“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 sotry 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.”
The introduction by Edward Van Sloane, on behalf of legendary Universal producer Carl Laemmle (whose son, Carl Jr., is primarily responsible for this surge of horror films), is perhaps my favorite aspect of the entire film. It adds theatricality and dread, and Van Sloane’s delivery is perfect. With a sly grin and a threatening wit, Van Sloane sets the stage for an intensely gothic tale. Where Dracula has grown dated and transformed into simply a study of film history, many images from Frankenstein still resonate and carry a certain chilling suspense and dramatic flair.
The road to this interpretation of the Mary Shelley novel had been paved through countless plays and adaptations throughout the years, beginning as soon as two years after Shelley’s novel was published. Many different personifications of the monster came before this one, but this one is iconic, influential some 80 years later. Once again, the story is familiar to just about everyone. Colin Clive plays Henry Frankenstein, a scientist who has grown consumed with the notion of creating life from death. His drive to defy God is not just curiosity, it is a megalomaniacal obsession to become God himself. He collects bodies of the recently dead with his assistant, Fritz (not Igor), played by Dwight Frye, who appeared in Dracula as the madman Renfield. Once the bodies are collected it is up to Fritz to steal a brain from the local college. This is where he mistakenly nabs the brain of a criminal, an abnormal brain.
Henry is so consumed with his experiment he alienates his friends and his bride-to-be, Elizabeth (Mae Clark). But their concern brings them to the castle, and the iconic laboratory, on the night Henry is to revive his creation. This leads us to the most famous scene in a film filled with famous scenes: Henry revives his creation using lightning, and when the hand trembles and rises on the gurney, Henry’s madness shines through as he screams “It’s Alive! It’s Alive!” Colin Clive is often overlooked in the film as it is the monster who takes center stage, but Clive is fantastically over the top. Many actors of this day were classically trained in silent film, so their actions and reactions leaned towards flamboyance. Clive’s “overacting” fits the role perfectly.
Whale masterfully keeps the creature hidden for the opening act, and when we finally see him, he backs into the room and turns to reveal the most iconic monster appearance of all time. In the credits, the monster is credited with simply a question mark, but of course it is played by Boris Karloff. Karloff had built a nice career to this point as a straight actor, but he would forever be linked – and gladly so on his behalf – to Frankenstein’s monster. What separates this creature from the soulless Dracula is the pathos Karloff brings to the creature. Along with fright, we feel pity for this misunderstood creation who never asked to be brought to life. Shuffling and grunting, Karloff manages to bring the monster to life with wonderful expressions and a true sadness in his sunken eyes.
As the story unfolds and Henry attempts to wash his hands of his monstrous creation, the creature escapes and roams the countryside. This is where he meets the young girl next to the lake. His confusion leads him to throwing her in the water where she drowns, in a scene that is still shocking to this day. The image of the little girl’s father carrying her lifeless body through town in the middle of a celebration is an emotionally gut wrenching scene that will never lose its impact. There are several moments like this in Frankenstein, where Whale’s soulful direction keeps the events relevant and chilling through decades of time. Frankenstein and its direct sequel, also directed by Whale, may be the pinnacle of the Universal Horror Classics. They deal with the heaviest themes in the pantheon, themes of God abandoning man, or man attempting to be God, of living and dying, and rebirth.
There is one thing that troubles me about Frankenstein, however, and it is the final scene. Once the windmill has been burned down and the monster allegedly destroyed, we return to the house of Frankenstein where Henry is nursing his wounds. His father makes a toast with a gaggle of maids, which doesn’t fit the morose tone of the scenes leading up to this finale. It’s a small quibble, though I do wish they would have scrapped this final salute.