Lost in the Movies: Frankenstein


Close on the heels of Dracula, I re-watched Frankenstein, James Whale's 1931 horror classic which is, if anything, even more iconic than the vampire pic. In many ways, Whale's movie has more to offer - while the vampire myths are fun and can be interpreted any variety of ways, Mary Shelley's gothic-romantic classic is compelling on a different level. The idea of man-created man both fascinates and repels us, and it only grows more relevant with time (evidenced by the countless sci-fi and horror spin-offs of the film, as well as the popularization of the term "he's created a Frankenstein monster"). Yet in some ways, I find Frankenstein less satisfying than Dracula, perhaps because it is more ambitious than the other film, and hence it's more noticeable when it falls short.

That's not to criticize the film too severely - it's quite entertaining, full of rich imagery and compelling ideas, and filled with little moments of black humor and detailed asides which James Whale would fully unleash in the richly comic sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein (which is a bona fide masterpiece). It's a classic that must be seen, even if the story is a little unwieldy at times (the narrative doesn't really develop, as we rush from the monster's escape right into the climax). And, like Dracula, it offers a thrill of recognition at moments of extreme influence: in this case, the mad scientist bringing his creation to life ("It's alive! It's alive!") in his gloomy castle on a dark and stormy night.

That said, I find Shelley's original depiction of this profane "birth" - quiet, unexpected, dreadful - infinitely more chilling:
It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
What passage, what story better evokes the horror of the creator, beholding a previously-controlled creation now severed from himself? The horrible realization of culpability in this eternal mystery (which remains, steadfastly, a mystery, whosoever is responsible)? Is this how God felt when he breathed life into Adam? Frankenstein's monster is the ultimate "other": he is an alien being, regarded with dread as a holder of all mankind's dark qualities, the very elements which we fear within ourselves. This explains the paradoxical sympathy many readers and viewers have with the creature. He is at once less human and more human than the fully conscious, rational, "natural" people around him. They think, he feels, and in doing so he reminds us of our own innate helplessness and the raw, confused turmoil of our natural state (such resonance also calls to mind the question I posed a few weeks back, Why are kids' movies sadder?).

But I've saved the best for last. One reason we find ourselves so unexpectedly aligned with the monster, so attuned to his pain and confusion (so much more so then the misplaced comforts and conventional concerns of the "real" people) lies with the film's foremost claim to greatness: "?".

Or so he is listed in the opening credits. In fact, "?" was Boris Karloff. On his first appearance, standing erect in the doorway, glowering in dim perception without understanding, the intensity of his presence motivating Whale's camera to a series of unprecedented cut-ins, Karloff makes such an impression that I might have gasped.

This is a great performance, not merely an influential or iconic one, but a truly masterful embodiment of character. It's on a higher plane of reality than all the other performances in the movie (ironic when you think about it), and it's almost impossible while watching to think that Karloff is "acting"; instead he seems to be the creature, inhabiting his skin with a complete lack of pretension. Yes, the makeup (still impressive) helps, but Karloff's pure conviction is contagious. It elevates the film - at least the moments he's in - to the level of greatness. As the beast lumbers towards the fatal lapping waters of the placid lake, hand-in-hand with a doomed little girl, it's hard not to wonder whose innocence is the more terrible. Probably his, since hers will soon be extinguished, while he will soon bear the shock of yet another rude awakening, one of so many in his short, agonized life.

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.


Sam Juliano said...

Yes Karloff's performance is surely one of the greatest and most humanely profound ever accomplished in a horror film, and FRANKENSTEIN is a far greater film than DRACULA, which as I suggested under the Browning thread is hampered by sustained theatrics and severe truncating of plot strands from the novel and only a loose fidelity to character and setting.

But it's no surprise, since Shelley's novel is a masterpiece of English literature, while Stoker's is more of a period potboiler: engaging and intermittantly gripping, but incessantly episodic and maddeningly uneven. The psychology of the characters in FRANKENSTEIN is far superior than it is in DRACULA, and James Whale's sensibilities for the material is far more personal and profound, than Browning, who at that time was trying to forge a new form from theatrical underpinnings. hence Browning's greatest film is not DRACULA but FREAKS, but that's for another discussion.

FRANKENSTEIN is a gothic nightmare, terrifying for it's time, but underlined by Karloff's humanity, which of course carried over to its incomparable sequel.

The horrifying scene at the lake remains as compelling and poignjant as it did back in 1931.

MovieMan0283 said...

Freaks is indeed outstanding. As for Frankenstein, I much prefer Bride of Frankenstein, which I look forward to seeing again soon.

Just Another Film Buff said...

Whoa, I haven't seen Frankenstein, but just finished watching Spirit of the Beehive and this post gave me the creeps.

MovieMan0283 said...

Another great movie. Have you seen Cria Cuervos - I might like that one even more (different director, but same actress).

Sam Juliano said...

FRANKENSTEIN will be screened with THE INVISIBLE MAN in early December at Manhattan's pre-eminent revival house, the Film Forum, as part of a comprehensive week long James Whale festival. No matter how many times one sees it, this is simply an offer that can't be refused.

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