Blog Directory CineVerse: 'Tis the season to appreciate Frankenstein – 90 years later

'Tis the season to appreciate Frankenstein – 90 years later

Thursday, December 2, 2021

On November 21, 1931, a fascinating creation was unleashed upon unprepared American audiences that would forever change the trajectory of horror cinema and establish Universal as the indisputable masters of cinematic macabre. It was the debut of Frankenstein, a movie--and a monster--that stands as the crown jewel among the studio's fright features.

Here are several compelling arguments for why this picture remains evergreen, even if the doctor's creation still shimmers in glorious black-and-white. 

Why is this film worth celebrating all these years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It still resonates because the creature remains embedded in our consciousness, still capable of evoking pathos, empathy, and awe in the viewer. Interestingly, while the narrative is decidedly more focused on the states and fates of Henry, Elizabeth, and their friends and family, modern audiences really only care about and identify with the monster, who isn’t even shown until midway through the picture.
  • Despite losing its shock value long ago, and appearing relatively quaint today, the 1931 Frankenstein commands respect and admiration thanks to its impressive reputation as a groundbreaking work of horror cinema. Fans and students of classic film venerate the picture because it was the first of its kind in many ways, proving extremely controversial and horrifying 90 years ago with its imagery of grave robbing, hanged bodies, cadavers on medical carts, hypodermic needles, a drowned child, and a hulking monstrosity, along with the blasphemous line “in the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God” – disturbing elements that contributed to the movie being censored in some communities and upon reissue. It’s been reported that some attendees fled movie theaters in abject terror while watching Frankenstein in its first run.
  • Frankenstein is given extra prestige because it was released in 1931, one of the most seminal years in horror movie history, when Dracula, M, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were also introduced to film audiences.
  • It’s also worth celebrating because it’s a movie that rewards cinephiles, who can easily spot the earlier films that influenced it and the subsequent works it inspired. For example, attentive cineastes can identify the expressionistic, surrealistic, nightmarish sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the monster character in Der Golem, the high contrast lighting of Nosferatu, and the laboratory, electrical gadgets, and robot Maria of Metropolis as influences on Universal’s Frankenstein. These works of German Expressionism and that movement’s surreal architectural style is obvious in the twisting, contorted architecture of the laboratory and its geometrically wonky adjacent rooms and skewed staircase.
  • Through the lens of 2021, it’s interesting to note that two females – Mary Shelley and playwright Peggy Webling – are primarily responsible for laying the narrative foundation for this tale, and a gay man – director James Whale – proved crucial in making this story come to life on screen.

In what ways was Frankenstein influential on cinema and popular culture? Was it the first of its kind in any way, and what trends did it set?

  • In his book Fright Favorites, film historian David Skal called the 1931 Frankenstein “the most imitated monster movie ever made,” and it’s hard to argue otherwise. This movie introduces so many concepts, conventions, and what would become clichés to the horror genre – from the design and scope of the mad scientist laboratory to the trope of an angry torch-wielding mob to the notion of a sympathetic screen monster audiences could identify with to the character of the disfigured assistant.
  • This is regarded as the most important, iconic, and instantly identifiable creature design in movie history. Even today, children seem to spring from the womb with the seemingly innate ability to instantly recognize the Frankenstein monster, which speaks to the lasting impact of the inspired makeup work by Jack Pierce and the unforgettable performance by Boris Karloff.
  • Its most impressive sequence, the creation scene, and its most memorable set-piece, Frankenstein’s laboratory (equipped with all manner of eye-catching electrical apparatus), inspired so many mad scientist milieus to come and set the design template for what a monster-making workshop should look like. And the film’s most famous line, “It’s alive,” has become firmly entrenched in the fabric of pop culture, serving as possibly the most quotable line in horror movie history. You hear it, for example, every time you watch the opening of the TV program Robot Chicken.
  • Next to Dracula, the story of Frankenstein has been adapted for more works of film and television than any other monster or fantastical creation. I counted at least 120 instances of Frankenstein being made for the big or small screen, with only three adaptations, all silent, preceding the 1931 version. While this isn’t the first rendition of the classic tale, Universal’s outing undoubtedly was the most impactful and remains the most cherished, studied, and imitated of all the dozens of Frankenstein-related movie and TV entertainments.
  • Interestingly, this film set the prototype for an imaginary amalgamated European setting, not anchored in any particular year or era, as the backdrop to most of its monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s. The “Goldstadt” city where this story occurs doesn’t exist in the real world, but the word itself and the dress and cultural celebrating of the townspeople suggest somewhere in Germany – even though many of its citizens have British accents.

What is it about the performance of Boris Karloff and the creature design/makeup work of Jack Pierce that makes this film and its monster character so special?

  • One of the keys to appreciating this characterization of the monster is that the filmmakers and the actor portrayed him as a mute and intellectually stunted figure of pity, contrary to the source novel that depicts Frankenstein’s creation as an intelligent, verbose, and deviously vengeful figure. Karloff uses expressive physical gestures and pantomime to great effect in this personification, which gives the character some semblance of dignity and humanity that elicits a powerful emotional reaction in the viewer.
  • Film reviewer Glenn Erickson wrote, through Karloff’s talents, the monster is a “misunderstood outsider, a black sheep, an unwanted delinquent child, a rebel without a soul. No wonder every kid secretly identifies with him.”

Why and how was James Whale the ideal director for Frankenstein? What special qualities does he bring to the film?

  • Ponder how efficient and streamlined the story is; The creation scene occurs merely 14 minutes into the movie, with the monster introduced at roughly the midway point. There are a handful of frivolous scenes that arguably could have been cut, but the economy of storytelling is evident.
  • Reflect on the verticality of many compositions, which emphasize tall ceilings such as in the lecture hall, Henry’s laboratory, the foyer of his mansion, the room where the monster reaches out to the light above, and the Baron’s house; towering and high structures like the laboratory tower and staircase and the windmill; and overhead camera shots that can make characters appear small in a large surrounding environment. The 1.20:1 aspect ratio used benefits these vertical designs.
  • Think about the moving camera choices, including the panning across the attendees in the graveyard in the very first shot, the tracking camera as it follows Henry and his bride across walls and between rooms, and the emotionally powerful unbroken tracking shot of the woodcutter carrying his dead daughter through the streets of Goldstadt.
  • Pay attention to the curious use of close-ups, including the scene introducing Elizabeth and Victor, which features four consecutive close-ups, and, most famously, the introduction of the monster via three advancing close-ups.
  • Then there’s the decision, although probably not made by Whale, to issue a warning at the start of the movie, which peculiarly features the actor Edward Van Sloan standing on a theater stage and addressing an invisible audience without looking directly at the camera.
  • You could make a claim that Whale is the horror genre’s best or most influential director, with the filmmaker also having helmed The Invisible Man, The Bride of Frankenstein, and The Old Dark House.

What themes, messages, or morals are explored in this adaptation of Frankenstein?

  • Man’s hubristic attempt to defy the laws of nature by bypassing the organic means of creation and pursuing an unnatural and artificial form of creation.
  • Science run amok, man working contrary to the divine, and the dangers of playing God.
  • The creator abandoning his creation, which could be a veiled statement on the indifference of God or a higher power to our suffering, the cruel nature of existence, or child abuse and neglect caused by an unkind and irresponsible parent. Recall how, when the monster initially sees his creator, he extends his hands in a symbolic plea for compassion, sympathy, and approval; but the doctor turns a cold shoulder to the monster, “denying his paternity,” according to film scholar Glenn Erickson.
  • Existential angst: Frankenstein, at its core, asks the questions: “Why is man born to suffer, and why are we made to feel so alone in such a vast universe?”
  • Nature versus nurture: With his childlike naïveté and inexperience, the monster demonstrates that humans are born innocent but influenced and corrupted by their environment. This monster is not a mindless killing machine. He is the victim of scientific experimentation as well as torture and abuse at the hands of Fritz; he’s also the recipient of an abnormal brain. All of these things are not his fault.
  • The responsibility of the greater community to ensure that justice is done and to send a collective message that immorality and violating community standards will not be tolerated. Today, the lynch mob mentality and quick impulse for street justice can be easily criticized and dismissed, but this was a theme that would have resonated among 1931 audiences who might have been incensed by the growing concept of evolution versus creationism and the dangers of advancing technology and industrialism.

What is this movie’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • Frankenstein’s greatest gift is that it bestowed on the world the most instantly identifiable and beloved monster of all time. If you were to rank the planet’s most famous, treasured, and merchandised monsters, Frankenstein would likely top the list. Like King Kong, he is a sympathetic character who appeals to all ages and transcends all cultures. Karloff’s unforgettable performance and Jack Pierce’s brilliant makeup are the key ingredients at work, but the Frankenstein monster is greater than – ahem –  the sum of his parts. He’s the default poster child for monsterdom everywhere and top character in the Universal horror cycle, spawning more sequels, remakes, imitators, and spoofs than any other horror icon other than Dracula. And even though this creature is no longer frightening, he brings us back to our childhoods – likely the youngish age when we first watched the film – and a simpler time when monochromatic movies ruled the world.

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