It goes without saying that James Whale’s 1931 film version of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein is a seminal classic and one of the most important horror movies ever made. It wasn’t the first, or even the best Universal horror film, nor was it the first film adaptation of the novel – that was made back in 1910 for the Thomas Edison company. But in terms of sheer cinematic style and verve, it was the first sound horror film to suggest that the genre could – and should – develop beyond the brilliant German silent films of Murnau and Wiene and the ingenious physical trickery of Lon Chaney. Tod Browning’s Dracula, made for Universal a matter of months before, had shot its load of visual invention in the first reel, leaving an hour of stagy dialogue and off-screen bloodsucking before Bela Lugosi’s memorable vampire received his – also off-screen – comeuppance. Whale never makes the mistake of giving us too much too soon. Frankenstein is cunningly paced and suspenseful with every scene carefully adding to the visual and emotional impact of the whole. If it’s far from being the first great horror film, I think it’s fair to say that it’s the first great horror film of the sound era and, with all due respect to Rupert Julian’s Phantom of the Opera, with Lon Chaney, I think it’s the first great American horror film.
The following review contains spoilers. If you don't want to know what happens in Frankenstein then please skip down to the review of the disc
Mary Shelley’s novel is a great number of impressive things – an intelligent and witty comment on the tenets of the Enlightenment, a fascinating exercise in narrative construction, a philosophical tract about the limits of science and knowledge – but as it stands, it’s not really very suited to the screen. There are vast swathes of wordy dialogue, some very unlikely plotting, not entirely obvious lapses of time and place and a minimum of characterisation. Like Bram Stoker’s exercise in the epistolary Gothic Dracula, it has been best handled on screen when the adaptation has had the courage to take the central themes and then let go to find its own life. Adaptations which have been trumpeted as being faithful to Shelley’s book tend to have been turgid. Even then, they tend to cheat by including the kind of spectacular horror set-pieces that owe more to Byron and, particularly, Polidori – Mary’s companions at Lake Geneva when the novel was gestating – than to the original, which gains its occasional horrific effects through metaphor and occasional dream sequences of macabre imagery. The only good scene in the 1974 TV mini-series Frankenstein – The True Story has nothing to do with the book – a spectacular decapitation at a society ball – and Kenneth Branagh’s risible 1994 effort Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein wastes its time on lengthy dialogue scenes taken wholesale, and often out of context, from the book and only comes alive when it gets a bit of Grand Guignol blood in its veins.
James Whale’s film, adapted from the popular 1920s play by Peggy Webling by John L. Balderston and then written by Garrett Fort and Francis Edward Faragoh, doesn’t have a great deal to do with the book but retains the basics of the opening third. Henry Frankenstein (Clive), a brilliant but obsessive medical student has been marginalised in the scientific community for his repeated attempts to revive dead tissue. His one-time mentor Dr Waldman (Van Sloan) is disgusted by these activities that he regards as insane. Henry’s fiancé Elizabeth (Clark) and friend Victor (Boles) become concerned when Henry holes up in an old mill in the middle of the countryside with only hunchback assistant Fritz (Frye) for company. They discover that he has built a creature from stolen body parts and that he intends to use electricity to bring the assimilated parts to life. Henry, ignoring their pleas, brings the creature (Karloff) to life, not realising the enormity of what he has done and soon comes to regret his actions when the creature becomes uncontrollable.
When seen today, over seventy years after it was first released, it’s easy to find Frankenstein somewhat tame. It’s acted in the very arch theatrical style which was popular at the time and some of the scenes of horror which shocked audiences at the time are now hardly likely to frighten anyone over the age of five. It’s easy to do this, as it is with many films of the period, but pretty damned important not to. You have to consider these films in the context of their production to understand exactly what made them so significant to the development of the genre and the industry. However, the effort needed to do this with Whale’s film is minimal, especially compared to the allowances even a sympathetic viewer has to make for the oddly inert Dracula. For a start, it’s brilliantly cinematic from the very first shots. Whale’s camera tracks through a desolate graveyard during a funeral, showing us skeletal death waiting beside a grave, setting up an atmosphere of morbidity and deliberately using the religious ritual as ironic context for his story. The huge sets are marvellous; spacious, not too cluttered but believably lived in, the expressionist cinematography is brooding without seeming mannered and there is little allowance made for the difficulties, even in 1931, of recording sound. Whale seems to have deliberately set himself a challenge to make this sound movie just as visually inventive and pacy as the silent films that he adored and, along with Hawks’ The Criminal Code and Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail, this is part of an emerging style at the beginning of the Thirties which demonstrated that recording dialogue was a challenge to be overcome and not a restriction to be observed.
In some respects, the film is inevitably dated but this is often in ways which are rather charming. Can anyone resist the straightfaced silliness of the prologue, in which a delectably smug Edward Van Sloan warns us of the horrors that are to follow ? As for the acting – and I deliberately exempt Boris Karloff from the generalisation that follows – it’s very typical of the style which you’ll find in a lot of Hollywood movies of the period. During the early years of sound, actors tended to be chosen for their theatrical experience and the richness of their voice. They were very rarely experienced in intimate working conditions and so they perform as if trying to project to the very back row of the gods at the Sunderland Empire on a Friday night. The chief exponent of this style in the film is Colin Clive, an actor who had achieved a certain notoriety for his performance in Whale’s WW1 drama Journey’s End, where his nervous overplaying was ideal for the character. Sometimes, this is disastrous for the scene, as it is every time he is meant to be romancing his somewhat wet fiancé. Clive – described by Mae Clark as “The handsomest man I ever saw – and the saddest” – hated playing in horror films and considered himself a serious actor who was oppressed by people who didn’t appreciate his immense talent. His alcoholism did nothing to help his career and when he contracted TB, he declined rapidly. It’s a terribly sad story – a loveless marriage didn’t do much good – and all the more so when you consider that, for all his theatrical hamming, Clive is extraordinarily memorable in Frankenstein. Yes, he seems slightly demented but this is exactly right for the character in that marvellous scene where he sees the creature’s hand moving and screams, with a terrifying combination of self-righteous vindication and insane hubris, “It’s alive ! It’s moving. It’s alive, it’s alive, IT’S ALIVE! In the name of God... I know what it feels like to be God!” Give him a scene where he just has to chat to someone and Colin Clive begins to either devour the scenery or bore you into submission. Give him a set-piece, show-off speech and he’s wonderfully, vividly, larger than life.
Yet this very quality of over-the-top intensity is a key to the issues at the heart of both this film and Universal Horror in general. What is set up is a fascinating tension between stultifying bourgeois conformity and individual vision and ambition. This is played out in two speeches. Henry’s father, played by a windy and self-satisfied actor called Frederick Kerr, is a portrait of the very worst of upper middle-class complacency (I know he’s titled but the way he talks and behaves is clearly not the product of an aristocratic upbringing). In his major speech, he sums up what his idea of a full and rich life has to offer – ”Why does he go messing around a ruined old windmill, when he has a decent house, a bath, good food and drink and a darned pretty girl to come back to ?” This is what is expected of Henry; a retreat into the safe, conventional inertia which his family – and bourgeois society in general - considers to be ‘respectable’. But this isn’t enough for Henry. His every instinct tells him that this is not a situation to be accepted or even suffered, it is something that must be fought against. He represents the indefatigable curiosity of science and the intellectual ambition of a true visionary, saying to Dr Waldman in a keynote speech, ”Have you never wanted to do anything that was dangerous? Where should we be if no-one tried to find out what lies beyond? Have you never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars? Or to know what causes the trees to bud? And what changes the darkness into light? But if you talk like that, people call you crazy.” This intent on escaping the confines of respectability is what make Frankenstein an exciting and even sympathetic character in the first half of the film.
In the second half of the film, Whale, Boris Karloff and the writers execute a clever switch of sympathies and an enlargening of the above dialectic between conformity and individuality into a theme which would become one of the classic motifs of horror cinema – the ‘Normal’ contrasted with the ‘Other’. In other words, the everyday invaded by the extraordinary. This extraordinary element cannot be assimilated into the socially accepted Normal and thus becomes the abnormal (the Other) and subsequently the unacceptable, which must be eliminated. What is fascinating about Universal’s series of horror films is the clear placing of sympathy with the Other - even though convention and censorship usually demanded that the Other be destroyed at the end of the film, often by a baying band of simple-minded village folk eager for a lynching. Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula is so obviously and, ironically, the only character in Dracula with anything resembling a spark of life that his destruction at the end - by the hegemony of the Normal represented by Van Helsing – seems rather unjust.
Yet in Frankenstein, this vague sense of injustice is extended into wholesale empathy and audience identification with the Other, the shambling, confused Monster played by Boris Karloff. It’s one of the great screen performances, genuinely iconic and totally successful in creating a character that is at once immensely alien to us but also strangely human in his emotions and reactions. Whale introduces the Monster with careful gradualness. First we see his body under a sheet, then feet and limbs. We don’t see a full body shot until half an hour into the film. In a superb bit of editing, we first see him from the back then he turns round. As he faces us, we move into a medium close-up (from the other side of the screen), then into a brief close-up. Incredibly strange, the film seems to be saying, but also immensely fascinating and worthy of scrutiny. Karloff turns the Monster from the lumbering brute he was in the screenplay originally seen by Lugosi (who turned the film down) – and that he would become by 1941 – into a sad, beautiful creation, a ‘freak’ of nature more genuinely sensitive and alive than the people who want to destroy him. When he first sees the sun, he’s like a child faced with the seemingly irrational. He lifts his arms up to grasp it, but it’s such a suggestive scene that it appears as though he’s reaching up to some great eternal beyond that he can never reach. It seems to reflect the way that he desperately reaches out to people but is greeted, after an initial scene of Frankenstein talking to him, with an anger and violence that he can’t understand. Our switch of sympathies is confirmed when Henry shouts “Leave it alone” and retreats back to the bosom of his family and boring fiancé. Quite simply, the Monster becomes the hero. There is nothing frightening about the Monster, a fact understood by children who see the film for the first time and immediately feel sorry for the Monster rather than fearing him. The beauty of the conception – of an Other who seems more essentially human than the people who hate him – is summed up in the extraordinarily haunting scene where he accidentally drowns a small child while playing a game with her. Karloff evokes a spirit greeted with the horrible fact of death, caused inadvertently by him, and his grief-stricken reaction seems intensely felt – rather more so than the hammy one-note playing of the father when he discovers his dead daughter.
This sympathy for the Other is something that would crop up time and again in Universal Horror. We see it in Whale’s sequel to this film, The Bride of Frankenstein, in Karl Freund’s strangely sensual The Mummy and in the later The Wolf Man. It even extends into some of their films of the 1950s such as The Creature From The Black Lagoon. Even in the rather more conventional Son Of Frankenstein, it’s clear that the most interesting and likeable character in the film is Bela Lugosi’s twisted, obsessive Ygor. In Frankenstein, the effect is deliberately created. During the opening graveyard scene, the overwhelming presence of mud and death make it hard not to think of the trenches during World War One. Karloff’s gaunt, haunted face – that wonderful creation of a collaboration between Whale and make-up artist Jack Pierce - seems strangely to resemble (in an abstract sense at least) the veterans of the Great War, the forgotten men who were often left to cope for themselves with psychological strain and financial desperation. It’s also suggestive that 1931-32 saw the worst of the Great Depression and the desperate sadness of the Monster’s eyes is reminiscent of the far-off gazes of the people in the photographs of starving Dust Bowl families. We accept and love the Monster because, to some extent, he is us and certainly more a part of us (or at least, the better part of ‘Us’) than the legally sanctioned lynch mob at the end, led by the hideously smug Burgermaster. When the Monster is destroyed in the burning windmill at the end, surrounded by delighted villagers, the sails of the windmill seem, for a moment, to form a burning cross. Given the ascendancy of KKK membership and racist violence in America at the time, I suspect this may not have been entirely accidental. Maybe it’s just a happy accident or my personal reading of a scene which is so much like a lynching that I can’t see it any other way. It’s such a powerful, elemental moment – the Monster staring in distressed incomprehension – that the complacency of the epilogue, designed to establish that Henry was alive, seems almost obscene. Bourgeois values have won but I don’t get the feeling that Whale is happy about it. Indeed, he spent much of 1935’s sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, damning the conventional and delighting in the demented, as if in reaction to the apparent victory of the mindless Normal at the end of this film. In fact, so strong are our links of humane sympathy with the Monster that, for once, it’s not at all unsuitable that so many think that the title of the film refers to Boris Karloff’s marvellous creation. He is, after all, the tragic, doomed hero.
In Region 1, Frankenstein has been re-released on DVD in a box set called “The Frankenstein Legacy” along with the three direct sequels and House of Frankenstein. In Region 2, we just get a double pack of the first film and Bride. I haven’t seen the latter disc yet but I hope that it’s as good as this one.
The film is presented in the original 1931 uncut version. The Hays Office insisted on cuts when the film was submitted for approval in 1937 and these were not restored until the 1960s. In addition, British audiences were, until a TV showing in 1983, denied the scene where the monster kills the child – the cut to her grieving father actually making the implication more horrible than what actually happens. 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The moody monochrome cinematography is quite nicely transferred with excellent contrast and although there is quite a lot of damage – largely scratching – the film looks pretty good for its age. Full restoration is obviously needed but there’s always the danger (as with the R1 of Citizen Kane) that too much will be done and the slightly antiquated appearance of the image certainly adds something to the mood of the film.
The obviously dated soundtrack is a mixed bag. On the one hand. it’s hissy and lacking in atmosphere and immediacy. On the other, it’s about as good as you’re going to get from a film of this vintage and it’s a miracle that the complete soundtrack still exists at all considering the censorship wreaked on the film. Thankfully, no dimwit has tried to turn this mono track into a 5.1 surround extravaganza.
There are some well devised and interesting extras on offer here, proving once again that quality is far more important than quantity. Principal among these extras is an excellent 45 minute documentary called “The Frankenstein Files”, hosted by film historian David J. Skal. This sadly omits any archive interviews with Karloff or Whale but is full of interesting information and goes through the history of the production with some vigour. The documentary largely deals with the first film but also contains extracts from trailers for Bride, Son and the pretty lame Ghost, along with Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein and the very amusing House of Dracula. There’s also a couple of fun scenes from Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein - which, as anyone who knows anything about horror can point out, they don’t !.
We also get an informative and very enthusiastic commentary from the cherishable Rudy Behlmer, a film historian who has been around for years and seems to know virtually everything worth knowing about Hollywood during the age of the Studio System. He talks fast and imparts a hell of a lot of information but such is the interest of what he’s saying that you don’t feel overloaded. I enjoyed this a lot and was impressed by how much he packs into the 67 minutes of the film.
Also present on the disc is the theatrical re-release trailer, probably from the mid-1930s, and an montage of posters and stills which is accompanied by music from the film. A silly but enjoyable cartoon called Boo! is also included.
Menus are nicely designed and easy to navigate. Impressively, both the film and all the special features – including the commentary – are subtitled in English. 16 chapter stops have been provided.
If you even pretend to be a horror fan or a lover of movies then Frankenstein is essential viewing. Those who love the film will be pleased with the effort made on the release and newcomers will find much of interest. Definitely recommended – all the more so given that you get the marvellous Bride in the same set. However, the R1 Legacy Collection features more films and is no more expensive so fans may prefer to go for that one.