“How do you do? Mr. Carl Laemmle feels it would be a little unkind to present this picture without just a word of friendly warning. We're about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation: life and death. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you. So, if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now is your chance to, uh... Well, we've warned you.” -Edward Van Sloan
Thus, begins possibly THE most iconic horror movie ever made. That introduction, delivered by actor Edward Van Sloan, whom we had preciously seen in Dracula as Van Helsing playfully toyed with the cinema audiences of almost 90 years ago, who had no idea what they were about to see. If Dracula has been criticised for its slow pace, then no such comment can ever be justifiably made about Frankenstein which was released later that same year despite, like its predecessor, being based on a stage play, which was based in turn based on the book by Mary Shelley – here credited as “Mrs Percy Shelley” – a sad sign of the not so good old days.
This is a very fast paced seventy-odd minute film that hits the ground running and doesn’t let up for any of those minutes. The audience has already been nicely primed by the pre-title introduction, an unheard-of stunt back then.
Frankenstein made an overnight star of a middle-aged jobbing bit part actor from Dulwich by the name of William Henry Pratt, who changed his name to Boris Karloff and became the poster boy for horror, stepping into the limelight that Bela Lugosi inadvertently sidestepped when he refused the part of the Frankenstein monster. It’d be interesting to see the test footage Universal shot of Lugosi in the role prior to Karloff’s casting, but that footage has, I understand, been lost to time. I’d be fascinated to see what the early version of the make-up was, before make-up genius Jack Pierce (no relation, sadly - I’ve checked) Pierce’s make-up is the one that just about EVERYBODY thinks about when they mention the Frankenstein monster, square head, scarring, electrodes through the sides of the neck, big heavy square boots… the make up is as iconic as a Coke bottle or the Superman “S”.
We start off in a funeral, where two people are stealthily watching as the mourners leave the gravedigger to his work. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive, wound up tighter than a watch spring) and his assistant, the hunchbacked Fritz (Dwight Frye in almost as manic a mode as his Renfield in Dracula) dig up the body for their nefarious purposes, and on the way home visit a gallows – but the neck is broken – the body is useless. Fritz is dispatched to obtain a brain from the laboratory of Dr Waldman (Edward Van Sloan). Sadly, for all concerned – he totally botches the job. A loud noise startles him, so Fritz drops the brain he’s supposed to get, and picks up the only other one he can see – an abnormal one, which came from someone who was homicidally insane.
In the meantime, Henry’s fiancé Elizabeth (May Clarke) is fretting about her husband to be, who’s holed up in a remote location, obsessed with his work and persuades their mutual friend Victor Moritz (John Boles) to approach Henry’s old college tutor Professor Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) to persuade him to come home.
Off ALL nights, they have to choose the one that is stormy enough for Frankenstein to harness the power of the lightning to bring his creation to life. As he explains to a sceptical Waldman;
“That body is not dead. It has never lived. I created it. I made it with my own hands, from the bodies I took from graves, from the gallows, anywhere! Go and see for yourself”
As the storm hits its peak, the body is raised on its platform to receive the electrical kiss of life, and when he sees the hand twitch, Clive hits the heights of manic hysteria with the deliver of the line; “Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!” A line which was censored until very recently.
Director James Whale toys with the audience in a unique way when Karloff as the monster is introduced in the next scene. We hear his shuffling footsteps, and when the door opens, he enters from the shadows… backwards. Then he slowly turns around and Whale cuts to two close-up shots, giving the viewers a full-on look at the disfigured face. But what registers more than the overall features are Karloff’s sorrowful, yearning eyes. They convey suffering and an incomprehension of what’s happening. Remember, the monster is only a couple of days old and everything is new to him. He has been kept in the dark dungeon and tortured by the psychotic Fritz, His first look at the sunlight is when Henry opens a skylight and the monster reaches out to try and touch it.
It’s this childlike quality that sets Karloff’s portrayal of the monster above every other actor who has taken the role since. We don’t blame him for hanging Fritz with the whip Fritz used to beat him. Our sympathies lie with the monster.
Henry is taken home at the point of nervous collapse, leaving Waldman to perform a dissection of the monster, now incapacitated by injection – but recovers before the first cut can be delivered, strangling Waldman and escaping to the countryside.
Cue perhaps the most famous scene in the film, where the monster meets a little girl named Maria (Marilyn Harries) playing by a lake. She innocently invites the monster to throw some flowers on the water, where they float. The monster throws Maria in as well, but panics when she drowns and runs away. This was another censored scene, where the little girl being thrown in the water was cut. This made the later scene of her father carrying her body through the village look like the monster had done something far worse than accidentally drown the little girl. The restored print is far clear and makes more sense, and is somehow even more tragic.
This all happens on Henry and Elizabeth’s wedding day, which is abandoned when the monster enters the house, specifically Elizabeth’s chamber – though how he knew where to go is a mystery, but at this point, the film’s moving along so fast, we don’t really question anything.
The monster leaves town with the first of a great many mobs of angry villagers bearing flaming torches, baying for his murderous blood, eventually cornering him in an old mill, where he’s facing off with his creator. Henry barely escapes with his life before the mill is set alight, and the monster is assumed burned to a crisp after a short, painful and miserable life.
As I said, the standout star of the show is undoubtedly Karloff, who often said he owed his career to the monster, but he wasn’t even billed in the titles, there was only a question mark where the actor’s name usually goes. Karloff was named at the end credits, but received only fourth billing. He wasn’t even considered important enough to be invited to the film’s premiere.
But times change, and so would Karloff’s fortunes. He was just getting stated.
Copyright © 2010 - 2020 Robin Pierce. All Rights reserved.