Universal Studios Monster Movies – Frankenstein (1931)
Strike when the 300kw Klieg lights are hot is a Hollywood mantra, and following the resounding financial and critical success of 1931’s Dracula Universal Studies wasted no time rushing another gothic chiller into production, even managing to terrify audiences a second time before the year had elapsed. Wishing to bank on the lofty profile of their malevolent new star the studio offered the role of the monster in the adaptation of Mary Shelley’s cadaverous gothic grimorie to Bela Lugosi who arrogantly declined the ‘demeaning’ part, thus the role was won by lumbering British character actor Boris Karloff and Frankenstein was accursedly born. Having laboured in Hollywood since the early silents this was Lugosi’s 81st film, a testament to the early days of cinema’s relentless production line practices, his interpretation of the novels unholy hulk now firmly electrocuted into popular culture as the elevator booted, monolithic forehearded and screwbolt neck impaled, lazy-eyed, lumbering lunkhead, a vision quite unlike the patchwork assembled affront to god seen in Shelly’s classic of literature. Like Dracula the film has spawned a teeming mausoleum of sequels, prequels, and thinly veiled allusions, and also like Dracula it has its own little known earlier cinema incarnation, the celluloid graverobbers excavated that decaying corpse back in the 1970’s, much to the glee of horror hell-hound such as yours truly. But let’s move on to fresher fare, now who can forget this indelibly haunting entrance;
Like its lecherous predecessor the film was shot on the Universal lot with the same moody chiaroscuro aplomb, the house style of the genre fully established as the film moans through a travelogue of mist shrouded moors, ivy choked ruins, squat and inhospitable alpine villages, putrefying and cinereal graveyards. As the second major film in the cycle we can also detect the early strains of cross-pollination, the same actors rising from the mists to appear in supporting and lead roles across the shrieking codex, a quarter century before Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing battled each other at the behest of Hammer studios Lugosi and Karloff were also locked in an eternal bloody ballet, with the likes of Edward van Sloan, Colin Clive and the original Igor, Dwight Frye providing the requisite theatrical support. The indelible visual iconography is also compounded with Frankenstein, with mad scientists toying with elemental forces to the hum of pulsating Tesla coils, the shrieking electricity arcing between bubbling and mist vomiting beakers, all hid as an affront to god in the murky depths of an abandoned citadel……
English Theatre director James Whale was enlisted to bring Shelley’s ‘modern Prometheus’ to the screen, his carefully shielded homosexuality has naturally birthed speculation on how he may have identified with the persecuted, banished and shunned creature, and if memory serves the film does betray a more sympathetic attitude to the monster than the novel, but I did read this years ago so I could be mistaken. Whilst we’re on the subject if you are a fan of horror movies then you really should read this source text along with Dracula, you might be surprised at just how much was the authors original intention and how much sheer invention by a cabal of screenwriters has altered the ars, an incremental accrual of myths and powers which were never considered in the original dark flourish of imagination. The other thing that struck me with the revisit was yes this is another animated and magical restoration, and also given that I’ve recently migrated to the Economic Regeneration sectors of Local Government I must be cultivating a entrepreneurial frame of mind, as all I thought when watching these movies is that any ambitious merchant just needs to open up a flaming brazier, sharpened pitchfork and braying rent-a-mob retail operation and he’d quite literally make a killing.
Perhaps the invisible hand of genius has graced the film, it’s not the first name on anyones lips when these movies are discussed but make-up legend Jack Pierce really outdid himself this time, it was he whom invented the dimensions of that haunted, gloomy face and he was the man who inserted those now iconic bolts through Karlofff’s neck. I recently read a terrific aside in a Sight & Sound review of another transition to sound era movie recently, I can’t recall the movie it was referencing but the author made the fantastic point that academically we shouldn’t be moaning about or lamenting this hesitant period between live accompaniment in the theatres and full movie scores overwhelming the images and instructing the audience how to emotionally react to the on-screen antics, perhaps it would be more rewarding and instructive to accept this transitional period as another form of film grammar which is specific to the period. This is a fantastic point, when you rewatch these Universal films that spluttering and slightly hissing track undoubtedly provides the films with a coldly uncanny, pregnant and pensive momentum in certain scenes, the lack of non-diagetic instructions (and in Frankenstein’s case only the opening and closing titles have music under them) in scenes like this for example are all the carnal and effective, with just the crashing thunder and piledriving rain glimpsed between the howls and growls.
For me the film shambles around remarkably well given its venerable viscosity, although it takes a while to get the monster reanimated there is much amusement to be enjoyed with Colin Clive’s lunatic performance, he chews the scenery with the spirit of a devilish dervish as he challenges gods miraculous creation, all ably assisted by his lurching hunchback assistant Fritz which begs the question when did the name Igor become associated with this genre trope? One of the (by 1931) cruellest and most shocking scenes in cinema was when an innocent young girl spies through the creatures hideous visage and encourages it to play with her, a childs innocence negating the forces of prejudice and suspicion, but of course it’s a foolish mistake and her dispatch is frankly hilarious. This scene was immediately banned and excised from the master negative after the MPCC begin enforcing its prurient code in 1934, and the harmless scene was not restored by the studio to commercial prints of the film until 1986. This is a crucial scene of the film which sets in motion the explosive finale, I guess for some of you the unfortunate drowning of an infant might not be a cause of mirthful hilarity, but c’mon now when the simple-minded brute gets a little excited and hurls the little angel into the drink who can’t fail to crack a smile?
Many argue that Shelley’s Frankenstein is the first true Science Fiction story, before H.G. Wells or Edgar Rice Burroughs a fey and delicate lady from Somers Town in London predated both their vivid 19th century Martian derived visions, it’s an assertion which is often eclipsed by Frankenstein’s status as an undeniable and unimpeachable gothic and horror classic. Horror and SF often intersect in the movies as tampering with the latter can often envision the former, when man plays god horrific forces are unleashed, conjuring a biblical vengeance for us lowly mortals as we dare to challenge the almighty’s eternal purview. The use and abuse of science pulses at the core of the story of course, the channeling of the power of storms which electrify the body and medical advances which stitch together the unholy carcass, a looming hulk which encapsulates all sorts of questions on the soul and mortality, on whether evil is a learnt or inherent trait.
Let us draw a funeral shroud over proceedings and close with some ephemera, firstly I can strongly recommend Gods & Monsters which serves as an effective biography of Whale with Ian McKellen in an Oscar nominated role as the weary tyrant. For my sins I revisited Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 flop Frankenstein with Bobby De Niro as the creature, some strangely expressionist set designs aside it isn’t a particularly effective translation, although it does cleave much closer to the original text which makes it quite different to the dozens of other films inspired by Shelley’s scripture. I’d loved to have seen Danny Boyle’s stage version of the text with Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller which played here in London a couple of years ago, but tickets for that were rarer than a healthy, freshly warm brain, here’s some footage which may whet your damned appetite. But when we think of Frankenstein we think of those comatose, catatonic and haunted eyes, of Karloff’s beseeching, vertical arm thrusts upward as he hopelessly reaches for god to cleanse his diseased and wretched existence, a solemn psalm from a putrid Prometheus who won’t just die, with another version destined to lurch into multiplexes this year it’s an eternal myth which simply won’t rest;