“From the midst of this darkness a sudden light broke in upon me—a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple, that while I became dizzy with the immensity of the prospect which it illustrated.” – Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.
“It’s alive!” – Victor Frankenstein, Frankenstein (1931)
James Whale’s Frankenstein.
It’s great isn’t it? Even after all these years, it still sets the standard for Frankenstein movies. I won’t say it’s the best, but it’s what people who make Frankenstein movies are shooting for. Even drivel like Blackenstein tries for the cinematography and I, Frankenstein tries for the pathos. They fail – oh, Lord, how they fail – but they try. If you’re making a Frankenstein movie, James Whale’s masterpiece is the mark you’re trying to hit.
It has all those classic moments, doesn’t it? The over-the-top graverobbing scene. So good! The introductory scene of the man in front of the curtain, warning the audience of the horrors to come. The graveyard, all shadows and expressionist lines is full of quiet grieving, while a twisted scientist and his assistant patiently wait to undo the solemn ritual of burial. The reanimation scene itself – still a thing of beauty after eighty years as artificial life in the form of lightning is poured into the Monster’s inert body while Colin Clive rants.
Karloff’s wonderful silent portrayal of the monster, by turns childlike and monstrous. The drowning of the little girl, cut out of the movie after the imposition of the Hayes Code and still shocking today. The torchlit pursuit of the Monster, the fight between maker and Monster, the burning of the windmill, all of these things and more have become part of our pop-culture iconography, and rightly so.
No, if there is a problem with the movie, it is not the parts you remember, it’s the parts you forget. In between the classic set-pieces, the film is exceptionally dull. Whole scenes are completely superfluous. Take the initial conversation between Elizabeth and Victor Moritz. It seems to go on forever, juat to convey the information that Henry Frankenstein is a scientist working on something spooky in a lab in an abandoned watchtower, his friends are worried about him and they are bringing in Dr Waldman to help talk sense into him, and Victor is keen on Elizabeth. They then go to Dr Waldman, who explains everything again.
Useful information — except that Frankenstein’s need for cadavers has already been established in the graverobbing scene. That he is performing questionable experiments in an abandoned watchtower is established far more dramatically in the following scene, in which Frankenstein’s friends and Dr Waldman show up to talk sense to him. Moritz’ attraction to Elizabeth is never followed up on, and the character himself simply fades out of the story. The man in front of the curtain already told us that Frankenstein means to create life, and Frankenstein himself repeats that in the next scene. In short, we have a whole mess of plot points that are dramatically explained and then pedantically re-explained.
Other non-horror scenes are equally interminable and inexplicable. Henry’s father seems especially out of place. The scene where Baron von Frankenstein tells off the Burgomaster seem less like Mary Shelley and more like P.G. Wodehouse on an off day. It is really almost like there are two movies. Try skipping over the horror sequences and you get a film about a scientist who almost loses his girlfriend due to his work obsession, then gets her back, much to the delight of his gruff old duffer of a father.
Partly this comes from the source material, which is not Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but a stage adaption of Frankenstein that retold the story as a sort of drawing room drama. This adaptation comes from a long tradition of Frankenstein plays dating back to very soon after the novel’s original publication. Early versions meddled with the novel and later adaptations meddled with earlier adaptations, until the movies came along. After that, movie followed movie until the modern reader can experience a real ‘what the hell’ moment when they read Mary Shelley’s original.
So apart from its sense of style, what does this version bring to the tradition? It brings a doozy: the brain. The brain changes the story completely. In Mary Shelley’s novel, the brain is insignificant. The Monster is a tabula rasa, a blank slate, capable of good or evil, but turned to wrongdoing through Frankenstein’s abandonment of him. Alone into a hostile world, the Monster is persecuted and opposed at every turn, until it becomes obsessed with revenge against its creator.
In Whale’s Frankenstein, there are echoes of this. The Monster kills Fritz, who torments him, and Waldman, who tries to kill him. Its attacks on Elizabeth and Frankenstein are portrayed as revenge on its creator. Even his most shocking killing—that of the little girl—is based on misunderstanding how the world works, rather than malice.
And yet, there is the brain. The criminal brain that Fritz has brought instead of the good brain. The Monster’s choice of victims implies something of Mary Shelley’s interpretation–wrongdoing being a case of nurture. The narrator, following a long tradition of Frankensteinian stage drama – insists that the story is essentially Judeo-Christian, implying the Monster’s sins are a result of his non-divine creation. But the brain—the brain implies that the cause of the deaths of Fritz, Waldman, and the little girl can by physically located. The brain is the location of the Creature’s identity and since it is a criminal brain, the Monster itself must behave criminally.
This naturalistic, physiological explanation for the Monster’s wrongdoing becomes the major thread that unspools from this movie throughout the history of Frankenstein in cinema. It comes up again and again in in Universal’s Frankenstein saga and is revisited in the Hammer Frankensteins. It is brilliantly parodied in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. Elsewhere it is added to–the wonderful Frankenstein: the True Story by Isherwood and Barrcoldy; Kenneth Branagh’s less wonderful Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and even the Munsters all suggest that the Monster’s identity is only partly derived from the brain, and partly from his other component pieces.
Elsewhere brain the Monster receives determines who and what the Monster is. You can make a Frankenstein movie without worrying about the brain, you just can’t call it Frankenstein if you do. You have to call your movie something else – Blade Runner, for example, or the Terminator. Your Frankenstein’s Monster must be called something else – call him Ultron or HAL or K1 or Jamie Gumm or Lore. Call him Hymie the Robot, why not.
But I’ve wandered from James Whale’s Frankenstein. My point is, this film establishes a huge amount of the cinematic iconography of Frankenstein, but also presents three different possible morals of a story of an artificial creature who turns against its creator. The materialist moral – that the creature is the sum of its parts, so defective parts equals defective creature – has become so deeply entrenched in that iconography that it is almost impossible to make a straightforward, serious Frankenstein movie without incorporating that moral.
I want to examine Frankenstein movies in this blog, whether they are called Frankenstein movies or not. We won’t be looking at these films in any particular order, though I will try to keep the Universal and Hammer Frankensteins in their respective chronological orders.
I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It may even… horrify you. So if you feel you are unable to subject your nerves to such a strain… Well… we warned you.