“Frankenstein” - James Whale (1931)

Film genres often have classic works that serve as exemplars of the class.  Perhaps the epitome of works of this nature is Frankenstein (1931), the classic exemplar of the horror film genre.  There have been other, subsequent films that may have been better, but Frankenstein definitely set the standard and still stands as the classic horror film.  It tells the story of a scientist who constructs out of constituent parts a living, autonomous being in human form.  Unfortunately, this creation turns out to be a monster.  

The story of this monster is loosely based on Mary Shelley's famous novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), the 1927 stage-play adaptation of which by Peggy Webling served as a more explicit precursor for the film.  When the film Frankenstein was produced in 1931, Universal Studios had already profited from their release of Dracula (1931) earlier in the year, and they were bent on producing more horror films to excite the movie-going public.  They had pretty much free rein at that time, because the Hays Code, which served to restrict the film industry’s licence to shock the viewer, was not imposed until 1934.  What they produced on this occasion was something of a masterpiece, and it was an immediate hit [1,2].  

The film was directed by James Whale, who was a craftsman in expressionistic mise en scene.  And the film’s cinematography was by Arthur Edeson, whose high- and low-angle camera shots, as well as some then-uncommon (in the early sound era) moving-camera shots, added to the moodiness of the proceedings.  I also found Bernhard Kaun’s music to be a useful contribution.  These elements, despite some overacting and some occasional jump-cuts, worked together to produce a truly involving work of expressionistic cinema.   

But an overall key to this presentation is the continued back-and-forth movement of narrative tone between the normal (signified by ‘N’) and the dark (‘D’).  The normal is the everyday world and is here characterized by light surroundings and ordinary, reasonable, warm-hearted people.  The dark scenes depict the threatening unknown and a depicted in shadows, or at night, or during thunderstorms.  It is this alternating shift between N and D in the film that offers a compelling narrative rhythm and keeps the viewer unconsciously ensnared in the story [3,4].  As Variety reviewer Alfred Greason remarked [2],

“. . . the feeling of horror is not once let go past the point at which it inspires disbelief, where out of excess it would create a feeling of makebelieve.”
The story begins on a dark evening somewhere in Bavaria showing scientist Henry Frankenstein (played by Colin Clive) and his weird hunchbacked assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) secretly watching a funeral burial (D).  We soon learn that they are engaged in stealing freshly buried corpses from which Henry can harvest body parts that he can use in his secret scientific project – to construct an artificial ‘person’ from body parts and make it come to life.  

But there is one body component that they still haven’s found in a suitable state of freshness – a human brain.  So Fritz is tasked with going to the class (N) of Henry’s old medical college mentor, Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan), and stealing a preserved brain.  This assignment Fritz sets out to accomplish, but he bumbles and steals a former criminal’s brain instead of a normal brain (D).

The scene now shifts to one (N) showing Henry’s fiancé, Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), and their mutual friend Victor Moritz (John Boles), worrying about Henry’s seclusion in a dark laboratory where he is allegedly conducting his scientific experiments.  

Then it shifts to a scene showing Henry and Fritz working in Henry’s laboratory in an abandoned watchtower (D).  They are waiting for a coming electrical storm, a lightening strike from which can be used to bring Henry’s fabricated body (which I will refer to as “the Monster”) to life.  However, just when the thunderstorm hits, Elizabeth, Victor, and Dr. Waldman show up at the watchtower laboratory and express their concerns over Henry’s sanity.  So to show off his genius, Henry invites them to witness his electrical vitalization effort.  In a memorable scene, we see that after the lightening bolt hits the apparatus, the attached and prone Monster twitches, and Henry exults in triumph, shouting out, “it’s alive!”.  Now he knows what it feels like to be God, he tells them all.

Elizabeth and Victor return to town, where in a brief interlude (N) they are shown chatting with Henry’s pompous father, Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr).  Meanwhile Dr. Waldman stays with Henry, and they talk about the experiments.  Only at this point, almost halfway through the film, do we finally see the Monster (played by Boris Karloff) upright and walking (D).  Although the Monster has disturbingly exaggerated features, there is an air of innocence about him – almost like a curious animal.  When he sees sunlight for the first time, he reaches up for it, almost as if to embrace it.

However, the Monster becomes hysterically frightened by Fritz’s lighted torch, and they have to lock the Monster in the basement.  Fritz, though, enjoys tormenting the Monster with his torch, so he lingers alone in the basement to continue torturing him.  The Monster, however, soon kills Fritz, off-camera, and when Henry and Dr. Waldman discover this, Henry reluctantly agrees that the Monster must be exterminated.  So they engage in an exhausting physical struggle with the Monster, during which Waldman manages to inject the Monster with a powerful serum that puts him to sleep.

Henry is so exhausted from the struggle with the Monster that he collapses, and Elizabeth and Baron Frankenstein come to take him home (N).  Waldman assures Henry that he will finish exterminating the Monster, himself.  However, after Henry departs and Dr. Waldman is engaged in the final act of extermination, the Monster wakes up and kills Waldman.  Then the Monster wanders outside in the countryside.  Now with the recuperating Henry and Elizabeth at home planning for their upcoming marriage, which is to take place immediately (N), the Monster is outside and dangerous (D).

The Monster comes across a young girl who is playing alone by her father’s lakeside cottage, and soon the two of them become innocently engaged in a game of tossing daisy blossoms into the water and watching them float.  When the beguiled Monster tosses the little girl into the water to see if she will float, too, she drowns immediately; and he runs off in horror.  
Meanwhile at the Frankenstein mansion, the wedding is about to commence (N) when Victor rushes in and reports that the Monster has killed Dr. Waldman and is now on the loose and dangerous.  Then the Monster does show up and sneak into the mansion and into Elizabeth’s room, where he threatens her (D).  But her screams cause him to run away without being caught.

The stage is now set for the final sequences.  The whole village is riled up with vengeful anger over the murder of the little girl, and, armed with torches, they are organized into squads to search everywhere for the Monster.  Eventually, the Monster is found in the middle of the night and followed to an abandoned mill where the dramatic finale takes place.  

There are two aspects to Frankenstein that make the film extraordinarily gripping.  One, as I have already mentioned, is the relentless back-and-forth movement between the normal (N) and the dark (D) aspects of the story.  The other interesting aspect of the film concerns the characterization of the Monster portrayed by Boris Karloff.  Although the monster cannot communicate in spoken language, the viewer can empathize with and guess what the Monster might be thinking along much of the way.  Indeed, the Monster is like an animal, and just as we  might sometimes imagine what a dog may be thinking, so, too, we might have a similar feeling about what the Monster might be thinking and feeling.  Thus the Monster is not some diabolical incarnation of evil, but is instead more innocent, like a wild beast.  In fact, the Monster seems more innocent, and perhaps even more humane, than Henry’s assistant, Fritz.

So as the film winds down, the viewer’s complex involvement in the narrative is likely to draw him or her more concernedly into what transpires onscreen.  And this is what makes Frankenstein a memorable work.

  1. Mordaunt Hall, “A Man-Made Monster in Grand Guignol Film Story”, The New York Times, (5 December 1931).   
  2. Alfred Rushford Greason, "Frankenstein", Variety, (8 December 1931).   
  3. James Berardinelli, “Frankenstein (United States, 1931)”, Reelviews, (n.d.).   
  4. Damian Arlyn, “It's Still Alive”, Edward Copeland’s Tangents, (21 November 2011).    

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