In 1931, Universal Studios started their horror films. The work was the brainchild of Carl Laemmle Jr., the son of the studio head Carl Laemmle. The elder Laemmle didn’t care much for the genre, but his son saw some potential there and the studio hit paydirt with Dracula starring Bela Lugosi. That same year, the second film and a seemingly obvious follow-up was Frankenstein.
You know, as good as this movie is, it does seem weird that the AFI put the original Frankenstein down on this list when the sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, is often seen as the superior film.
Many people know the story of Frankenstein. A (generally mad) scientist and his hunchbacked assistant steal a bunch of corpses, stitch them together with an abnormal brain, and then revive the result during a lightning storm. The creature, a monster with a flat head and bolts or electrodes on the sides of his neck, is a mute that is deathly afraid of fire. There’s a bride with really tall hair, and generally a mob carrying torches and pitchforks.
Pretty much none of that is in Mary Shelley’s original novel. Aside from the bride (sort of), that all comes from this movie.
Shelley doesn’t offer much explanation for the creation or appearance of the monster. Victor Frankenstein narrates most of the book, and he refuses to say how he created the monster, only that he gathered the materials for the job and won’t repeat the process because no one should know how to do what he did. It’s too horrible. The monster is never given a name or described in any way. In fact, the monster is quite articulate and philosophical.
In fact, this film wasn’t even the first movie version of the story. The story of Frankenstein had appeared in a variety of stage plays, and Thomas Edison had produced a silent version where the creation consisted of burning a replica for the actor and then playing the footage in reverse.
But then came Universal with the definitive performance by then-unknown Boris Karloff and direction from James Whale. It’s a short movie, only a little over an hour long, and as most movies in those days ran the full credits (such as they were) in the beginning of a movie and maybe a cast list at the end, Karloff’s name was omitted entirely until the end of the movie. For the opening credits, the monster was credited merely as “?”.
I managed to get my hands on a series of DVDs collecting the Universal Monster movies and all their sequels a few years ago. For my money, the Frankenstein movies were the best. While not all the sequels were great, they were often of a higher quality than the other monsters’ sequels (Dracula’s, in particular, were pretty bad). Karloff would play the creature a total of three times and director Whale would return for one sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. As the films progressed, they did tend to veer away from the true horror themes of the original plus Bride as the monster simply became more and more murderous. The movies would often end with the monster seemingly destroyed until some plot contrivance would bring him back for the next one.
So, what is it about the first one? Doctor Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his hunchbacked assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye, Renfield to Lugosi’s Dracula) are digging up dead bodies and grabbing the occasional corpse hanging from a noose. There’s the storm, the stitched-together look of the monster, and the deaths.
And yes, I do have to remind myself that the hunchback is named Fritz and not Igor. Igor came in a later sequel, and was played by Lugosi.
As it is, Frye was not the only holdover from Dracula. Though Lugosi would turn down the role of the monster, that movie’s VanHelsing, Edward Van Sloan, would be cast as Henry’s scientist mentor Dr. Waldman.
Much of what we associate with the monster is there from the fear of fire to the angry mob. But the biggest difference between Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula is one of motive. The nameless monster, though a murderer, is also far more sympathetic than the Transylvanian count. He’s abused by Fritz, and his first few murders are arguably done in self-defense. When he does kill a small girl, it is clearly something he didn’t intend to do, and Karloff’s monster is as horrified by his actions as the audience would be. When the monster is chased down, the angry mob seems far more bloodthirsty and dangerous than he does.
Combine this with the general aesthetic of expressionism and gothic settings, and the audience can be forgiven for overlooking some of the weird quirks of the movie, like how people automatically know when someone has been murdered despite a lack of witnesses or even the knowledge that someone should go check on someone else. The dead girl Maria is found by her father drowned. He claims she was murdered. How does he know? How does anyone know the monster is the killer? The general themes of the movie make those questions irrelevant.
And that theme is the one thing that holds over from the original novel: man should not play God. As Henry laughs after seeing his creation is alive, “I know what it feels like to BE God!” that moment is where the true horror lies. The creation of life is the province of God, so when a man finally figures out how to do it, it is as imperfect as the creator. The monster is ugly, violent, and dumb. Man’s hubris, something that crops up again and again in almost every movie to feature the monster going forward, will not let an abomination simply stay inert or die. The mistakes will be repeated, and more people are going to die. Science can do quite a bit, but as another movie of science gone awry will point out, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.
Frankenstein would be successful enough, obviously, to lead to sequels. Whale, Clive, and Karloff would all be back, with Karloff’s name now at the front in large letters. A new star was born.
NEXT UP: We’re skipping ahead a couple years to 1935 for another movie I haven’t seen aside from a lot of general Looney Toons mockery: Mutiny on the Bounty.