(From now until Halloween, the Canadian Cinephile will be taken over by pure, unadulterated FEAR. No, I’m not commencing an Adam Sandler marathon. I will be reviewing some of the most spine-chilling, bloodcurdling horror movies, with this year’s trip covering those freaky films released prior to 1970. There will be a special focus on Universal’s classic monster pictures, so bring your hot cocoa. It’s going to be a dark and scary ride. Sort of.)
If Tod Browning’s Dracula belonged to Bela Lugosi, it’s fair to say that James Whale’s Frankenstein belongs to Boris Karloff. Referenced in the opening credits only as a question mark, the imposing English actor may only stagger around and yell occasionally but it’s impossible to ignore his stature as the Monster in this 1931 Universal Pictures monster movie classic.
Interestingly, Lugosi wanted to play Dr. Frankenstein following his success as the Count. Producer Carl Laemmle, Jr. had Hungarian pegged as playing the Monster, however, and even went through makeup tests before Lugosi left the project. There have been recent suggestions that Lugosi was actually kicked off the picture along with original director Richard Florey. Hollywood legends rule.
The movie opens with young scientist Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) waiting for a burial to wrap up before snatching the stiff with the help of his hunchback helper Fritz (Dwight Frye). It turns out that Frankenstein wants to create human life with a contrivance that makes use of electrical power. His fiancé Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) is distraught.
She enlists the help of the friendzoned Victor (John Boles) and Henry’s old instructor (Edward Van Sloan) to talk some sense into Frankenstein, but they arrive at his derelict laboratory just in time to see him raise the Monster (Karloff) from the dead. The creature, due in part to its troubled brain, eventually proves a trial for Frankenstein and flees his slack supervision to wreak havoc on the frolicking locals.
Frankenstein is based on the Peggy Webling play of the same name, which in turn was obviously based on the story of the same name by Mary Shelley. This follows a very similar path to Dracula in that the theatrical production provides the outline for the screenplay rather than the source material. John L. Balderston is once again in charge of the adaptation.
There are other parallels, like the appearance of Van Sloan. The Minnesota-born actor played Van Helsing in Dracula and would go on to play Dr. Muller in The Mummy. Frye is familiar to fans as Renfield from Browning’s Dracula. And by now, Universal was already carving out its slot in the monster movie genre.
Frankenstein opens with Van Sloan’s “warning” from the producer. He explains that the film the audience is about to see deals in matters of life and death, clarifying that the subsequent experience may shock or even horrify the viewers.
Whale does his best to earn the warning and then some. His picture has an unnerving feel, like it’s always just holding on to its cobwebs of sanity. The sets alternate from the ornamental to the bizarre, with cinematographer Arthur Edeson doing a wonderful job keeping the audience at a distance. He pulls the camera away and slides across the outsides of rooms. There are also some incredible panning shots.
Edeson’s cinematography sometimes deepens the look of certain rooms, like the cell where the Monster is kept. The backdrop implies a cage and the lens pulls back to the crest of the fortification, as though Whale is protecting the viewer from the Monster and his potential for frenzy. There are such cautions throughout Frankenstein and that makes the fear all the more effective.
Whale wisely plays out his entire film without the aid of a musical score, achieving the same effect Browning did with Dracula in that the trepidation speaks for itself. The atmosphere becomes rather ghoulish, with cracks of lightning and the shrieks from dear Elizabeth forming a sonata all their own.
Karloff inhabits the role of the Monster with a certain sense of anguish, like he’s never sure what he’s doing there. He does not speak and one wonders how “alive” he could actually be, although there are moments of noiseless understanding. Many of these moments quickly turn to repulsion, like the iconic scene involving little Maria (Marilyn Harris) and the discovery that girls don’t float.
Over the course of a measly 71 minutes, Whale’s Frankenstein accomplishes more than many horror movies do in twice the time. It explores the making of “man after his own image, without reckoning upon God.” It reveals the decisive mad scientist legend from Shelley’s tale and tells of his creation, a being without name and without nature. What could be more horrifying?