1930s, 3.5/4, Horror, James Whale, Review, Universal Monsters

Frankenstein

#2 in my ranking of the Classic Universal Monster movies.

Dracula was a big success for Universal and producer Carl Laemmle Jr. set out to follow up the gothic romance with something similar in terms of tone and reputation. What he ended up picking was an adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel about man conquering nature to create life and the fallout that follows. Eventually the directing duties fell on James Whale based on a script credited to Garrett Fort and Francis Edward Faragoh (that Whale apparently rewrote a good deal). What Whale ended up crafting is a surprisingly touching story of a monster brought into the world without guidance or love, and the fear on all sides that comes from it.

Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) has gone mad, shut himself and his assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) in a remote, abandoned, and dilapidated watchtower to work on his theories of reanimation, stealing bodies from fresh graves and gibbets in the middle of the night. He’s on the verge of proving his theories correct when Fritz grabs an abnormal brain from the local university where Frankenstein had been studying under Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan). As an aside, it’s been so long since I’ve seen this movie, and I’ve seen Young Frankenstein so many times, that I was convinced the abnormal brain thing was a creation of Mel Brooks. It’s one of the small things that bugs me in this movie as well. The brain is dead, preserved in a jar of formaldehyde. It really shouldn’t work at all in these kinds of experiments, but whatever.

Frankenstein has friends and family, though, and they worry about him. His fiancée Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) and his friend Victor (John Boles) go up to the watchtower with Dr. Waldman to check in on Frankenstein, coincidentally right when the experiment is reached it apogee with the lightning storm.

Now, there’s something about how Whale handles this lightning storm that makes me think that Frankenstein is something other than just a “science gone mad” horror story. The way the thunder is just ever present while Frankenstein talks about how he’s going to be a god edges the film into cosmic horror. It feels like the young student gone mad is tapping into cosmic forces beyond his comprehension, that the storm represents something larger and powerful than he can imagine, and that the monster (Boris Karloff) he creates is a conduit to that power.

Anyway, the story plays out as we’ve all come to expect with the careful education of the mute monster, his rage brought on by fire, and the confused rampage he makes through the quaint German countryside, culminating with him throwing a small girl into a pond to drown, thinking she’ll float like a flower on the water. The core of the whole thing is Karloff as the monster. His introduction with Frankenstein showing him the light of day for the first time, is surprisingly touching. His ill-treatment by Fritz is painful. His rage at his state is understandable. It’s meeting that little girl where he’s finally happy, and his father has abandoned him to the point where he has no idea what to do in this wide world.

The heart of the film is Karloff, but the brain is the idea of man trying to play god. Frankenstein reaches into the abyss to create life, and he cannot control it. This is one reason I feel like the attainment of the abnormal brain is actually a mistake. It lays the blame on Fritz for the failure of the experiment instead of on Frankenstein himself for trying it. If there’s room for the experiment to have worked with a normal brain (or even a Hans Delbruk brain), then it’s not about man’s hubris but about a science experiment gone wrong because the process wasn’t followed precisely. The use of the abnormal brain doesn’t feel like an effort to undermine the whole hubristic take on Frankenstein’s efforts considering the rest of the film, but it’s still there.

I also have a problem with one event in the monster’s rampage. Frankenstein has gone to his father’s house, leaving behind his experiments forever and to marry Elizabeth. The monster approaches that house specifically and attacks Elizabeth. I think it’s a base narrative need to up the sense of danger, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense. The monster doesn’t know where Frankenstein lives, so it can’t be a specific approach on him. That would make it random, which is silly on its face. Out of all the houses the monster comes across, it comes across Frankenstein’s? It’s also not necessary to get the townspeople and Frankenstein into action for the finale with the father of the girl carrying his dead daughter, soaked with the water of the lake, into town and naming the monster as her killer. That’s enough.

The chase through the mountain passes is great as well, highlighting the German Expressionist influences on the early parts of the horror genre most particularly. It’s pretty, and the way Whale frames the whole thing, it’s from both perspectives of Frankenstein and the monster. That gives it a wonderful sense of dread as the mob comes for the lost child that is the monster and his own father leads it on. The burning of the windmill is also terrifying, again, because it’s filmed from the monster’s perspective. I think there are obvious parallels to Kong in the original King Kong where the monster is actually childlike, taken into an environment it doesn’t understand, and ultimately killed. It creates a surprising amount of pathos around the monster that elevates it above being just another monster.

And then there’s a tacked-on happy ending that feels all wrong and doesn’t even involve Colin Clive because he wasn’t available for filming.

I think the film has a handful of small stumbling blocks (the brain, the monster attacking Elizabeth, and the tacked-on ending), but the rest is really smart horror filmmaking. It effectively blends a couple of types of horror while keeping its central idea clear and present throughout. Clive is great as Frankenstein, intense and manic, while the rest of the supporting cast is capable. The movie really belongs to Karloff, though. He’d go on to show he was more than just a mute monster in films by Ford (The Lost Patrol) and Hawks (The Criminal Code), but he imbues the monster here with real humanity that turns the story tragic in ways that Dracula simply didn’t try.

Rating: 3.5/4

15 thoughts on “Frankenstein”

  1. Excellent review, as always. I’m willing to bet that everyone who has seen Young Frankenstein as many times as I (and you) also believed that the use of the brain of “Abby . . . Abby Normal” in that movie was just a very funny gag by Mel Brookes. But, turns out it was used in the first film. Sadly, Teri Garr’s “nice knockers” don’t make an appearance in the older product. Those might have livened things up a bit. Not to mention Frau Blucher!!! (Horses whinny).

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    1. Really, Young Frankenstein is the cinematic Frankenstein in my mind. The story, though, and Wilder’s take on the character of the original doctor’s progeny, seems to be more influenced by Son of Frankenstein, which is interesting. If Young Frankenstein is canon, then he’s actually Elsa Frankenstein’s cousin.

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  2. This is the only one I’ve seen recently, so the only one (so far) where my thoughts are relatively fresh.

    This, along with Dracula, is another story that I regret how much of the meat of the story is left on the page. But what we get on the screen here, is great. We lose much of the duality of monster, as to who is truly the monster, Frankenstein or his creation. Not all of it, but some. This monster is not the cunning, eloquent stalker, full of rage and disappointment. This is the hurt child, which frankly is very affecting but it’s not the creature from the novel. And we need that to explain the death of Elizabeth. Of course, we’re leaving out the creation of the bride…or rather the lack of creation of the bride, which drives the monster to kill Frankenstein’s bride on their wedding night.

    Colin Clive is a great mad scientist, and frankly…he’s much easier to hate than the book Victor Frankenstein. So there we do get the duality of monsters, if a bit of a roundabout shortcut.

    And James Whale really did know how to make a movie. He might have been a degenerate, as more directors and producers than I can list are, but he created real art here.

    But the real praise here has to go to Karloff. You only have to be a genius once to earn the title and he earns it multiple times at Universal. As much as I love Bela, and I do, Karloff is the better actor. And the makeup, my goodness…you have to see the original to see how weak and lame the parodies and imitates are. His face is inhuman, but the humanity shows in his eyes, in his smiles, in his fear and despair. Masterful.

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    1. As I had written, I haven’t seen any of these originals in forever, so I was actually surprised to find real art near the beginning of the whole thing. Yes, it’s a someone reduced version of the book, but it takes the scraps it picks up and really runs with it as far as cinema could go with it. Gorgeous to look at while intelligently written and emotionally resonant, it’s really something else.

      James Whale made the Universal Horror franchise worthwhile with his three efforts, creating a groundwork that Universal would continue to milk with varying results for decades, even through massive changes in management.

      In terms of Karloff, I always knew of his role as the monster, but recently my only real exposure to him was through my runs of Hawks and Ford films, always impressed by what I could see in him in his supporting roles. He does give the monster real humanity that the entire film hinges on in order to make it work. Just a straight, growling monster, like what happened to Bela’s take on the character in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, is just something to be destroyed, not pitied. Karloff makes that happen, creating that humanity in the small moments, like his reach up to the light he sees for the first time.

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  3. Of course, the Creature in the book is very different–his malevolence comes about because he didn’t ask to be born into a world which despises him simply because he exists. That’s why he targets Frankenstein and his bride–to deny Frankenstein the happiness that he, the Creature, can never have.

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      1. Read it! It’s really good, lots of meaty themes to dig into.

        And BC, in the book the creature kills his bride to be because Frankenstein denies creating him a bride of his own. His malevolence is earned as he is rejected by everyone, including his creator and, Satan-like, he desires to make his creator suffer as a result.

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  4. There was a TV movie, “Frankenstein: The True Story” with Doctor Who, Ilya Kuryakin, Phillip Vandamm and Dr. Quinn (Medicine Woman). It stuck largely to the book, though strayed here and there. You should watch it if you can find it.

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