Universal was churning out horror pictures by the dozen in the thirties and forties, and quite a few of those films are really great – classics like “Phantom of the Opera,” “The Invisible Man,” The Mummy” and “Werewolf of London.” Still, “Frankenstein” really has to be considered the granddaddy of all the Universal horror flicks. Along with “Dracula,” which was made the same year, it saved its studio financially, it generated four sequels, and a hundred knockoffs and gave us at least two of the most iconic characters in all of the horror genre.
“Frankenstein” is based on Mary Shelley’s Victorian novel, but let’s get this out of the way up front — while the movies and the book share some plot points, thematically they’re worlds apart. In fact, almost opposite. Shelley’s novel, in true Romantic spirit, is a metaphor for man’s relationship to his Creator — she uses her Monster, who is articulate and intelligent, to challenge his creator’s right to create him and send him into the world. Shelley was, through a complicated metaphor, shaking her fist at God. The Frankenstein movies, on the other hand, pay extreme reverence to God, essentially declaring Him the only one who has the right to create life. Dr. Frankenstein’s fatal flaw is pride – he tries to be like God, strives to know what that feels like. To put it simply, Shelley’s novel is about the pride of God; the movie is about the pride of Man. Thematically, it’s a huge difference, so let’s put the book to bed right now. It doesn’t have that much to do with the movies, anyway.
Boris Karloff, who plays the Monster, was an unknown actor coming into “Frankenstein,” and isn’t even listed in the opening credits — instead, there’s a question mark after “The Monster.” Of course now he’s famous for this role, but really it’s the makeup and costume artist who should be given credit for creating the Monster. Karloff mostly just stumbles around and moans. It’s not a great performance, it just looks great.
The movie opens, curiously, with Edward Van Sloan telling us that this is a scary movie, and if you don’t want to be scared, you should probably leave. Thanks for that. Really, you could chop the first and last scene off of “Frankenstein” and lose absolutely nothing of consequence.
And if you did that, “Frankenstein” would open in a graveyard, and one of the first things we would see is Dwight Frye’s mad, frenzied, gleeful face. Combined with his similar performance as Renfeld in “Dracula,” Dwight Frye made an indelible mark on horror, as the grovelling, deformed,sycophant assistant. He should be in the horror Hall of Fame. Because of him, it’s almost impossible to introduce a mad scientist without introducing his Igor as well. Funny thing is, his name’s not Igor. It’s actually Fritz. There’s no “Igor” in the Frankenstein series until Son of Frankenstein.
Fritz and Dr. Frankenstein are robbing a grave, just minutes after the body’s been put in the ground. One wonders what they do about the embalming fluid. In the process, Frankenstein throws a shovelful of dirt into the face of a Grim Reaper statue (or cutout?) just behind him. I can’t say “Frankenstein” is exactly rich with symbolism, but that moment’s pretty obviously symbolic.
Colin Clive plays the Doctor, and he excels at giving off the aura of a guy who might be a genius, but might be insane. He’s all glistening forehead, carefully combed cowlick, and wild eyes. It’s important that we have some sympathy for Dr. Frankenstein -that we see him as both the hero and the villian in this story – or else not much of the third act matters. Clive gets the job done impressively.
Now we see Fritz peering in the window of a science classroom, and we’re reminded of the graveyard. Edward Van Sloan, who was such a thudding bore as Van Helsing in “Dracula,” is the professor, which makes me glad I’m not taking that class. He is presenting on the differences between a criminal brain and a normal one. (If I’m ever on trial, I’m calling this guy to the stand. “It’s not his fault, really it’s just that his brain is too small.”) Fritz intends to steal the normal one, but a gong sounds (out of nowhere) and surprised him and he drops it. So he takes the criminal one instead. This is odd to me, because when the Monster does come to life, the movie goes to great lengths to convince us he’s a nice guy, really, just feared, misunderstood, and prone to tragic mistakes. He shows no signs of having an particularly “criminal” mind.
Cut to the love triangle. We meet Elizabeth of the Flowing Lace Gowns, who is receiving alarming letters from Frankenstein, all the while planning to marry him. She confides in Victor, who is clearly, clumsily in love with her. You can’t help but think that Victor wouldn’t mind if Henry did in fact go insane. A portrait of Henry sits on the piano, between long, lit candles; a nice framing device of this troubling triangle. Frankenstein sequels and knockoffs and repackages have been done to death, but nobody’s ever bothered to tell the story of poor Victor. That’s a movie I’d like to see.
Victor and Elizabeth travel to wherever Henry is and visit his old professor – the one in the brain scene. Together they make the journey up to Frankenstein’s laboratory, a spooky– and German Expressionist –looking place if I ever saw one.
Inside their laboratory are Fritz and Frankenstein, surrounded by all kinds of crazy looking equipment. I was reminded of the Pit of Despair in Princess Bride. They are interrupted by Elizabeth, Victor, and the Professor. Fritz tries to send them away, but then Henry sees his fiancee standing out there, and can’t exactly leave her standing in the rain. So they become spectators to his big experiment. “Crazy am I? We’ll see whether I’m crazy or not…come on up!”
Elizabeth and Victor return to Chateau Frankenstein, which is a pretty cozy and comfortable sort of place (it will become quit different in later films.) We meet Baron Frankenstein, Henry’s father who, in his smoking jacket and ridiculous hat, provides the comic relief for the film. He is all blustery and full of nonsense, and does not like the Burgermaster at all. “Nothing the Burgermaster can say can be of the slightest importance.” Everyone is concerned about the delayed wedding between Liz and Henry, and Baron Frankenstein is convinced there’s another woman. If only.
Meanwhile, Dr. Waldman tries to convince Frankenstein that what he’s doing is dangerous. And so we get Henry’s Manifesto: “Have you never wanted to do something that was dangerous? Where should we be if nobody 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. Well, if I could discover just one of these things….what eternity is for example…I wouldn’t care if they did call me crazy.”
The Monster approaches as the two men are discussing its fate. This is our first sighting of it, unwrapped anyway, and it’s curiously staged: we hear heavy footsteps, and then the monster backs through a doorway and slowly turns around. We see his size and heft before we see his face. Then we cut closer to his face, and then closer again, horrifyingly close. I should note that “Frankenstein” has no score; everything plays out in relative silence. This scene in particular is memorable for the lack of your standard horror movie soundtrack (think “Jaws”) behind the monster’s introduction.
But things go bad when Fritz turns up with a torch, and the Monster has to be sedated, then put in chains. Fritz torments him with a whip and the torch, until the Monster gets angry enough to break his chains and kill him. There’s a lesson in her about how you make a monster — not on a laboratory table with lightning and instruments, but in a dungeon with chains and a whip.
The Baron, Liz and Vic show up just as the two doctors get the monster under control again, and determine to take poor Henry home at once. He leaves the Monster in Waldman’s hands, who promises to destroy it immediately. He doesn’t. He decides to conduct a few experiments of his own, and the Monster wakes up while he’s got him on the table. He kills the dishonest doctor and escapes.
Wedding plans are under way back at Chateau Frankenstein, with poor Victor smiling alongside. The Baron is clearly in his element, throwing parties, toasting the House of Frankenstein, making speeches to the commoners, decked out in their liederhosen.
Either the Monster has an incredible sense of navigation or Henry’s experiments weren’t as far removed from home as we’d been led to believe, because just outside of town, he shows up. In perhaps the most famous and memorable scene in the movie, he makes a terrible mistake that seals his fate.
Elizabeth, in full wedding regalia (including a fifteen foot train) expresses her worries and premonitions to Henry. “Something is coming between us…I know it. I know it!” Apparently no one told her that it’s bad luck for the groom to see the bride in her dress before the wedding… and that she shouldn’t have to wear all that cumbersome stuff any longer than absolutely necessary. Henry feigns ignorance that anything could possibly be wrong, until he hears those old familiar moans and decides the Monster’s in the house. His ears must be playing tricks on him though, because he thinks he hears the moans coming from the cellar when they’re actually coming from the roof.
The Monster enters Liz’s bedroom through a window (in a scene reminiscent of “Nosferatu”) and, like any good Victorian heroine, Elizabeth promptly screams, then faints. So the Monster leaves. Apparently he just wanted someone to talk to.
The father of the drowned girl, in a daze, brings her to town, to lay at the burgermaster’s feet. This is a superbly directed scene; the camera stays on him in a continuous pan for a good 40 seconds, as he passes celebrating peasants who turn into wailing peasants. It’s probably the longest continuous camera shot in the movie. The father’s expression never changes, and we, who know how innocent the Monster is, are forced to reflect on the terrible thing he’s done. The change in the townsfolk – from celebration to mourning to anger – mirrors that of Dr. Frankenstein himself — from “It’s Alive!” to “What have I done?” to “It must be destroyed.”
Now the townspeople are up in arms and Dr. Frankenstein is wracked with guilt. “There can be no wedding while this horrible creation of mine is still alive. I made him with these hands, and with these hands I’ll destroy him!” Then he leaves Liz in Victor’s care, who, once again, must be feeling terribly conflicted. Poor guy.
They set out, complete with hounds and torches, to find the Monster. Henry, for some unknown reason essential to the plot, gets himself separated from everyone els, and finds the Monster hiding behind a rock. The Monster doesn’t seem too afraid of the torch this time, and in fact, during the action scene, the Doctor almost catches himself on fire. Thank God for fireproof costumes and quick-thinking stunt men. The Monster knocks him silly and then drags him into an old windmill; it bears a striking resemblance to the Laboratory, but you’ll have to decide for yourself if that’s on purpose or just economy of production. Either way, the townspeople see him, and swarm the old structure. Henry wakes up and there is a struggle, ending with the Monster throwing him from the top of the windmill; he bounces off one of the blades and hits the ground with a thud. It’s amazing he’s not dead, but then I guess there wouldn’t be a sequel. The townspeople set fire to the windmill, and the Monster (in what is clearly Karloff’s finest scene) screams and writhes and it burns down around him. We pull away to a really fine distance shot of the burning windmill, and that really should be the end.
But it isn’t. Apparently, test audiences didn’t like the film ending on such a terrifying note. So instead, we get a completely superfluous scene involving Baron Frankenstein, a bunch of maids, and a glass of his grandmother’s wine. And the final line of the film: “Here’s to a son for the House of Frankenstein.”
In the end, “Frankenstein” is really more about how fear, misunderstanding and abuse can turn even a gentle soul into a monster. Frankenstein’s pride and genius created a human being; it was his ignorance about what to do with that human being once it was created that made it into a monster. Baron Frankenstein hopes for a son; we, the wise audience, must hope that Henry learns a few things about child-rearing before that happens.