracula” is a huge hit. So where does Universal Studios go from there? Well, Mary Shelley’s classic horror, “Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus”, is the next logical stone to turn. With Carl Laemmle, Jr. also producing and coming right off the heels of “Dracula”, it’s hard not to compare the two iconic horror films. Both adapt their source material loosely, owing more to the early theatrical play versions than their literary counterparts. Both feature two of the same cast members, playing roles that are strikingly similar. Both focus a good deal on the supporting romance, because this is the 30’s and that’s to be expected. And both have been accepted as canon, as the definitive representations of the vampire and Frankenstein myths. It’s hard to hear the name ‘Dracula’ without visualizing Bela Lugosi growling “Children of the night. What music they make!”

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But that’s where the comparisons end. Because while both also occasionally show the awkward signs of the early silent-to-sound transition era, technically they couldn’t be more different. Tod Browning would go on to make a much better, and visually dynamic, horror film with “Freaks” the following year. However, his work in “Dracula” is as lifeless as the Nosferatu himself. If you exclude the Karl Freund helmed, excellent first act (which ends when the action moves to London), than the film is mostly just locked camera shots set in stagy parlor rooms. James Whale directs “Frankenstein” with a Gothic beauty that I’d wager was the best of it’s kind until Jean Cocteau got drunk off cinema in the following decades. He not only set the visual template for the Universal horror films to come, but for horror cinema in general in the 30’s. Even today I’d be hard-pressed to name a more visually striking example of Gothic horror in it’s purest form. Certainly “Bride of Frankenstein”, Whale’s superior (against all odds) sequel, and the horror work of Carl Dreyer and F.W Murnau. Not bad company.

Take the opening shots (excluding the Edward Van Sloan introduction that I could have done without), which are among the best of what the film has to offer. We open with a wonderfully macabre pan shot of a funeral procession. A dark gray sky, portentous crucifixes towering in the background, solemn faces that could be ghosts. The shot ends on the looming statue of the Grim Reaper. His presence can be felt. We are than introduced to the sinister looking Doctor Frankenstein and his lab assistant Fritz (no, not Igor) hiding in the shadows, behind the bars of a fence that look suspiciously like prison bars. After the coast is clear, the two make quick work of desecrating the freshly laid grave. The Doctor takes a shovelful of dirt and tosses it behind his shoulder. It splashes defiantly across the statue of the Grim Reaper. It’s a subtle shot, shot in wide, that isn’t noticeable to the passive eye. But already Whale is showing us the Doctor’s brazen impudence over the concept of death.

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Audiences trained to the cinema of today may initially scoff at the obvious backdrops that the actors perform before. A lingering shot of the gravedigger walking off screen just couldn’t look more phony. However, they seam perfectly into Whale’s theatrical surrealism, and give the film an odd fairy-tale like dreaminess. As in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” before it, “Frankenstein” features artificially nightmarish sets that exist far from the logic of reality. A colossal staircase in the Frankenstein laboratory that winds down from what could be the heavens. The castle itself looks almost chiseled into the mountain side. And the wilderness in which the villagers chase the creature look as desolate and foreboding as from a dystopian nightmare. That’s what separates the Universal films, even the bad ones, from other horror films of the same era. You could always expect a certain degree of German expressionism. The buildings here aren’t as exaggerated as in the sequel “Son of Frankenstein”, which comes close to looking like a “Courage the Cowardly Dog” episode, but Whale is obviously bending the architecture of realism in the grand guignol style.

 


Another disputed technical ‘choice’ (more of a product of it’s era, then an artistic decision) was the lack of a musical score, save the opening credits and the dietetic music playing at the wedding festival late in the film. I can see most audiences being off-put by the lack of keying music, building to horror and thundering with action. It’s an opinion that’s been shared even by film critics and has led to orchestra scores being commissioned and played (like that of Michael Shapiro) at revival showings, as is often done with silent era films. However, it’s of my opinion that “Frankenstein” doesn’t need a score, and works perfectly without one. Whale’s sequel, “Bride”, features a lush musical arrangement by Franz Waxman, and is surely one of the greatest film scores of all time. But it’s a radically different kind of film and one that is improved with a booming soundtrack. The original has a quiet, eerie creepiness that is still hard to shake off. Most notable is the scene when we are first introduced to the creature, which would have been executed in a much more pronounced yet less effective manner today. Gone is any swelling dun-dun-dun musical keys or abrasive score. Whale just gives us a series of enlarging close-ups that allow us to fully examine the grotesque appearance of the monster. So effective was it that he would later use the exact same manner of introduction to first show us the Bride in the succeeding film. Hey, why fix what ain’t broken?

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But that leads me to discuss the other behind-the-scenes genius of “Frankenstein” – makeup artist Jack Pierce. No stranger to horror, Pierce had a nice run at Universal Studios and created some of the most iconic horror imagery in the film catalog, as well as influencing generations of makeup artists from Rob Bottin to Rick Baker, and Tom Savini. However, he wasn’t without an explosive temper and eventually parted ways from Universal Studios (“booted is the word”, to quote the great Doctor Pretorius). The actors working under his hand often had to endure a living hell; long and uncomfortable application processes, and performing all day with heavy appliances. But the creatures that he created are still among the most impressive ever committed to film. One just has to marvel at the Frankenstein monster or the Wolf Man to experience the wonder and magic of cinema. Of course, James Whale enhances the horrific mystique of the monster by shooting him through as many dark corners, sharp shadows, and eschewed foundations as possible. Very scarce are any shots that don’t bare some level of stylized fright. It’s something of a hackneyed praise to say that every frame could work as a painting, but here it’s justified.

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Frankenstein” is a film that was made with a considerable amount of craft and artistry by hundreds involved. So it’s not to discredit anyone when I say that there are three figures to thank primarily in the film’s paramount success. James Whale, obviously, as the lead auteur. Jack Pierce for giving us the definitive image of the Frankenstein monster. And the third, as you probably have guessed, is the great Boris Karloff (or ‘?’ if we going by the opening credits). Eyes that exhibit a deep mysteriousness and an almost statuesque face, it’s obvious that even without Pierce’s makeup, Karloff was born to star in horror films. To watch him star, with substantially less makeup, in “The Mummy” (1932) or Mario Bava’s “Black Sabbath” (1963) is to understand why. In “Frankenstein” Karloff gives a difficult performance; silent, but still expressive under pounds and pounds of makeup. He manages to infuse the monster with a pathos that’s even more impressive than it’s sequel because, here, it’s all wordless. He finds the right small gestures and indications to attain a great amount of sympathy. Just watch the way that he stretches his hands to the laboratory skylight (it doesn’t get more vaginal than that!) and how he reaches for the Doctor like a baby grasping for his mother. It makes me glad that Bela Lugosi and his ego left the project, as he had a tendency to chew the scenery (which is fine for Count Dracula, but not the Frankenstein creature). Karloff’s infantile portrayal of the creature makes the ensuing violence all the more devastating. In the most heartbreaking scene of the film the creature stumbles across someone whom he can relate to – a little girl playing by the edge of a river. She teaches him how to float flower petals on the water’s surface. When there are no more petals to be thrown, the creature makes the next logical conclusion which is to throw the girl. Unlike the petals, she doesn’t resurface. The later sequels would further examine the monster’s identification to children, including having the creature wish to swamp his criminal brain for the brain of an innocent girl in “Ghost of Frankenstein” in a plot that plays out so much better in actuality than it reads on paper.

Colin Clive, arguably the first mad scientist of cinema (or at least, the first memorable one), also gives a towering performance as the crazed Doctor Frankenstein. He’s an egomaniac, sure, but Clive brings a certain humanity to the character. Not just through his strained relationship with Elizabeth (his soon-to-be bride) but also with the conviction that what he’s doing is for the betterment of mankind. Doctor Frankenstein isn’t evil, through his manner of methods are questionable at best, but simply human. When he realizes the terror that he has wrought on the innocent countryside, it devastates him. In the latter half of the film Clive plays the role as guilt-ridden. However, even than there is still a father/son bond between the creature and the man. When his father, the Baron Frankenstein, gives a toast for an eventual “son of the house of Frankenstein” (giving two of the sequels their titles) just watch Clive’s smug, self-aware smirk. He already has created a son, and by science no less, with his own hands. In one of the most interesting pieces of throwaway dialogue, after the monster has killed the taunting Fritz and Doctor Waldman demands that it be destroyed, Doctor Frankenstein replies with, “but it would be murder!”

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If there is any aspect of the film that doesn’t hold up as remarkably well, it would be with the supporting characters who are clumsily functional props at best. There is an odd romantic triangle between the Doctor Frankenstein, Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), and a cardboard cutout named Victor (John Boles, who feels like he walked out of a different kind of movie) that thankfully isn’t really expanded on. However, it makes it all the more jarring that it even exists in the first place. It’s not aided by the fact that both the lovers quandary and Victor will be forgotten in the sequel. Edward Van Sloan is serviceable as the level-headed Doctor Waldman, though his performance as Van Helsing in “Dracula” is far more memorable. Frederick Kerr provides the film with some off-putting comic relief that, though harmless, is quite a tonal shift from the queasy body horror of the surrounding scenes (especially on introduction, right after the powerful “It’s alive!” segment and at the very end, right after the equally as powerful windmill climax). It’s a minor quibble, not a detriment, and can be easily overlooked in favor of the film’s age and lasting reputation. It’s nowhere near as bad as the comic relief in say, “Dracula”. However, Whale’s following “Bride of Frankenstein”, “The Invisible Man”, and “The Old Dark House” would not only perfect comic relief but create camp as we now know it. Some of the plot developments as well can be taken with a grain of salt. Particularly late in the film when the creature just happens to appear at the Baron Frankenstein’s house (and attacks Elizabeth in a scene that feels as wildly and aggressively sexual as teenage virgin’s first time).

It’s 2016, 85 years after “Frankenstein” was released. That it holds up as well as it does is nothing short of a miracle. But it does even more. It still manages to inspire shock and awe. The extended tracking shot of the enraged father carrying little Maria’s lifeless body into the town square is as powerful as anything in horror cinema today. The climax at the burning windmill is a masterpiece of action staging. The set designs are still astounding (laboratory equipment has never before looked so cool!) Some films are iconic because of influence, not substance. “Frankenstein” is a clear case of both. It not only influenced horror cinema as we now know it, but stands head and shoulders above 95% of all output. To add another hackneyed piece of praise, they don’t make ’em like they used to. “Frankenstein” deserves to rank squarely with the greatest films of world cinema, certainly the greatest in horror cinema (surpassed only by it’s sequel, which verges so far into camp that I’m willing to question it’s placement in the horror genre). No matter how many decades pass, time will be favorable to James Whale’s “Frankenstein”. It’s pitch perfect in writing, mood, subtext, and cinematography, and holds up to the harshest level of scrutiny on most fronts. It still possesses the power to get under the skin and somewhere James Whale is cackling like a mad scientist. In an era where most horror films date themselves within a year (here’s looking at you “Unfriended”), the best of the Universal catalog continues to age like a fine wine. And like a fine wine, there is never a bad time to cork open a bottle and enjoy, Halloween or not.

Rating: A+ (MASTERPIECE)

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