It’s (Still) Alive! Frankenstein and Our Fears

There is a certain stigma for horror movies that has persisted since the genre’s inception. Most modish critics and filmmakers have an innate respect for the horror genre, but mention it among certain crowds of moviegoers and you’ll be greeted with scoffs and grimaces. They’ll knock the horror movie as “stupid”, or “just a bunch of shocks”, and state that they prefer thrillers—a virtually meaningless distinction. It’s a nonsensical stigma: horror is film in its most pure, primal, and powerful form. It is a genre that, at its best, seeks to provoke intense emotional reactions through cinematic expression and still provoke thought.

One can argue that a horror movie tells more about the time it was made in than almost any other genre: it tells us, in any given time, what we were once afraid of. James Whale’s two most famous films, Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), were not the first Hollywood horror films ever made, but they are perhaps the point at which the genre truly formed its own entity rather than as a branch of movements like German Expressionism. In collaboration with Universal Pictures, Fathom Events re-released the films in select theaters on October 24th. In celebration of the horror movie, let’s take another look at the two masterworks that started it all.

By now, the story of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is so well-known that it barely requires description: mad-scientist Frankenstein (Colin Clive) decides to play God and create his own man, consequences be damned. The monster (Boris Karloff) breaks loose, runs amok, kills innocent people, and is finally destroyed. Whale’s film takes several liberties with Shelley’s text, some negligible (Frankenstein’s given name changes from “Victor” to “Henry”), some major (Frankenstein lives), some notorious (the monster goes from articulate to inarticulate). Literary purists could very easily take issue with the biggest changes.

These purists would also be completely off-base. What Whale’s Frankenstein lacks in eloquence, it makes up for in sheer expressiveness: Frankenstein’s plight is told not by florid monologues, but by the contours of Clive’s face. The monster may not speak in the first installment, but Karloff’s performance maintains the creature’s combination of innocence and brutality. The book’s themes of man-made monsters, the dark side of technology, and the dangers of mob mentality are still present; they’re just told in a more direct fashion. The free adaptation in Whale’s Frankenstein provides a blueprint on how to successfully adapt a book to film (or, as it was often done, stage): take a buzzsaw to the literary conventions while keeping the basic framework for storytelling—don’t worry about fidelity to the text, but rather, preserve the work’s pulse.

Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein show the influence of several German Expressionist works: the story of a creator’s invention running amok borrows from Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and Paul Wegener’s The Golem (1915). The creator’s madness mirrors that of Rotwang in Metropolis or the titular Dr. Caligari, whereas his good intentions reflect that of Rabbi Loew in The Golem. Whale’s admiration for Fritz Lang continues in their shared attempts to show how mob mentalities can be more frightening than the monsters they set out to destroy. Perhaps most delectable is Whale’s combination of horror and humor, influenced both by German Expressionist Paul Leni’s love of gothic horror mixed with black comedy (see: The Cat and the Canary [1927]) and by Whale’s own theatrical and camp sensibility.

Whale’s stylistic choices provide the bridge between German Expressionism and the modern horror film. Like the great directors of German Expressionism, Whale makes use of expressive actors (Clive, Dwight Frye, Karloff) as a way to communicate primal emotions: anger, fear, sadness. He also uses Expressionist sets as a way to showcase a world out of order: crosses and grave markers in a cemetery are skewed and damaged. Dilapidated castles and windmills tower forebodingly over the world. A scientist’s laboratory plays as a warped version of the real thing. The whole thing casts a sinister shadow, both literally and metaphorically, with the heavy use of shadows signaling the grim ever-presence of death and fatalism over the action.

What sets James Whale apart from the Expressionists and into his own distinction as the first modern horror director is his drawn-out sense of suspense and mystery. The opening credits list the actor portraying the monster only as “?”, and while much of the praise must go to Universal Pictures’ knowledge in how to excite an audience, Whale’s deliberate reveal of the monster is master-class suspense. The monster is seen first only as a silhouette, a form, or in parts (the moving hand, for example). There’s an element of mystery before Karloff backs into a room, turns around, and reveals perhaps the greatest and most rightfully iconic make-up job in the history of film—human yet alien, expressive yet remote, an unforgettable, unearthly cross between the living and the dead.

There’s a breathlessness to how Whale drags out the tension—we know this tall, imposing figure is going to go crazy, but he begins stumbling around and following basic commands. The slow-burn of tension before Dwight Frye’s sycophantic dwarf provokes the monster with fire teaches a basic lesson of how the craft a horror sequence: keep the audience on the edge of their seats by showing how things could go wrong before letting the explosion of fury loose. Whale is equally adept in a sequence that frames the monster inside a dungeon. The camera stays on the outside while Frankenstein and his mentor enter the room, seeing Frye hanging while the monster towers next to him. The message is clear: this thing must not escape.

Whale’s mixture of humor with horror in Bride of Frankenstein is equally influential. The director reportedly believed a sequel couldn’t top the original and that he should just have fun with it, but the humor is much of what makes Bride of Frankenstein arguably superior to the original. From conscious tweaks of the original film’s iconic catch-phrases (Una O’Connor’s frantic, over-the-top screams of “HE’S ALIVE”), to an intentionally goofy framing device (complete with Franz Waxman’s comically dainty score), to Ernest Thesiger’s glorious camp performance as Dr. Pretorious, a more preening, effeminate version of the sensitive Frankenstein, Whale mixes in a sublime silliness that would provide a basic model for how a horror-comedy like Evil Dead II could outdo its predecessor: make ‘em laugh.

Empathy is an all-important quality of great horror movies. What makes a horror film truly effective is when the director makes the audience understand, share the experience with, and care about a character. Whale’s genius is in his empathetic look not only at the mad doctor, but at his creation. True, it’s easy to be frightened of these characters. Frankenstein taps into fears held by suspicious everyday citizens of its era—that science and technology would go too far, that ambition could be destructive. The film was made in an era of worldwide depression, where the truly ambitious men could be saviors or monsters—after all, fascism was rising in Europe. All of this makes Henry Frankenstein a frightening character. But Whale doesn’t discount Frankenstein’s good intentions, and Clive’s sensitive performance humanizes what could have been a stock mad scientist. We understand Frankenstein’s ambition, and furthermore feel for him as his creation turns to destruction.

Better still is Whale’s empathy for the monster. One of Hollywood’s first openly gay directors, Whale understood what it was like to be viewed as something abhorrent to “normal” society. The branding of Frankenstein’s creation as a monster comes out of misunderstanding and accident rather than evil. The audience is now afraid for the monster in addition to being afraid of him. The creature murders Frankenstein’s assistant Fritz, but only after the man had tormented him. The creature accidentally drowns an innocent little girl, but the girl had shown tenderness and acceptance to him. Her death was the result of accident rather than murder. The creature also finds a companion in a saintly blind hermit in Bride of Frankenstein, one of the rare times he is met without prejudice. Yet ultimately it doesn’t matter: society brands him as a monster on sight, and they chase him thoughtlessly.

That mob mentality isn’t absent in Shelley’s original work, but it’s deeply suggestive of certain political trends throughout the world in the 1930s. Whale simultaneously plays to and subverts audience expectations (something great horror directors like John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper would later borrow), stoking their desire to see the mob upon the monster while also framing them as dangerous, thoughtless, and frightening. A modern viewer might find scenes of men and women trying to burn a monster alive or stringing him up on a pole like a crucifixion more disturbing than the scenes of the monster attacking villagers, and that’s largely the point. The grim threats of fascism, communism, and general revolution are prevalent in the 1930s, as well as the specter of the lynch mob. Whale depicts a world where reason is thrown out the window to the furor of mob mentality.

Yet the strength of Whale’s Frankenstein films, and of most great horror films, is that viewers could watch them completely unaware of the subtext and still be affected. Sure, Frankenstein has been parodied to death, with results ranging from terrific (Young Frankenstein [1974]) to trashy (Frankenhooker [1990]). It’s also difficult for a film that plays to a certain era’s fears to resonate in the same way decades later. It hardly matters. To lovers of horror films, or of cinema in general, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein represent an art form at its basest and most viscerally exciting. “It’s alive!”


Max O’Connell

Max O’Connell is a senior film studies and theatre student at Ball State University. When not watching films or reading/writing film criticism, Max enjoys arguing with people. Right at this moment, he is arguing that anyone who thinks E.T. is anything but a masterpiece is a low down dirty dog. He also bears a striking resemblance to one of the guitarists of the now defunct indie band Ponytail [Editor’s note: only sorta]. Go read more of his blatherings about film here.

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