31 Days of Horror: James Whale’s Frankenstein
The more of these classic Universal Studios monster flicks one discovers for the first time, the clearer the realization that, along the years, blatant misconceptions about them have materialized. Occasionally these inaccuracies are the result of parodies and misquotes, which is all fine and dandy provided people come to understand what the original material was trying to convey. One should not limit oneself to taking the parodies and misquotes for granted as precise representations of what the creators intended in the first place. In the previous entry, the topic was 1931 Dracula. This time I review yet another film from the same year, one deemed no less a classic, and of course burdened by another series of unwarranted misconceptions, all of which can be remedied by, oh, maybe just watching the movie.
Based on the famed novel written by Mary Shelly (who was barely an adult when she penned the story), James Whale’s film opens in possibly the darkest corner of a cemetery where one poor soul is being laid to rest as his few family members and friends mourn his passing. A cloudy night, an unwelcoming place, a sad event, nothing about the scene would suggest anybody other than the mourners would wish to stick around, but such is not the case, as obsessed scientist Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his trusty if physically deformed helper Fritz (Dwight Frye) lurk around, awaiting the departure of the mourners. Once gone, they proceed to dig up the departed’s grave. A grotesque gesture, to be sure, yet in truth only one step in Frankenstein’s ultimate goal: to literally build a human body from corpses and, via some technological wizardry, bring it to life. It has been some time already since beginning his tireless work on this most unorthodox of projects, thus creating a bit of a rift between himself and his bride to be, Elizabeth (Mae Clark). As the day of their marriage fast approaches, she, her father and Dr. Weldman (Edward Van Sloan, who played Van Helsing in Dracula, reviewed last week) make their way to Frankenstein’s isolated dwellings in the hopes of convincing him to let go of his diabolical project and come back to the real world. Frankenstein has other plans, plans that involve proving his dream was possible all along. When the monster (Boris Karloff) awakens, things become messy very quickly.
The review shall be split into two halves, each one developing out of a response to a couple of common mistakes made by snarky people who would like to believe they know a lot about the film despite having not seen it. The first, the most egregious of all the mistakes people make is in uttering comments about ‘the monster, Frankenstein.’ Well, surprise surprise! Frankenstein is not, in fact, the monster played by the legendary Boris Karloff. He is the scientist who creates the monster, played by actor Colin Clive. As such, the movie is ostensibly about him as opposed to his experiment subject. Because of that, Frankenstein, considering that it is recognized as a horror film, confounds certain expectations. The more traditional horror-themed aspects are far more prominent in the latter half of the picture (which will tie into the second of the two inaccurate stereotypes this review aims to tackle). The first half, while flirting with the ideas of the monster movie, concerns it itself with a different type of horror film. What Frankenstein wishes to accomplish is itself horrifying in itself. As some characters are quick to conclude, the man is mad. He openly proclaims a desire to play god, to give life to the lifeless, to make the most staggering scientific breakthrough of them all. Regardless of however ambitious that dream may be, the ethics of his methods are questionable. Disrupting the dead during their eternal rest, sending Fritz to steal brains from laboratories, all without ever considering the morbidity of the plan. Frankenstein is a weird individual, no question about it whatsoever.
Interestingly enough, director James Whale does not want viewers to understand the titular scientist solely as an overly ambitious man with some loose screws. The viewer is lead to believe that he does have, or had, another life prior to secluding himself off from the world. This other life takes the shape of Elizabeth, played by Mae Clark, who is madly in love with Frankenstein and wishes, above all else, that he would come back home to normality. It is a plot device that helps humanize the protagonist. There are moments when the look in the scientist’s eyes displays warmth and desire for Elizabeth, signs that there must indeed be another side to him, otherwise, how could Elizabeth have ever agreed to marry him in the first place? The film juggles these two diametrically opposed versions of Frankenstein, which ends up reinforcing the horror of the story. How can this once believably kind man have lost himself on the path to playing god in such a morbid way? The film never provides any concrete answers, although it is fun to hypothesize and the overall dramatic effect is quite strong. As is the case in so many of the great movies, Frankenstein is partly about obsession and in this case, said behaviour leads to a disastrous conclusion.
The second misconception which has survived the decades is that the scientist’s monster is nothing more than a big dumb creature who serves as the butt of some easy jokes. That, actually, is partly true. The brain utilized to give the monster life is that of a lowly killer (a slipup on Fritz’s part when he infiltrated Dr. Weldman’s laboratory) and his entire body has been made up of parts from different people. He is, for those reasons, not very smart on the intellectual side of things and, physically, a large, unwieldy figure, oafish even. However, the analysis cannot end there. He and Fritz have an ongoing rivalry, with Fritz maltreating the monster every opportunity awarded to him. Frankenstein quickly tries to teach his creation a few simple things but soon learns that its temper is short, and coupled with the fact that it looks hideous, draws the conclusion that it must remain in captivity. Out of this uncompromising, degrading lifestyle emerges a newly formed rage. Whereas before the monster only reacted violently, now he chooses to act out violently. As such, the situation has grown far more complex than originally foreseen. True enough, the nature of the beast does not help its cause, but nor did Frankenstein or Fritz (especially the latter) know what to do with it once they injected life into it. Bad judgment all around eventually results in the monster terrorizing the nearby village where Frankenstein and Elizabeth have their wedding.
Finally, and arguably the film’s greatest coup, is the climax, in which the townsfolk adopt what is quite clearly a mob mentality in an attempt to capture and execute the monster. Enraged by the death of a little girl (which was indeed the of the monster’s doing, but not out of any overt act of malice. Unintelligent as he is, he simply misjudged a precarious situation), the people take their pitchforks and their fire and go hunting for the creature, eventually showing absolutely no mercy at all once they successfully locate it. The movie has suddenly turned the scenario on its head, with the citizens behaving monstrously against the monster they chased down. One wonders if director Whales and author Shelly ever wanted the readers and viewer to genuinely sympathize with Frankenstein, although even if the movie never causes such an intense gut wrench, there is something to be said about a monster who understood little of what he was doing being burned to a crisp by ordinary people who understand perfectly what they are doing at that moment in time. It is ‘an eye for an eye’ in the most horrific and intense sense imaginable.
Aided by a memorable, if the somewhat limited performance by Boris Karloff, Frankenstein’s monster eventually becomes a multidimensional character, one the viewers may not entirely side with, yet who earns just enough empathy. The writing and direction are to be commended, as the film demonstrates far more character development and intelligence than many who only know the film vaguely would expect.