It’s weird to talk about “Frankenstein” by itself because it’s not a film we often think about by itself. And I don’t just mean we think about it as a franchise–although it is, with eight pictures under its bolts at Universal. I mean the film is often conflated with its sequel, “Bride of Frankenstein.” Perhaps it’s because that film has taken on a cultural and critical significance that rivals, if not outranks, the original. Or maybe it’s Mel Brooks’ fault. I don’t know.
A film that’s almost always thought of in relation to its sequel, but in a wholly positive way, is unusual. Feel free to correct me, but the only other films in the history of horror this blog can think of like that are “Alien” and “Aliens.”
What other horror franchise–or any film franchise for that matter–adhered to a distinctly original visual and thematic philosophy through its first three films and two directors? Not Freddy. Not Jason. “Psycho” had a distinct visual style, but you better bet it wasn’t kept up. Maybe Halloween, if only because “Halloween II” retained John Carpenter’s moody lighting and POV shots, if memory serves. Possibly the aforementioned Alien as well, which, even if not unified in vision, at least kept up the Giger feel (and dumped almost everything else)…
We’re off topic. “Frankenstein,” for those not in the know, is the story of Victor Frankenstein, son of Baron Frankenstein, inheritor of the house of Frankenstein. He should be preparing for his wedding, but he’s busy robbing graves and gluing together corpses in an abandoned castle outside of town where he set up a crude laboratory. Whenever things start off like this, you know it’s going to end with torches and pitchforks.
It seems to this blog that, when reviewing a film like this, there are really three angles to attack it in the modern era. How does it hold up as a horror film? How does it hold up more narrowly as a Gothic thriller? And how does it hold up as a movie?
The last question is the easiest to answer. “Frankenstein” is a good movie. It looks distinct, it entertains, and it does everything it wants in about 70 minutes. Let that sink in. “Frankenstein” is only 70 minutes long. Movies more twice its length have less than half as much to say.
This is tied to the second question. As a Gothic thriller, “Frankenstein” is unquestionably a classic. First off, as this blog as alluded to multiple times in this post already, the film looks right. Every single set is crammed with sloppily arranged skulls, uneven brickwork, and gravestones and ceiling beams connected at odd angles. The camera is never shy about showing this (the cinematography was by Arthur Edeson, a real pro). Zooms, tilts and tracking shots are all composed to show off the sets, which are utterly cluttered but perfectly blocked.
Everything about the film presents a kind of fabricated, exaggerated reality. Its core concept is stitching a man together from scratch. Its backgrounds are painted. Its opening scene is set in front of a theater curtain. It takes place in a Europe that looks like a mashup of everything the continent had to offer between the 16th century and 1916 (and who knew there were so many Southern California eucalyptus in the Rhineland?). It’s a reality that’s been put together wrong, and it wants you to know it.
Thematically, the very Gothic subject of science versus superstition is present from the first scene on, but there are enough moving parts to the film that it’s hardly the only theme. There is a queer subtext too, not uncommon in director James Whale’s films, about the thrill of seeking knowledge and relationships that are beyond the accepted–and what could be more Gothic than hidden sexuality? Or, for something more pedestrian, it’s about a man so wrapped up in his work he destroys his life and threatens the lives of those around him (Frankenstein by Arthur Miller?).
The performances are where the Gothic trappings start to get in the way. Colin Clive is great, and I’m not just saying that because we share a name. He’s reading the same overblown dialogue as everyone else, but his shifts from sensitive to intense are eerily believable. Likewise, Karloff is amazing. Without any words, he manages to convey both pity and menace, sometimes at the same time.
No one else fares quite as well. Edward Van Sloan is dependable as a senior doctor; Frederick Kerr is fun as the Baron, but he hints at the goofiness that would threaten to overshadow the sequel. Mae Clark and John Boles are pretty wooden as Frankenstein’s fiance and cock-blocked friend respectively, with Clark doing a little better but not much.
Put your attention on the titular monsters instead. “Frankenstein” is possibly the first film where the monsters are supposed to be the most compelling characters on screen. Maybe Dracula was the most compelling component of his film, but that was because he symbolized a kind of dangerous seduction, and everything about him said “look at me.” Dracula intrigues, but what intrigues is his intrigue itself.
Victor Frankenstein is arguably the far more psychologically compelling character, and certainly the most psychologically compelling in this movie. Part of it is the depth and complexity of his moods and motivation, and part of it is Clive’s near flawless performance.
But despite the fact that he’s the deepest character, is engaged to the lead girl and has the most screen time, he falls off a windmill at the end. He’s not the hero. And even if you think Karloff-as-monster is more compelling–and it’s an argument that can be made–he doesn’t even get out of the windmill before it burns to the ground (sorry if I gave away the ending of a 90-year-old movie).
So it’s a good movie, a good Gothic thriller, but is it a good horror film? That’s a little harder to answer. Sure, the opening sequence looks like a horror theme, with all the Halloween decorations. But then the mood shifts, retaining its Gothic trappings but becoming a kind of melodrama, a tale of human failing, whether through ignorance, weakness or fate.
Perhaps that’s the point. While the central monster scenes are shot with a kind of quiet amorality, both the early grave robbing scenes and the closing mob scenes are shot like a standard horror film: jarring cuts, shadowy lighting, indistinct sound. Ignore that hasty happy ending; it was tacked on. The film might be about mad science and whispered superstition, but it’s more nihilistic than it is either spiritual or humanistic. It is humanity who initiates the horror of the film–whether by tampering in God’s domain or just tampering in the lives of others. It’s fitting that it’s humanity who closes the horror out as well.