A rich doctor, about to be married, reanimates a creature made of the body parts of the dead.
Ah yes, the familiar tale about a monster called Frankenstein, who reanimates a dead body without ever considering what will happen to this living being afterwards.
I read Mary Shelley’s book so long ago that I can’t separate scenes from the novel from faithful adaptations or even jokey parodies in popular culture. Stories of men playing God will never go out of fashion though, and the original novel itself is subtitled The Modern Prometheus.
This hugely successful pre-Code adaptation of a play based on Shelley’s 19th century horror story may only be 70 minutes’ long but it packs a lot of emotion, and a whole life, into that running time – weaving themes of hubris, victimisation and a Creator who has cast out his own offspring.
Dr Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is under 30 (though he looks older) and he has the youthful energy, conviction, and determination to maintain one path; his money means he can continue where others would have had to move on.
First attempts are often disastrous – think of pancakes, and dances – so it’s no surprise that Henry’s reanimation of a creature put together from body parts should be too. It’s also not surprising that the doctor lets nothing slow him down even when it should. His assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye), sent to steal one of two brains in jars from the local university, manages to break the jar with the “good” brain and comes back with one from a criminal. And then when the literal perfect storm arrives – Frankenstein needs the lightning for his experiment to work – it’s too good an opportunity to miss.
The film starts with the actor Edward van Sloan, who plays Dr Waldman in the film, emerging from behind a velvet curtain to explain the horror of what we are about to see. His appearance sets the tone for a film that feels enjoyably stagey, with its sets and, for the first half at least, small cast. He’s like the warm-up guy before a filmed chat show, though the warnings he gives us, that it is frightening, shocking and thrilling, are well-deserved.
Frankenstein might not look to our modern eyes, used to mumbling actors, CGI and impressive ends-of-the-Earth locations, like it’s going to frighten; but its sense of menace, nighttime settings, looming watchtower and depictions of mob reprisals against the vulnerable remain unnerving and sometimes terrifying.
And it’s certainly shocking: Frankenstein’s shrieks as the thunder crashes and his experiment succeeds, the treatment of the Monster, the accidental atrocity he commits and the final cruelty of his man-made death.
The story starts with a funeral on a gloomy windswept hillside; once the mourners and sexton leave, Henry and Fritz sneak in to dig up the freshly-buried coffin. On their way home poor Fritz is also ordered to climb a gibbet to cut down a criminal’s body, though its brain is deemed useless after the hanging.
Meanwhile Henry’s fiancee Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), worried about his obsession, turns up at the watchtower with her friend Victor (John Boles) and Dr Waldman, who taught Henry medicine. The storm is raging so they’re just in time to witness the birth of the creature and the metamorphosis of Dr Frankenstein to Creator: “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” he cries as the Monster starts to move (interestingly after googling I discovered this line caused particular angst and anger because of its perceived blasphemy).
The Monster seems genial if unintelligent, but they mistake his fearful response to a burning torch for an attack. He’s locked away, where Fritz taunts him, until the monster kills him and Frankenstein and Waldman decide he needs to be destroyed.
Dr Frankenstein is the wealthy son of a German baron. Despite his claims to obsession and later guilt, he’s more an indulged rich man rather than someone really trying to escape the bonds of life and death, and further science. He never has any concern for the Monster. After Frankenstein and the university professor Dr Waldman subdue the creature with a syringe of anaesthetic, it’s Dr Waldman who is left to deal with him while Dr Frankenstein returns to his dad’s mansion and sits relaxing in the pretty garden, the adoring Elizabeth sitting on the ground, lovingly lighting his cigarette.
The story is spare, the direction thorough and pointed, the camerawork unflinching. When Maria’s father carries her muddy and lifeless body through the village, after the Monster has misunderstood the girl’s game and thrown her into the lake, it seems to go on for an age, as villagers celebrating Frankenstein’s wedding watch and quieten.
The film’s short length aids the realistic speed with which an afternoon of drink-filled celebration turns into a hunt followed by mob reprisals.
Director James Whale’s sympathy is with the Monster – the final scenes, where he’s trapped at the top of the derelict windmill, set alight by the mob below, are heartrending. We already knew he’s terrified of fire; he desperately tries to escape but is beaten back by the flames.
Visually Frankenstein is stunning, particularly the huge dark brick watchtower with its central staircase. Shots from above or looking up to the ceiling add to the cavernous, cathedral-like space. The scientific equipment is pleasingly complex, like the open workings of a metallic brain that doesn’t quite work as it should. When the Monster is lifted on a pulley up to a gap in the roof for lighting to strike him he is both sacrificial victim to a raging God and a baby awaiting life.
Even the Baron’s mansion has Elizabeth in her virginal white wedding dress in a good old fashioned swoon on the bed after the Monster has visited.
There are flashes of wit too: Fritz stealing the wrong brain because it’s still a brain, and the Baron’s toast “to a son of the house of Frankenstein” before his son’s wedding, little knowing the man his heir has created is on his way.
Our own eye on a film always changes it, and with art this age it’s even harder to untangle what is intent and what is a modern lens. Fritz plays into the offensive idea that physical difference equals stupidity and cruelty, but also seems now like an abused servant, childlike with no real idea of consequences. The Monster cannot speak, which takes away his agency (in the novel he can, and reads Milton) though to me that, and his actions, are because he’s newly born.
Karloff’s performance dominates and is always sympathetic. He’s a man suddenly born in adulthood, unaware of his own, enormous body, his strength and how he moves in space. Alternately staggering and loping, his arms hanging loosely by his sides, the Monster has all his senses but has no way to understand the cues he receives; leading to disaster for little Maria and for him.
There are vast numbers of articles and works, scholarly and non-scholarly, out there about this movie. You may, like me, now find yourself disappearing down a Google rabbit hole for the rest of the day. I did enjoy reading this obituary of Boris Karloff (birth name William Henry Pratt) from the LA Times though, and this quote from the man himself about his most famous incarnation: ““He was inarticulate, helpless and tragic… I owe everything to him. He’s my best friend.”
Frakenstein is available from various outlets including: