by D.W. Lundberg

Thursday, November 1, 2012


That flat-topped square head. The electrodes that stick out on the sides of his neck like the positive/negative terminals on a car battery. Those tromping, stomping platform boots. At one glance, the monster of James Whale's moody, melancholy Frankenstein (1931) will be instantly recognizable among horror movie aficionados, film history buffs, and to anyone even vaguely aware of the existence of movies. The makeup design by Jack Pierce has become so iconic (it is currently under copyright by Universal Pictures until 2026), and Boris Karloff's performance as the woe begotten creature so definitive, it hardly matters that the character bears little resemblance to Mary Shelley's original novel.

Conjured up by 18-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin during the summer of 1816 (on a dare from George Gordon Byron and future husband Percy Shelley), Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a scientist whose experiments with human tissue result in a living, breathing monstrosity (which he promptly denounces). In the book, Frankenstein's creation is limber, literate and capable of intelligent speech; he exacts a horrific, painstaking revenge. This will no doubt come as a shock to anyone who grew up on a steady diet of Franken Berries, Abbott and Costello, or the "Monster Mash," in which the monster is depicted as lumbering, dim-witted and/or mute. (To be fair, the 1931 film is based on play adaptation by Peggy Webling, rather than the novel itself. Victor's name is changed to Henry, and the creature is named after its master, though it does retain the ability to speak.) Whale's version still managed to horrify audiences, with its unflinching sequences of grave robbery and murder.

After the success of Tod Browning's Dracula in early 1931 (also based on a stage play adaptation, rather than the original source material), Universal quickly bought the rights to Webling's Frankenstein: An Adventure In The Macabre for $20,000. Robert Florey (The Cocoanuts) was hired to direct, with Bela Lugosi (Dracula himself!) cast as the monster, but both were replaced soon afterward. Renowned for his work in the British theater, and for his World War I dramas of the late 20s/early 30s, James Whale was given his choice of projects at Universal; he chose Frankenstein as a change of pace, and to "make what everybody knows to be a physical impossibility into the almost believable for 60 minutes." He cast Colin Clive (Henry) and Mae Clarke (Elizabeth) from his previous films Journey's End (1930) and Waterloo Bridge (1931), respectively. For the monster, Whale spotted Boris Karloff in the studio commissary and asked him to audition (though Karloff would later joke that he'd been dressed in his best suit, and was hurt that the director saw him as such an ugly character).

Filming lasted just 41 days - from August 24 to October 3, 1931 - at a cost of $291,000. Whale and cinematographer Arthur Edeson brought a German Expressionist style to the picture - all angular shapes and shadows - inspired by Robert Wiene's The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Paul Wegener's The Golem (1920). (Kenneth Strickfaden's electrical effects and equipment, meanwhile, seem inspired by Fritz Lang's Metropolis [1927].) The film also takes on a strictly vertical aesthetic, from the watch tower steps which climb up, up, up to Frankenstein's laboratory, to the "creation" sequence (in which a cadaver is raised up through the ceiling into a lightning storm), to the climactic final sequence, atop a burning windmill.

Seen today, Frankenstein is far from terrifying. There's no musical score, for one thing, to help telegraph the scares (as background scoring was not yet an accepted practice in films). Karloff's halting, hulking mannerisms have also lost most of their bite, like a zombie that attacks you but doesn't eat you. During the 1930s, though, some material was deemed inappropriate for audiences. For its 1937 re-release, the Motion Picture Production Code forced the removal of several key moments, including Henry's line "Now I know what it feels like to be God!", a close-up of a hypodermic needle injection, and the latter half of a scene in which the monster throws a little girl into a lake, drowning her. (This footage would not be fully restored until its 1999 DVD release.) What the movie maintains from start to finish, however, is a solidification of theme - of man's insatiable ability to dabble in things he doesn't understand.

Bride Of Frankenstein followed in 1935. Whale initially refused to participate, but was able to infuse the sequel with his own personal wit (and, some would say, homosexual undertones) largely absent from the first movie. Karloff returned as well, speaking his first lines of dialogue as the monster ("Alone, bad. Friend, good!"). Though Whale would not be back for Son Of Frankenstein (1939), Karloff would play the part one last time, succeeded by Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi and Glenn Strange. Further remakes (including the Hammer Horror Films of the 50s-70s), redos (see Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, 1994) and parodies (Young Frankenstein, 1974) would try to usurp the throne, but none could hold a torch and pitchfork to the original.

(Note: For brevity's sake, I have included only Frankenstein, Bride Of Frankenstein and Son Of Frankenstein as part of this particular Face-Off, as Son is the last of an unofficial trilogy.)


The Original: Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931)

Cast: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, Boris Karloff, Edward Van Sloane, John Boles, Dwight Frye, Frederick Kerr, Lionel Belmore

Plot: A scientist creates a living being from the spare parts of exhumed corpses, but the creature runs amok.

How It Set The Tone: Mary Shelley's 1816 novel comes to life in its most famous incarnation, and scared the pants off of audiences to the tune of $12 million (or roughly $375 million when adjusted for inflation, which is no small potatoes even for its time). You've heard film critics and scholars call it "the definitive monster movie," and for once they aren't kidding: its German Expressionist lighting and set design, sympathetic antagonist, and "Grab your torch and pitchforks!" climax continue to reverberate in the Horror titles of today. Boris Karloff's pantomimed performance as the tromping, stomping 6'2" creature (aided and abetted by Jack Pierce's legendary makeup) set the standard for anyone who dared to follow in his footsteps, and effectively launched both his and director Whale's careers into the stratosphere.

Room For Improvement: Its stark sequences of grave robbery and murder may seem a little... quaint when compared to modern-day horrors, and its lack of a background music score (only Bernhard Kaun's main title music and Giuseppe Becce's "Grand Appassionato," which accompanies the end credits, are featured in the film) severely limits the movie's overall scream factor. But it's loaded with so many memorable scenes, performances, and pockets of jet-black humor (watch as Colin Clive's Dr. Frankenstein absent-mindedly tosses a shovel-full of fresh dirt at the face of a Grim Reaper statue during the opening sequence) that you'll walk away with the shivers anyway.

Grade: A-

Sequel: Bride Of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935)

Returning Cast: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Dwight Frye

New Cast: Ernest Thesiger, Valerie Hobson, Una O'Connor, E.E. Clive, Elsa Lanchester, O.P. Heggie

Plot: A mad scientist blackmails Dr. Frankenstein into creating a female companion for the original monster.

How It Compares: The first thing you'll notice about James Whale's seminal sequel is that it's loaded with humor - both over-the-top (witness Una O'Connor's trademark howl as she flees from the creature at the burned-down mill) and slyly subversive (Dr. Pretorius' miniature "homunculi," pint-sized humans he keeps hidden away in bell jars). Second, you'll see it's all part of a piece: comedy, horror, romance, religiosity, even a touch of the biographical melding together as one of Hollywood's richest and most influential entertainments. Some of the scenes are so famous - the hermit sequence, for one, or the climactic reveal of the bird-like bride (Elsa Lanchester, who also plays Mary Shelley during the prologue) - they've already burned themselves into your consciousness even if you've never seen them before. The performances and prototypical Franz Waxman score, however, take a backseat to Whale's more personal touches, including some latent homosexual subtext (Ernest Thesiger's fey Pretorius can clearly be read as the bride's Mephistophelean "mother," with Dr. Frankenstein as her "father") and wry mordant wit.

Grade: A

Sequel: Son Of Frankenstein (Rowland V. Lee, 1939)

Returning Cast: Boris Karloff

New Cast: Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Josephine Hutchinson, Donnie Dunagan

Plot: The son of Henry Frankenstein returns to his ancestral home and discovers the monster there, still alive. It is controlled by a broken-necked blacksmith, bent on revenge.

How It Compares: A note to all novices: This second sequel to the 1931 horror hit actually bears the first mention of Igor (here spelled "Ygor"), Dr. Frankenstein's hunch-backed assistant. Such is the legacy of this classic franchise that the characters often mingle together as one. The last part of an unofficial trilogy, Son is the most impersonal of the lot, no doubt because of the shift in directors. Rowland V. Lee tries hard to emulate the angular set design and Expressionist lighting of the earlier films, but with none of the macabre sense of humor James Whale brought to the previous films. It's still solid as entertainment (though, inexplicably, the monster has lost its ability to speak), with a bigger budget and even bigger box office (Son is often credited with revitalizing Universal's horror genre after a mid-30s slump). Plus, it boasts a fairly impressive triumvirate of stars: Karloff, obviously, but also Basil Rathbone (later Sherlock Holmes) and Bela Lugosi, who finally joins the Frankenstein fold as the aforementioned Ygor. This was, coincidentally, Karloff's final appearance in his signature role. Good that he went out with a little dignity; the rest of the series, unfortunately, did not.

Grade: B

More To Come?: Though Karloff would eventually return to the series in a completely different role (see House Of Frankenstein, 1944), the Franken- gravy train continued to roll on without him, each succeeding sequel a model in escalating ridiculousness. In The Ghost Of Frankenstein (1942), Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943), House Of Dracula (1945) and Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), the monster became more of a stock character - trotted out and dispatched without burden or care. Shelley's novel, however, still captivates filmmakers to this day, with everyone from Andy Warhol to Mel Brooks to Tim Burton putting their own personal stamp on the material.


Hungry for more Franchise Face-Offs? Well, look no further! Click on the following for previous entries: Batman, Superman, Sherlock Holmes, Rush Hour, Men In Black, Paranormal Activity, Lethal Weapon, 48HRS., Harry Potter, Transformers, Leprechaun (you heard me), The Matrix, Halloween, and our introductory segment, starring Alec Baldwin/Harrison Ford/Ben Affleck as Jack Ryan. Please comment!

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