The Re-Appreciator #1: Frankenstein

Frankenstein Monster

The Re-Appreciator is a feature in which I dust off the classics. If you’ve seen the movie in question, perhaps I’ll provoke a new thought or two. If you haven’t seen it, perhaps I’ll compel you to check it out.

6 Reasons to Re-Appreciate Frankenstein

1. The Showmanship

Mary Shelley began writing her novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus in 1816 and published it two years later. Stage adaptations followed throughout the nineteenth century, and two film versions arrived in 1910 and 1915. Shelley’s story was well over a century old by the time James Whale filmed a version for Universal in 1931, and Frankenstein movies have continually rolled off the line ever since. One came out last year, another is coming this year, and more are planned.

For all that, Whale’s film remains definitive. It’s still a visual marvel, borrowing a bit of its look from German Expressionist classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Metropolis (1927) to create its own vivid world. Whale pulls us into that place with a restless, prowling camera that follows characters from room to room, through woods and village streets. He fills the screen with impressive sets (Henry Frankenstein’s watchtower-lab is especially striking) and stages the biggest moments with flair. 

The Monster’s unveiling, for example, is one of the most memorable entrances you’ll see in a movie. It’s odd that the Monster backs through the doorway and jarring when Whale jump-cuts to a closeup, but it’s also very effective. Whale’s willingness to grab us with such tricks – to show off, really – keeps Frankenstein fresh even today.

2. The Monster . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ?

Jack Pierce’s makeup design for the Monster deserves its iconic status. At the same time, it’s Boris Karloff’s performance that makes the character resonate. Frankenstein’s Monster doesn’t know how to speak, leaving Karloff to rely on gestures, body language, grunts, and growls. Within those limitations he gives the Monster a wounded, child-like pathos that has connected with generations of viewers.

Karloff’s Monster was born to be tortured, feared, and despised. He kills in self-defense or misunderstanding with no concept of the consequences. When an entire village gathers together to hunt him down, he doesn’t seem to comprehend why. He’s a pitiable thing, and Karloff conveys a lifetime of pain through his sad, heavy-lidded eyes.

As Universal’s Frankenstein series ran its course, Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, and Glenn Strange would wear the makeup. With all due respect to them, and to every other actor who played some iteration of the character over the last seven decades, Karloff’s Monster is still the one we remember first and foremost. When you see his work here, you can see why.

3. You’re a Mean One

Karloff was a busy if not-quite-famous character actor when Whale cast him as the Monster. If Frankenstein hadn’t launched Karloff to superstardom, it’s fair to assume he wouldn’t have been hired to narrate How The Grinch Stole Christmas many years later. (Of course, he provided the Grinch’s voice, too). Are you prepared to imagine a world in which someone else had done that voice work? I’m not. This is the most crucial item on this list.

4. It’s Still Alive!

Try to imagine how many times you’ve seen a mad scientist and hunchbacked assistant in a lab full of weird electrical equipment, in whatever media or context. Or a lumbering, inarticulate monster with a flat head and electrodes sticking out of his neck. Or a mob of angry villagers chasing that monster with torches.

Those images aren’t in Shelley’s book, exactly, but they’re all here. They may not have originated here (see Metropolis for the lab and torch-bearing mob), but how they appear here continues to linger. Movies aside, Frankenstein’s imagery still turns up in music videos, commercials (so... many... commercials...) and toy stores fairly often.

Apart from The Wizard of Oz and King Kong, I’m hard-pressed to think of another film from the 1930s that maintains such an enduring presence in our pop culture.

5. A Notable Case of Censorship

Preview test screenings and studio meddling are nothing new in Hollywood. Frankenstein was screened for a preview audience in Santa Barbara on October 29, 1931. According to Frankensteinia, “by all accounts, the audience was shocked and Universal understood they had a powerful, unnerving and potentially problematic film on their hands.”

The studio made small cuts to soften the violence and added both a warning prologue and happy ending. The largest change concerned the scene in which the Monster drowns the little girl Maria.

In the uncut version, the Monster encounters Maria near a pond. Unlike every other character in the film, Maria is unafraid of him. Instead, she befriends the Monster and plays with him; they toss flowers in the pond and watch them float. When they run out of flowers, the Monster throws Maria in the pond, thinking she’ll float, too. She doesn’t, and he flees in a panic.

The sight of the Monster throwing Maria in the water was considered too extreme, so Universal cut away just as the Monster giddily reaches for the girl.

The next time we see Maria in either version, her father is carrying her sodden corpse through the village streets. This image is disturbing enough, but it’s made even more so in the cut version. When we haven’t actually seen what happened to Maria, the implications are very dark indeed.

Ironically enough, Universal had taken a scene that showed a fatal accident and made it ambiguous enough to suggest something even more sinister. Apparently that wasn’t the intent, but it took more than 50 years for the studio to restore the Maria scene and the other, smaller cuts. If you’ve only seen Frankenstein since the 1990s, you’ve probably seen a slightly different film than the one your parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents would have seen.

6. One of the Strangest Tales Ever Told

Frankenstein’s prologue is likely to inspire more chuckles than shudders these days. There’s something funny about cast member Edward Van Sloan giving the weaklings in the audience a fair chance to scurry off before the opening credits. It was probably amusing back then, too, for some viewers and for Universal, which wasn’t shy about drumming up hype. Van Sloan himself seems to be verging on a laugh.

Even so, Frankenstein really did scare people when it arrived in the last weeks of 1931. Long before it became fodder for parody or a museum-piece classic, it was a horror movie, and audiences and critics took it seriously as such. But what to make of it today?

Time has a way of wearing the edges off any horror movie. What frightens one generation is camp to the next, and familiarity lessens a monster’s menace. Bride of Frankenstein came four years later, in 1935, and gave the Monster the gift of speech. Expressing his angst in words, he suddenly seemed less alien and more like us. By 1948, he’d become a comic foil for Abbot and Costello. (After inexplicably losing his ability to speak, regaining it with a brain transplant, and inexplicably losing it again. Lest anyone think shoddy sequel continuity is a recent Hollywood phenomenon.) As the decades have passed, we’ve come to accept the character as a pitchman and kid-friendly cartoon.

With that acceptance in mind, I think it’s impossible to watch Frankenstein today and not root for the Monster. The film always had some empathy for him, but time has put us squarely in his corner. He’s an old friend, after all, and I suspect that in 2015 we’re also more likely to pull for the persecuted outsider over the bloodthirsty lynch mob. The Frankenstein story may still be a cautionary tale about Man playing God, but the Frankenstein movie has become a tragedy, its Monster more victim than villain.

That such a transformation could happen speaks to the richness of the film itself. After eighty-four years and counting, Frankenstein continues to haunt us in ways its original audience never could have imagined. The Monster is still loose, and he just might roam as long as people are watching movies.


Recommended reading:

Frankensteinia is an excellent blog and a very helpful resource in writing this post. If you’re interested in any aspect of Frankenstein, it’s a must-visit.

Universal Horrors by Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas, and John Brunas is also a great read if you love the genre.


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