The ‘other’ great monster in Universal’s pantheon of midnight terrors is undeniably James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931); the extraordinary reconstitution of Mary Shelley’s immortal Gothic freak show into a weirdly timeless middle-European landscape, populated by some genuinely suspicious pseudo-folklore. In re-conceptualizing the novel for the modern screen, Whale was to throw out just about everything that made the novel famous, except the threadbare concept of a scientist probing the secrets of life and death by stitching together cadavers to ‘make’ a monster. The overwhelming box office success of Dracula had afforded Carle Laemmle Jr. the ability to delve into even more lavish recreations of Gothic horror for this second trip to the well. Yet, the world manifested in Charles D. Hall’s lavish production design is a very strange amalgam of 18th century traditions married to decidedly 20th century technologies and scientific precepts. There’s no way of getting around it. The movie’s visual design, superbly photographed by cinematographers Arthur Edeson and Paul Ivano, is perhaps an even more curious oddity than the monster, bringing together the stylistic elements of Gothic horror and German Expressionism.
In retrospect Shelley’s novel seems rife for exploitation; the year 1931 at a very strange crossroads between the scientific advancements taken hold since the 1823 publication of Shelley’s novel and the Nov. 1918 armistice ending WWI. Indeed, life-saving plastic surgeries allowed horrifically wounded soldiers from the battlefield to re-enter society as the commonplace disfigured amongst the general populace. Such ‘miracles’ had probed the boundaries of what was possible in this ‘modern age’, the so-called restoration of the mutilated giving rise to the public’s fascination with tales of the fantastic. Frankenstein, the novel, is very much a story about man’s driven desire to improve and even surpass God’s work. The exercise is, of course, not without its repercussions as the novel’s eccentric scientist, Dr. Victor Frankenstein is to shortly discover. In the movie, the doctor’s first name is inexplicably changed to Henry, while the competing love interest played by John Boles is given the name Victor. Go figure. We won’t even try.
As Universal had done with Bram Stoker’s blood-sucker, Dracula, virtually all of Shelley’s novel – except its threadbare plot points – was discarded in favor of an original screenplay based on Peggy Webling and John Balderston’s Broadway adaptation, rewritten by Francis Edward Faragoh, Garrett Fort and an unaccredited Robert Florey and John Russell. Shelley’s novel is very circumspect in its details about the resurrection of the monster; her description entirely re-envisioned by makeup artist, Jack Pierce who used a frightful concoction of noxious spirit gum, cotton, collodion and green greasepaint to build up layers of dense bone and rotting flesh, evolving the look through trial and error. Boris Karloff spent hours in Pierce’s makeup chair, enduring the most grotesque and arduous manipulations of his own rather gaunt physical appearance. To accentuate the monster’s sunken cheeks, Karloff removed his dental plate. To augment the monster’s physical stiffness, the actor was weighted down with prosthetic boots.
In the novel, the monster is disfigured but articulate, pleading and even reasoning with Victor after he has been shunned and driven out by the local town’s people for his hideous appearance. The movie chose instead to render the monster mute, perhaps as a way of heightening his exclusion as ‘the other’ in society. Many today forget the filmic Frankenstein is more Shakespearean tragedy than classic horror; the monster with all his angst, willingness to please and abject desperate for having failed to assimilate into society, instead denied and tormented by it, made a sacrificial parable for the Christ story.
James Whale, who perhaps could share in some of the monster’s rejection (Whale being a closeted homosexual) perceives the world at large as far more immoral and terrorizing than any monster. Even Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) despises his creation; in effect the offspring denied paternal affection and acceptance, the resultant mayhem derived from this deprivation. Even the death of Little Maria (Marilyn Harris) – the girl the creature tosses into the lake – is not an act motivated by the monster’s desire to kill but rather his complete inability to comprehend her incapability to float similarly to the flower petals cast upon the water.
Karloff’s performance as the monster is truly one of the most prolific and enduring. He manages the seemingly impossible coup of transforming an outwardly hideous creature into a genuinely sympathetic lost soul, one the audience can both empathize with and yet simultaneously fear. There is inner ballast to Karloff’s monster, the Pierce makeup allowing the actor’s deeper thoughts and expressions to shine through; the monster truly coming to life while struggling to discover his own place within a social structure in which there is no place for him. That he resorts to terrorizing this human world in the third act is hardly a surprise, given the complete effrontery of mankind to even investigative the true metal of his physiological makeup. The screenplay does, of course, allow for the possibility of absolute madness to overtake the creature; the theft of a criminally insane brain perpetrated by Fritz (Dwight Frye), Henry Frankenstein’s hump-backed assistant, later implanted in the monster, giving rise to bouts of uncontrollable rage.
Yet Karloff, Pierce and Whale have conspired to deliver a truly compelling performance far removed from the clichés of unrepentant evil run amuck. The monster is neither wicked nor good but a tragically flawed concoction of these polar opposites; his self-loathing and dementia brought on by human-inflicted suffrage. Is any of this the creature’s fault? Arguably, no, and the implication of man as the villain of this piece remains rather unsettling and unexpected. Certainly, none of the horror masterpieces gone before Frankenstein (and most that have come since) probe this more explorative analysis of man’s responsibility. The central theme of the movie may still be chills, but its underbelly is a peerless psychological melodrama.
Charles D. Hall’s production design is worth mentioning in that it begins with a startling reconstitution of some never-never-land generally associated with Gothic Europe; its ominous and slightly askew tombstones and barren landscape dominated by Tyrolean gristmills, windmills, castles and even a gallows with a dangling body, all evoking the 17th or possibly 18th centuries. Yet, the university and, particularly Henry Frankenstein’s electrified laboratory suggest the 20th century; perhaps inspired by the fantastical real-life experimentations of Nikola Tesla with their shooting sparks and ominously glowing orbs, pulsating and synonymous with the secrets surrounding the life force. Hall has perhaps achieved an even more incredible feat by blending these seemingly irreconcilable styles into a single believable topography, one in which the audience can wholly fathom, as well as master, an understanding such manipulations of life and death are possible.
Frankenstein made a star of Boris Karloff, although he was not the studio’s first choice for the part. Indeed, Frankenstein had been planned as a follow-up project for Bela Lugosi, the original poster art with the creature’s eyes perceived as searchlight beams playing on the hypnotically incandescence Lugosi’s depiction of Count Dracula. But Lugosi balked at the project and Whale thought him entirely wrong for the part. Karloff’s wan physicality, his stark bony features were much more Whale’s idea of a cadaver brought back to life. It is rumored Karloff spent nearly six hours a day in Jack Pierce’s makeup chair. Pierce was an artist, regrettably not tolerated at Universal after the early 1940’s – his time-consuming applications streamlined by Bud Westmore in later years as Universal continued to churn out Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolf Man and Mummy sequels. Like Lugosi, Karloff was a soft-spoken cordial gentleman quite unlike his monolithic alter ego. Therein, perhaps, lies the enduring success of the creature as portrayed; sympathetically and with a tragic underlay of endearing sadness.
As our tale begins we find Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), the brilliant, though slightly demented scientist exercising his ambition to stitch together a human out of body parts stolen from recently deceased and unearthed cadavers. Henry keeps the secrets of life and death mostly to himself. On the surface at least, he leads a very normal life that includes an engagement to wealthy socialite Elizabeth Lavenza (Mae Clarke). Elizabeth confides her genuine concerns about Henry’s secretive experimentations to friend, Victor Moritz (John Boles); a sympathetic sort who desires Elizabeth for his own, although seemingly without a jealous bone in his body. In the meantime, Henry’s humpbacked assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye) is instructed to steal a human brain from the nearby university’s science department. Fritz is a simpleton clod. He accidentally smashes the glass container housing a normal human brain and decides to make off with another containing the cerebellum of someone who was criminally insane.
On the eve of a harrowing electrical storm, Elizabeth and Victor, together with Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) make an impromptu visit to Henry’s hilltop laboratory, discovering a vast complex of homemade devices built to harness these violent energies – in effect, the power of God. The body of Henry’s creation, sheathed in white linen, is raised on a stretcher into the skies, a strike of electrical impulses stirring its mass of bone and sinew. Declaring himself ‘to be God’ Henry is driven near mad with excitement. But his elation turns sour when the creature exhibits the first signs of becoming violent and eventually escapes from his dungeon chains. The monster, however, has been tortured by Fritz with fire. On his own, he makes several attempts to befriend mankind – all of them ending in tragedy. Finding Little Maria playing near the lake, the monster is shown kindness and reciprocates it. Regrettably, the monster’s inability to fathom death causes him to throw Maria into the waters before deducing she cannot swim. The child drowns and the monster’s sheer terror over her loss is heartbreaking.
Discovering the body, Maria’s father raises a posse to hunt down the creature. In the meantime, Henry is preparing for his wedding to Elizabeth. But as Elizabeth awaits her bridegroom in her upstairs bedroom she is terrorized by the creature, snuck in through a window. Her screams bring Henry and Victor to her rescue. The creature stalks Henry to a nearby windmill, Henry’s attempted escape seemingly thwarted when the town’s folk – torches and pitchforks in hand – decide to set fire to the windmill, thus destroying the monster, but also Henry in the process.
Eighty-four years after its premiere, Frankenstein still packs a wallop. Part – if not all - of the film’s genuinely understated beauty remains in Karloff’s central performance as the monster; fearful, tragic and ultimately doomed to remain misunderstood and unloved. Indeed, from the moment the monster comes to life he is treated rather appallingly by Henry and Fritz (Dwight Frye), who chain him in a dungeon and terrorize with flames. Karloff’s ability to convey so many varied emotions beneath the stifling amount of makeup affords the monster a level of responsiveness the audience can immediately identify with and appreciate. The first appearance of the creature is undeniably shocking. Karloff emerges from the shadows with heavy brow, stitched scalp and neck bolts photographed in extreme close-up. It’s enough to send even the bravest toppling from their theater seats. But this initial fright is compounded by a subtler display of the monster as mute wretch; the unwilling participant in a grand social/scientific experiment gone wrong. Frankenstein endures as a cinema masterpiece because of Karloff – billed as ‘the uncanny’ – an unconventional and unlikely star who became something of the arbitrator of freakish thrills throughout the 1930’s and 40’s.
Another re-release from Universal Home Video, Frankenstein on Blu-ray is another outstanding 1080p transfer derived from original nitrate elements. Minor imperfections exist but this is a pluperfect transfer exhibiting phenomenal clarity and fine detail with superb contrast and midrange tonal grays. The image is both crisp and clean. The inherent audio shortcomings are not quite as bad on Frankenstein despite the fact it was shot the same year as Dracula. Restored in DTS-HD mono, Frankenstein’s audio an exemplary mastering of vintage sound elements. The clarity in these monaural tracks made just a few scant years after the advent of sound recording technologies is, frankly, astounding.
Extras abound, beginning with two independent audio commentaries; one from Rudy Behlmer the other from Christopher Frayling. Personally, I preferred Frayling’s for its arc of cultural perspective. But both commentaries are definitely worthy of your time and provide a fascinating back story to the making of the movie. We also get the 45 min. DVD documentary ‘How Hollywood Made A Monster’, a 38 min. biography on Karloff with fond recollections from his daughter, the 1 ½ hr. documentary ‘Universal Horror’ hosted by Kenneth Branagh that provides a fantastic retrospective on the studio’s many monster franchises, Boo! - a short film from 1932, another bumper crop of poster art, production stills and other archival photos, monster tracks (trivia at a glance), trailers and an HD short on how Universal undertook its restoration effort. Bottom line: highly recommended, especially if you don’t already own the Universal Classic Monsters box set.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)