Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and his “31 More Days of British Horror” in May, Jules is travelling across the pond this July with… you guessed it… 31 Days of American Horror!
Director: James Whale
Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Dwight Frye, Mae Clarke
“How do you do? Mr. Carl Laemmle feels it would be a little unkind to present this picture without just a word of friendly warning: We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation; life and death. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you. So, if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now’s your chance to uh, well,––we warned you!!”
By 1931, Universal already had at least two classic-if-flawed horrors under their belt, but it was with Frankenstein where they finally got it right. Better than right, even. James Whale’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic novel is where the template for what would become the modern horror film was set and still stand today as one of the greatest and most influential achievements the genre has ever produced.
Dr Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is obsessed with the idea of creating life. Robbing graves with his deformed assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) he pieces together a patchwork man, his very own creature (Boris Karloff), much to the concerns of his fiancée Elisabeth (Mae Clarke) and their friends Victor Moritz (John Boles) and Dr Waldman (Edward Van Sloan).
Their concerns are well-founded as the creature escapes after murdering Fritz, before causing havoc in the surrounding countryside, setting up a final confrontation between it and its creator…
The first thing that strikes you about Frankenstein is how much Whale is out to scare the audience. Beginning with a very dark and foreboding funeral scene, he thrusts is straight into the grave robbing antics of Frankenstein and Fritz, digging up bodies and cutting down dead criminals from the gallows. There’s humour in there too, such as the gravedigger’s casual approach to his work and the glee with which the ghoulish pair go about their business, but naturally it’s of the very darkest kind.
Similarly, Whale’s eye for careful composition is immediately apparent. Not one shot in the entire film isn’t set up beautifully, with every frame looking stunning, from the bombastic set-pieces in the laboratory or the old mill, or even the more low-key moments where he sets Elisabeth up surrounded by servants in an arrangement that could be straight from a renaissance painting.
Those sets really help the overall look too as their quite magnificent. The Frankenstein family pile feels like a real home, albeit for incredibly rich and slightly cartoonish people (looking at you here Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr), but with some German Expressionism thrown in with the jagged angles of the impossibly high-ceilinged hallway.
The mountain and old mill of the finale don’t fail to impress either, but it’s Frankenstein’s laboratory that rightly steals the show. It feels huge, full of glowing, flashing and downright mysterious equipment, like the kind of place we’re just not meant to see or ever understand, one where the goings-on will drive us mad if we were to witness them. Whale brilliantly runs his camera across the entire set, from the lowest of angles, as if we are watching the gods at work, much like the one Frankenstein is seeking to usurp himself.
Colin Clive really sells this concept wonderfully. He’s quite insane at times, full of the greatest hubris imaginable, but equally capable of carrying out a relationship with his lovely fiancé. He’s a genius, but a charming one and very probably a lunatic too, or if he isn’t, he’s well on the path.
His finest moment is that birth scene, where he finally does the unthinkable, in front of his loved ones who sit and cower in sheer horror at his blasphemy and madness.
“It’s alive! It’s alive! Oh in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!”
This must have been heavy stuff indeed in 1931 because it still packs a punch even now.
Sadly Dwight Frye doesn’t get a huge amount of screen time to display his considerable talents, but once again he gives great lackey, this time playing it less sympathetic (and disturbing), instead going for unsettling and quite repulsive too. Needless to say, he’s another highlight in a film packed with them.
The main highlight has to be Karloff though. What an unbelievable performance the great man gives, running both us and him through the emotional grinder as he brings his tragic character to life.
Initially an innocent, he holds his hands up to the same skylight at his birth as his creator did, but in childlike wonder at the light rather than in defiance of the gods like Frankenstein. He’s gentle, placid and trusting until Fritz abuses him with fire and instead of being protected by his master he’s beaten and chained. He learns about pain, about cruelty and about trust, and Karloff gives us all this impeccably with no words, caked in Jack Pierce’s iconic makeup and still manages to break our hearts while scaring us to death at his unnatural power too.
That pivotal scene with the little girl is the heart and soul of the film, the way he learns kindness after he’s been treated, the way he even tries to smile, then the way he realises that he is indeed a monster. Gut-wrenching doesn’t come close, leading us to that final confrontation on the mountain. The god-like creator and his creature, who’s fear of fire is overridden by his hatred of the man who made him so flawed. It’s biblical, but it’s very, very human as well.
When it comes down to it, Frankenstein is a story about fathers and sons. Sure, the final dramatic denouement on the burning mill where the creature rejects his father figure by throwing him from the top is all about the action, but even that is reinforcing its themes of paternity and what it means.
And that bizarre choice of final scene back at the Frankenstein mansion? “Here’s to a son to the house of Frankenstein!”
Fathers. Sons. Gods. Creations. It’s all the same in Whale’s eye and nobody comes out looking good.
Frankenstein isn’t a classic in the way Lugosi’s Dracula is, where its impact and importance lends it weight, it’s a classic because it reinvented the wheel and is pretty much a flawless piece of filmmaking. A masterpiece? Oh yes. And then some.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy