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Frankenstein Review

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by Chris McEneany Sep 23, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    Frankenstein Review
    Firstly, folks, let me apologise for the length of this review. But, as I've always maintained, the Retrofest is a means through which classic fantasy films can be analysed and dissected with a modern eye, discovering the essence of what made them the immortal landmarks that we view them as today. And this entry possibly deserves more attention than most. So, if you'll indulge my wallowing in macabre nostalgia ... let's take a comprehensive look at the one that, in my opinion, started the ball rolling.

    “It's moving! It's alive! It's alive!

    When James Whale made Frankenstein in 1931, the horror genre - as a cinematic form - was born. Tod Browing's Dracula had been released earlier the same year but, with its stage-set melodramatics and oddity of story (based more on the hit Broadway play than on Bram Stoker's novel) it could have justifiably been consigned to the category of sinister one-off, and subsequently forgotten. But, in taking, re-shaping and, dare I say it, improving Mary Shelley's actually quite cumbersome and unwieldy novel, Whale founded a dark gothic milieu and brooding, macabre atmosphere that finally introduced audiences the world over to what a horror film should look and feel like. And, for decades to follow, Frankenstein's influence would tremble through the halls of Horrorwood in the inevitable slew of sequels, spoofs, remakes and rip-offs and, more importantly, go on to fashion a thirst in the public for ever more terrifying or bloodthirsty spectacles. The Roman Arena had been re-opened and, once again, civilised people would flock to see death, carnage and all manner of atrocities committed in the name of entertainment from the sanctuary of a seat in a motion picture theatre. Take a moment, fright-fans, and reflect upon this. For without Frankenstein, there simply wouldn't be the all-encompassing collection of films we like to put under the banner of horror. Fact.

    “In fifteen minutes the storm will be at it's height. Then we'll be ready.”

    Although based more on a stage interpretation of Peggy Webling's English play, Whale's script deviated still further, with elements of Robert (Murders In The Rue Morgue from 1932) Florey's treatment of the material and John L. Balderston's story tweaking. Even now, when you watch this truly vintage classic, it is hard to believe the sheer audacity of its relatively simple story - the death and mayhem caused when Colin Clive's driven Dr. Henry Frankenstein (not Victor, as in the original book) creates a living being that he has stitched together from the body parts and tissues collected from an assortment of anonymous cadavers. Already, the concept is abhorrent and subversive, the God-like gift of bestowing life forever blackened and tainted by the acts of grave desecration and tampering with the bodies of the dead. For all of his saintly resolve to further science (actually a desire long since mutated into obsession by the time we meet him in the film) Frankenstein is more mixed-up than the physical hodgepodge he concocts, his over-zealous determination forging a trailblazing path for a million mad scientists to emulate in the years to come. Rationale and objectivity lost in a single-minded quest for perfection, life and love thrown to the wind, Frankenstein breaks all the rules of physics, nature and morality. That is biochemical son awakens, incites fear and loathing in all those who meet him through no fault of his own, and is ultimately rejected by his “father” is the singular narrative thrust of the story. But the pain of this abandonment and its terrible consequences are the literal heart and soul of its everlasting mythology. Shelley's Frankenstein agonised over his mistake in endless melancholy and remorse. Colin Clive sums up the tragedy of his false pride in one marvellous piece of understatement when he implores his wicked assistant Fritz to stop tormenting his “son”. “Oh, come away, Fritz,” he pleads in abject guilt and regret, “ Just leave it alone. Leave it alone.

    The performances are famously arch, operatic and totally in-keeping with their flamboyant, overly-gestured era. Films were still clinging to the trappings of the stage and the caricature of the silents but, in Frankenstein, the over-ripe mannerisms and characterisations, far from weighing the story down to a modern audience, should actually provide the heightened emotion and dramatic verve that such an overblown tale deserves. Colin Clive, fresh from Whale's own first motion picture, Journey's End (itself a reworking of a stage play that Whale had produced) delivers a credibly frenzied and wildly self-torturing Dr. Frankenstein. His clipped English speech may be a little comical-sounding now, especially during his most raving moments of exultation or despair, but the performance he produces is wonderfully on-the-ball for a man on the razor's edge between brilliance and insanity. This was a bravura accomplishment that Clive achieved, almost certainly, via the colossal emotional problems he was undergoing at the time in his personal life - enabling character and actor to coalesce into one dangerously volatile hybrid. There are times when his own ravaged face comes to mimic that of his creation's grave-rifled visage.

    “You do not quite get what I mean. Herr Frankenstein was interested only in human life. First to destroy it and then to re-create it. There you have his mad dream.”

    Dwight Frye, a Universal holdover from Dracula (in which he played the deranged, fly-eating Renfield) is remarkably physical in the role of Frankenstein's hunchbacked assistant Fritz (not Ygor - he would come later), literally scampering about the vast laboratory like a huge grinning rat, or adroitly leaping up the gibbet to cut down a freshly-hanged villain. Morally and intellectually bankrupt, he avidly wheels corpses around with devil-may-care aplomb, yet still manages to drop the “good” brain and replace it with the criminally insane “abnormal” one! Watch his eagerness to throw switches and levers during the big birth sequence - just look at the madly excited expression on his face. Edward Van Sloan, also from Dracula (as Van Helsing) is a bit of a come-down, though. He even appears in the famed pre-title sequence whereupon he steps out onto the stage to address us, the audience, with a warning as to what we are about to see. But as Frankenstein's former teacher in medical practices, he is dour and glum - the cold voice of reason and, as such, not much fun to be around. Mae Clarke, as Elizabeth, the pretty fiancée that Frankenstein has been neglecting in favour of other bodies, is cute but perfunctory - the first of many women for whom James Whale would ensure a rough time. Her role confined to chatting with ex-but-still-interested beau (this continued affection is visually hinted at, at any rate) Victor - the classic name, at last - reduces her to the parlour-room comedy segments in the Baronial mansion, her performance only enlivened when threatened by something dead ... but living. And as Victor, Henry's somewhat dubious friend, John Boles is eminently forgettable, acting as little more than a prop.

    “He's been seen in the hills, terrorising the mountainside!”

    But the breakout star was, of course, none other than William Henry Pratt, known the world over from Frankenstein's premier onwards and forever more, as Boris Karloff - the stage-name for the then-forty-two year old jobbing bit-parter from England. Assuming the now iconic role of the Monster (and billed as just “?” in the opening credits), Karloff had to endure hours in the makeup chair of Universal's most famous face-transformer of all, Jack P. Pierce - who would wretchedly camouflage Karloff again in The Mummy, The Ghoul and The Old Dark House, and Lon Chaney Jnr. in The Wolfman. The sagging, dragged-down pain the Monster assumes in his reactivated cocktail-body is the restrained agony that the actor was really experiencing beneath all the wax appliances, the elongated arms and hands, heavy hobo's suit and quite bewildering asphalt-spreader's boots. The image, if really thought about, is preposterous - the high-topped and flattened-off head presumably the result of Clive's crude brain-popping surgery, the power terminals (not bolts) in his neck and sad, heavy-drooping brows definite indications that his creator was purely using this lump of meat as a stage one experiment. A later incarnation of the Monster in the decent 70's TV miniseries Frankenstein: The True Story took the opposite approach, with Michael Sarrazin's initially handsome creature horrifically deteriorating throughout the story. But Karloff's lumbering, top-heavy brute cut a figure that was as sympathetic as he was terrifying, and this is something that Universal seemed to excel at. They added dignity and pathos to their beasts, creating an audience association with them that is, at once, disturbingly repellent and touchingly protective. Their monsters, starting with Frankenstein's - therefore excluding Lugosi's predatory Dracula - were actually an assembly-line of fully-rounded yet inevitably flawed characters, who were all as much victims of their dreadful scenario as those that fell into their clutches, Chaney's decidedly un-Welsh werewolf being the most long-suffering of all. Hammer Films would continue this vogue throughout their tenure of lurid depravity, but no-one could attain such a unique, yet monstrous connection between viewer and fiend quite as effectively as Universal. And none more so than the pathetic, shambling and tormented child of Dr. Frankenstein.

    “The neck's broken, the brain is useless. We must find another brain.”

    Even today, the name of Frankenstein is often assumed to be that of the Monster itself - a viewer association that is borne from a collective need to name the blighted and forlorn victim of science gone awry, revealing our innermost desire to protect something unfortunate, something innocent. And there's no bigger puppy-dog than Boris Karloff's Monster. The tenderness he is capable of becoming a more tragic trait when contrasted with the terrible savagery his pitiful confusion drives him to. His bodycount may only be small, but the effects of it are devastating, upon himself as much as on anyone else.

    “Oh well, after all it's only a piece of dead tissue.”

    Whale's imagery is never less than superlative. In fact, he is responsible for establishing the most iconic of sets and set-pieces in the entire genre. The lonely watchtower (not Castle Frankenstein - that would come much later), model-built and lent depth by glass plates and matte skies, lightning-lit and forever foreboding, is one of the ultimate horror locations, a decrepit des-res with the most awesomely atmospheric of views. The laboratory, itself, is possibly the single most recognisable and oft-emulated set in the entire history of chiller cinema, and it is beautifully ramshackle and abstract in design, a devil's playground of props, electrical gadgetry, sound and fury, the seedbed of an unholy multitude of horrors. That a man of science should choose to conduct his wayward, avant-garde experiments in such a locale is proof that such an individual should never dabble in them in the first place. Yet it all works. The birth of the Monster is horror's cataclysmic moment, the awakening of something primordial, something savage and unrelenting. Those generators and fizzing bolts of lightning may give life - but, in the base irony of such scientific tom-foolery, they also bring about death, such as movie-goers could scarcely dare comprehend. The doorway to fear and suspense had not so much been opened, but been ripped from its hinges. And it would never close again.

    “He is just resting, waiting for a new life to come.”

    Still, it must be made clear that many things about Whale's first horror film don't really add up. Dwight Frye's deformed assistant may be amazingly agile, but he is hardly the type of helper a dedicated doctor and scientist would have around, despite his unlikely understanding of the equipment in the thrown-together lab. This relationship between crippled outcast and mad doctor would be expanded upon later in the series, with the unfortunate freak bribed into wrong-doing with the promise of life-altering surgery by successive masters. Other shortcomings owe more to Whale's extensive background in stage-work. His horrors all feel very theatrical - from the limited sets to the often stilted direction of his key players. He encouraged his cast to be overtly melodramatic, almost as if to mask his own failings. This method is a product of its time, but to new audiences coming to these films to see what all the fuss is about I will admit that the style can be off-putting. Both Frankenstein and its much superior sequel, Bride Of Frankenstein, suffer from prolonged moments of brevity that are much more suited to the parlour-room farces of the theatre, and it is these elements that grate on my nerves the most. Henry's stuffy old father, the Baron (Frederick Kerr), threatens to diffuse the redolent atmosphere every time he is on screen by being nothing more than a bumbling fool, wittering with bogus bluff and bluster with the giggly maids and, generally, just getting in the way. And the curious ability of the Monster to locate Elizabeth in the mansion is a case of narrative shorthand that is, in all truth, just a plot-hole. The same can also be said about the immediate belief of poor little Maria's father that his daughter has actually been murdered, as opposed to having just drowned accidentally. More on this later, though. One assumed miscalculation - the lack of a musical score - is, in fact, more than rectified with the sound effects of the storm, the boisterous antics of the street party and the collective rage of the murderous mob all adding immeasurably to the mood of the piece.

    “Here he comes ... let's turn out the light.”

    But the many plus points far outweigh the minuses. Although minimal, the sets are fantastic, with an emphasis on height inducing a sense of size and vertigo - the old watchtower with its awesome stone staircase winding up into the shadows, the stage-bound cemetery with its angel of death staring down impassively at the grave-robbing taking place in its midst and the wonderful dungeon into which the Monster is thrown. This last set is pure German Expressionism - a visual style that Whale would accentuate in the sequel - with its long, angular shadows, worryingly harsh geometry and tiny little window tucked away at the far end. It has the distorted appearance of a funhouse optical illusion, skewing impressively with the twisted mindsets of those dwelling in the tower. Also interesting is how Whale handles the violence in the film. As in The Old Dark House there are numerous scenes of characters engaged in clumsy, staggering set-tos, argy-bargy that seems scarcely rehearsed, let alone choreographed. The tussles may not be all that dynamic by today's standards, but in spite of their clodhopping awkwardness they exhibit a raw sense of unpredictability, as if the actors have been unleashed upon one another with no real idea of whether Whale is going to shout “Cut!” or not. So, regardless of the stagey feel of the film, there are pockets of realism tucked into the most unexpected of places. Another terrific component is one that flies against the tide of those who maintain old movies, and Whale's in particular, are static. In Frankenstein, Whale and photographer Arthur Edeson move the camera through walls, travelling around the sets for the watchtower and the baronial home with a technical prowess that would actually go on to become trademark. There is also a great tracking shot as he guides us into the village of Goldstadt (a huge, free-standing set that Universal had erected on the backlot for any WWI films they had on the go, but would see service in practically all their early horrors), during the street festivities for Frankenstein's wedding that swiftly cuts to the Monster shambling through the woods, juxtaposing their gaiety and cheer with his fear and loneliness. Individual imagery is strikingly etched as well - the stricken form of Elizabeth as she lies, in shock, over the bridal bed (aping the famously ghoulish painting of a demon atop a helpless maiden) and the great framing of Clive and Karloff as they face off against one another from either side of mill's turning wheel. Smart editing from Clarence Kloster gains the emotional upper-hand in any given scene, or line of dialogue - the faltering, hesitant series of cuts leading up to our first glimpse of the Monster's face, for example. The painted skies that halo the rugged hillside during the suspenseful climax are quite clearly crinkled, but this only adds to the glowering countenance of the heavens frowning down upon Frankenstein in his final confrontation. The soon-to-be-a-cliché torch-wielding mob swarming all over the slope becomes a seething, amorphous mass of anger and hatred, their uniform aggression possibly the most frightening thing in the film. But nothing can compare to the image of the little girl's father disturbing the joyous party with the bedraggled form his dead daughter draped over his arms.

    “Search every crevice ... every ravine ... but the fiend must be found!”

    Although crude in many ways, the film is way ahead of its time in its depiction of symbolism - the surrogate father/son relationship, the disruption of the conventional heterosexual bond (a Whale favourite) and quasi-religious overtones abound. But it is the dignity and respect for Karloff's creature that was the most groundbreaking aspect of the production. Look, for instance, when the Monster holds out his misshapen hands to his “father”, or when he holds them aloft to embrace, in awe, the sunlight streaming in through an overhead window, our hearts breaking at the projection of his simple, uncomprehending plight. But especially agonising is the moment of horrible realisation when he wrings those same hands after the drowning incident - so much despair is conveyed by this single gesture. The sadness, horror and pathos Mary Shelley laboured over with excruciatingly interminable prose is captured by both Karloff and Whale in hauntingly evocative black and white imagery that transcends time and technology, testament to the power of cinema to, on occasion, distil the best qualities of great literature.

    “Burn the mill! Burn it down!”

    Unsurprisingly, the film was a huge success, despite some atrocious snipping by the censor to some pivotal scenes. Most famous of all the cuts was the wholly erroneous one made to the notorious drowning sequence of the little girl who befriends the Monster. Ironically, the great error of this undignified cut meant that audiences for decades were left wondering exactly what the Monster had done to her, the sight of her traumatised father carrying her limp body into town conjuring up all manner of false depravities and making the deed seem much more shocking. Even as late as 1974, when film historian and writer Richard J. Anobile compiled his glorious frame-by-frame photo-novel for the film, it looked as though this fuller scene had been lost. Another famous cut was to Henry Frankenstein's triumphant line about now knowing “what it feels like to be God,” at the birth of his pick 'n' mix creation. Such blasphemy was never going to go down well. But now, of course, these moments, and some shots of Fritz tormenting the Monster with a flaming torch, have been restored.

    Well, folks, Frankenstein may not be the greatest horror film ever made - in fact it is not even the greatest Frankenstein film ever made as that title goes, unquestionably, to Bride Of Frankenstein - but, as author, critic and film historian Kim Newman once put it, it is the most important. Without it, and its audience's continued fascination and admiration for it, there wouldn't be a recognised medium of celluloid macabre. In view of its historical and cultural impact, and its ongoing legacy, I should really award Frankenstein with the full 10 out of 10 film score. I cannot, though, because the sequel, Bride, is just so much better. Therefore, James Whale's innovative movie monolith will have to settle for a richly deserved 9.

    The next film that the Retrofest will sink its teeth into will be, aptly enough, the 75th Anniversary Edition of Tod Browning's Dracula.