Horror, which over the years of history has turned from a legitimate source of entertainment into a cheap thrill in the public eye, is a genre I love. In terms of film, I love it for two distinct reasons separating any experience I get from a horror movie – If it’s not a good movie, I get honestly a great sense of cynicism tearing it apart from how it does not work, looking inside and figuring out how it represents the horror culture in the end to what always looks like its final grave. But then, when you find a real diamond in the rough, a real gem, something legitimately scary. Then you’re going to get somewhere with finding out how it makes your hair stand, your skin crawl, then you’re going to watch reactions after finding out and discover to your joy… the trick still works.
For the next 31 days, I will be giving a day by day review of select horror films in all of the spectrum, from slasher to “Gates of Hell”, from Poe to Barker, from Whale to West, from 1919 to 2014…
This is the 31 Nights of Halloween.
Ok, you know what it is. I know what it is. We’re all totally knowing what it is.
The makeup, iconic in all its glory, with the shadow falling on the face from the protruding forehead and the sadness in the cheeks. The dark and stormy lightning bathing the ominous castle in the distance.
What terrors are held within the fiendish experiments of Dr. Henry Frankenstein? What perversions of nature have been occurring by his hand. Why?
In 1931, after Dracula proved a big hit – probably because audiences back then just couldn’t realize how to get creeped out, Carl Laemmle Jr. went off his head figuring to his dad “Hey, there’s a whole genre we can take advantage of. A whole film world we can make out of this monster business.” But they would have needed one more stepping stone to get themselves up from the “company that made a horror movie” zone to the “Universal is Halloween” zone. And for that, they once again looked to the popular literature of the time and were glad to take Mary Shelley’s modern prometheus Frankenstein and turn it into one of their damn movies.
Thankfully, that movie turned out fantastic and really did stamp Universal on the map as the source of true horror terrors lurking all through the Hollywood Studio System.
To the genre’s credit, not only were Dracula and Frankenstein not the first horror movies brought in Hollywood, they were also not the first horror films Universal Studios had made.
But anyway, after deciding to fast track Frankenstein onto the screen and decidedly loosely basing on the novel but sharing the same basic premise, the movie’s director’s chair was handed over to Robert Florey and, based on his success as the bloodsucking count, Bela Lugosi was himself slated to play the mad scientist who brought a living cadaver into the world. But, Lugosi proved one way or another to not entirely be as well-suited for the role as an English-speaking doctor as the producers wished and so they downgraded him to the part of the Monster which he balked at, due to Florey’s script not really handling any pathos or giving the Monster a true stance beyond being a killing machine, leading Lugosi to decry “I was a star in my country and I will not be a scarecrow here!” One way or another, sources disagree, but Florey and Lugosi both left the project.
After a few cleans on the script by Francis Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort, we got a new script for two new power players in Hollywood horror to take charge of: The uncanny Boris Karloff in the green skin of the Monster and an eager James Whale to the director’s chair. What resulted is one of the most iconic films in horror cinema and certainly among the strongest film in the repertoire of Universal Studios’ monster films (only to be surpassed by its sequel).
But really, this is already at least twice I’ve been tooting the horn of how wonderfully goosebumps-inducing I find the classic Frankenstein film, so I think it is about high time I dig into what I find making it so special.
For the, y’know, uninitiated: Some creepy stuff is going on with Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), which concerns his mentor Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) and his fiancee Elizabeth (Mae Clarke). Frankenstein’s apparently been having an interest in raising humans bodies from death and has recruited a hunchbacked outcast in order to help him with his latest experiment in this Godlike endeavor, stealing cadavers and bodies and brains and working with the seasons in order to create a Monster out of the men who are among the dead.
It works. It is the most terrifying success story because of the philosophical, ethical, moral, and religious questions it raises upon his actions and also because the Monster (Boris Karloff) is pretty goddamn strong and it doesn’t seem like Frankenstein and his team can hold on to him for very much long, so it is up to Elizabeth and Waldman to bring Frankenstein back to sense soon enough to dispose of the creature before he causes any further havoc.
In all honesty, this sort of story lends itself to the actor playing Frankenstein to the center stage and prove himself as the best among the set. And, honestly, Clive doesn’t get enough credit – because he does it fantastically. He is the most engaged, the most dynamic, the most energetic performance in a film that includes Dwight Frye in the cast. Clive knows he’s at the core of the film and so he provides enough enthusiasm for his fiendish experiment to make us fear his outbursts and mania, but he still knows that he must remain the protagonist and never goes entirely so far as to make Dr. Frankenstein (in the book named Victor, rather than Henry) a cartoon or completely irredeemable. As for the regret and suffering that Henry has to go through in the later half of the film as he pursues the elimination of his work and questions where he stands in the world, it’s quite the balancing act to become a man of heightened posture and facial expressions and still carry the audience’s sympathies the entire way despite being the catalyst for the destruction and terror that occurs all throughout the movie. The guy’s not the monster, he’s human, and yet he can clearly enter the realm of protagonist and antagonist.
Of course, that has to be a double act – with an actor just as willing to switch roles alongside Clive in terms of audience engagement that leads to Karloff’s iconic and well-remembered performance, one which overshadows Clive’s still-goliath and respected work. Karloff doesn’t get to speak. He doesn’t get to do much with himself. He is a lumbering mass of being, accented by the melancholy of Jack Pierce’s impeccably inspired work of makeup on his face. And well, it only accents features we already noticed on Karloff without makeup. But there it is. And how does one deal with only movement and looks to tug at people’s heartstrings? Well, you make your character a child. But that’s easier said than done and Karloff effortlessly falls into the place of a man who is only now trying to figure out this life he suddenly had thrust upon him with the limited power of his brain.
The danger of the Monster mixed in with this unconscious lack of knowing leads to being a game way to switch sides from protagonist to antagonist in this dance Karloff does with Clive. I think, this movie brought that possibility out best and it seems there have been attempts to replicate more so than to approach the material of the dynamics between the doctor and Monster in any further way (most recently, it showcased baldly during a Royal National Theatre run of Frankenstein as a stageplay directed by Danny Boyle and with Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch switching roles per night as either Dr. Frankenstein or the Monster).
As for the use of expressionism in the shadow drenched lairs of the film, it should be very obvious that Frankenstein elicits it moreso than Dracula with the painterly direction of James Whale providing a backdrop for the battle between Frankenstein and the Monster with the help of his Arthur Eddeson. When the Monster is locked in the castle and the men of science are deciding what to do with him, the walls literally feel like they’re closing in as the Monster shakes and tries to free himself into the light from moon. The very ending of the film, which I don’t think I should spoil on the off chance that you haven’t seen the movie, but it’s straight the fuck out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – a world in anger, a chase, a struggle, a look of fear on our protagonists, all spiraling towards a grandiose climax of fire and night. And I can’t even begin to touch upon the more emotive scenes out of context – like the infamous Maria and her encounter with the creature (how the creature, like Frankenstein, does not realize he has done something terribly wrong until it is too late) or the moments of Fritz’s gleeful torture of the creature where it’s clear sadism is in the midst.
It’s not the most perfect film, but I can’t think of a better way someone could have heralded what sound cinema could have done to shock audiences with content rather than screams and gore like it does today (not that I’m complaining about the latter). And all and all, I can’t not once in a while find myself indulging in the simplicity if still flawed form of storytelling that is the movie Frankenstein. Whether I prefer it to the book is kind of another story that I haven’t yet solved the ending to, but the movie still shakes me up when we first get our glimpse of that poor unfortunate soul in the doorway doomed to change lives forever – both in the film and off the screen.