Directed by James Whale.
Starring Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles and Boris Karloff.
An obsessed scientist creates a living creature from parts of exhumed corpses.
The original Frankenstein had been on my To-Watch list ever since seeing A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss last Halloween. Films this old (it was released in 1931) can often be laborious. You come away saying you liked it because decades of critical praise burden your own opinion. Cinema was naïve back then – it had only learnt to speak four years prior. You find yourself letting these early films off for their technical faults and over embellished acting, like a child’s crayon drawing magnetised to the fridge door. Frankenstein, if you really give yourself to it, knocks you off that perch. Their equipment might have been limited, but their ambition and innovation was not. Look how grand the sets are. Fritz, doubled-over by his hunched limp, is made even shorter in the tall interior of Frankenstein’s windmill laboratory.
The story is well known. Frankenstein has left University to pursue his ethically dubious experiments in electro-biology. He wants to create life using science. Frankenstein and his assistant Fritz steel corpses to build a body in which to host this new consciousness. The opening scene is of a sombre burial on top of a hill. The camera pans round the weeping faces as the coffin is lowered into the earth. Frankenstein is hiding behind a bush, his face excited and manic in contrast to the aggrieved. With the mourners having long left, and the deceased sleeping six feet below ground, Frankenstein and Fritz pounce upon the grave with shovels. Frankenstein digs so eagerly and carelessly that the dirt he flings behind him hits the face of Death’s statue, for he no longer respects the Grim Reaper.
Frankenstein’s fiancé and best friend worry about him. He has refused their company for six weeks now, so, one stormy night, they demand entry to the dark windmill in which he resides. They become an audience for Frankenstein’s God-like performance. The body that he has created with his own hands, “these hands”, lies on the table before them. The stitching around the monster’s wrist is crude, and the camera never stays on it long enough. Like a freak show, you want to keep staring at the subject’s grotesque body, even though their appearance is sickening. That the monster’s face is hidden in bandages only makes the curiosity fiercer.
Frankenstein has discovered a light ray higher in the spectrum than ultra violet, and it has the power to give life, which the complex machinery around the room filters. The monster is hoisted up a great height to be exposed to the night’s thundery sky. Special effects had to be done for real in those days. The set must be about thirty feet high.
So the lightening strikes and the machines whizz and bang. The monster is lowered down back to the others. And there it is, the shot of the monster’s wavering fingers. “It’s alive,” screams Frankenstein in orgasm, “it’s aliiive!”
If you really let yourself get absorbed into the film, the monster’s first full-body appearance shortly after this is horrifying. He is shot in three quick close ups, each a little nearer to his face than the last. His eyes are heavy, his skin paper white. You start to wonder whether Frankenstein has created a new life, as he claims, or if he has brought the criminal to whom the monster’s brain previously belonged back into the living, ripping him from whatever otherworldly plain would have him. There’s a moment when Frankenstein first exposes his creation to sunlight. The monster is overcome, moaning as if in tongues and striving to be closer to its source. Does he mistake it for a heaven, a bright light to which he so desperately wants to return?
And this is why Frankenstein’s monster is such an enduring figure in popular culture. There’s so much sympathy to be felt for this abomination. It’s not his fault he’s here. He behaves like a retarded, abnormally strong child, clapping his hands when excited and lashing out violently at that which frightens him. Fritz constantly torments the monster with a fiery torch. He does so with glee, probably overjoyed that there is now someone dumber and more disabled than him. The monster lashes out because he knows no better. When Frankenstein hears Fritz’s cries, he rushes to the basement where the monster is kept. The room is shot from the doorway so you can only just make out the shadowy figure of Fritz hanging from the ceiling by his neck, swinging in and out of the camera’s view.
They kill the monster for this. Well, they think they’ve killed the monster. Frankenstein leaves the windmill, shaken, and starts preparing for his marriage with Elizabeth (Mae Clarke). But the monster breaks free and wonders clumsily around the woods nearby. He comes across a young girl by a lake. She takes him by the hand so they can play together. She shows the monster that if you throw a dandelion’s head into the water, it floats like a boat. The monster has a go and is ecstatic, but he clutches the objects all wrong. Those aren’t his hands. This isn’t his body. He does it again, clapping manically at the floating flower. But there are now no longer any dandelions left to sail, so he picks up the girl and throws her into the lake. There’s no malice in him, but he kills that poor child. He’s a monster. He has no way to relate.
Later, the town is wild with celebration. People are dancing and drinking for Frankenstein’s wedding. As they do, the girl’s father walks down the street with her soggy corpse in his arms. People don’t realise at first, and they stutter when the reality dawns. The music continues joyous until the father reaches Frankenstein’s door. It’s a haunting juxtaposition, and one that sparks the definitive mob of cinema into action.
You feel horror towards the monster, but never blame. How could you? He is a creation, an experiment gone awry. As the mob close on the monster near the end, trapping him in a burning, wooden windmill, you feel disgust at their bullying mentality. Only their suits and hats separate them from savages. And all the while, the monster stumbles frightened between rooms, shouting in fear at the flames in which he is ensnared. Blame, and shame, is most definitely with Doctor Frankenstein.
365 Days, 100 Films
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