The word Frankenstein is as synonymous to fog choked graveyards, lightening scorched corpses, bolts protruding sickly green skin and burning windmills as bees to honey. In equally gloomy surroundings, Mary Shelley devised an ultimate mythology of Man playing God. The 1931 adaption by Universal is one of the earliest but far from a simple page to screen transition, this re-imagining does for Frankenstein what Dracula did for Bram Stoker’s Nosferatu. Both introduced horror icons, reverberated indefinitely upon pop culture, and altered their source mythology.
In the midst of Lugosi engraving his infamous stare on celluloid, director Robert Florey approached the actor with a proposition to play a monster. Short test footage was shot before James Whale commandeered the adaption and discovered the perfect monster lurking in the Universal backlot.
The opening credits of Frankenstein are a curiosity, each actor is attributed to his role as expected, except the Monster’s title which is accompanied by a question mark. Though intended as a clever device to shroud the movie in mystery, it also illuminates Boris Karloff’s anonymity. At 44, he was unknown, and after playing arguably the lead, or at least the attracting curiosity, Universal still felt he should not be invited to the December premier in which his shambling, murderous abomination shot him to superstardom and left a resounding affect on Hollywood.
Much of this impact is due to creative genius Jack P. Pierce who envisioned the Monster’s idiosyncratic look now found ubiquitously from cereal boxes to television shows and the streets on Halloween. Some innovations were by products, the green skin was the grease paint colour used to alter Karloff’s skin to deathly pale when filmed monochromatically. Yet this green skin carried over in to colour adaptions. The flat head, neck bots, drooping eyelids, and ill fitting suit are purely imaginative innovations. As you well know, this look has pursued Frankenstein inexorably since.
Director James Whale’s touch conjures a universe oppressively gothic and mesmerising, existing outside a distinct time period, almost as if this is a parallel world in which the technology advanced to the 1930s but the architecture remained stuck in the Victorian era. Further, the villages the events take place in are German-esque, as if ripped from the darkest passages of the Grimm tales, British sounding actors and Americanised names throw the geography into debate.
These unique innovations liberate the events to an impossible world which allows striking and iconic photography. Frankenstein’s is lab situated in the heart of a castle, electrodes pulsating amid cobwebs, a body stitched together as deathly grey as the stone walls, all laced by harsh shadows. Then, in operatic ecstasy, Frankenstein raises his horrific child up into the furious lightening to endure thunderbolts. This sequence of contrasts has become indispensable to the lore of Frankenstein, regularly accepted as the mode in which the mad doctor imbues life to the dead.
Whale wields an impressive capability of absorbing the fundamentals of the novel and boiling down to the bare bones. The picture begins in media res of the doctor’s obsession as he robs a fresh corpse from a fog laden graveyard. From this moment on, Frankenstein moves unceasingly towards a horrific climax, ruthlessly removing or condensing huge passages of the novel in to succinct scenes. For instance, the long and arduous quest of Frankenstein to track his creation down is altered in to the infamous pitchfork and torch carrying mob burning down a windmill.
This makes for engaging entertainment, but ultimately Whale neglects the defining philosophy of Shelley’s novel; the moral and psychological implications of playing God. The question of Frankenstein’s ethics are never truly explored, he remains exempt from backlash of his creation. The Monster, too, remains untapped, his inner demons unable to expressed and his psyche left for us to perceive him as simply an abomination.
Frankenstein is a film designed to shock and entertain, a body of gothic experiences stapled together in a mixed match of times, architect and geography, a sewing together of an old novel and new cinematic technology, but unfortunately the mad genius behind the project neglects the brain and leaves us with a shambling Monster, albeit an impressive one.
It’s alive… it’s alive!… IT’S ALIVE!