EMPIRE ESSAY: Frankenstein Review

Dr. Frankenstein creates a simple creature from various body parts. The creature turns into a monster when Dr. Frankenstein rejects him. Sticking close to the original novel, we are guided through the store of Frankenstein's quest for knowledge, and his creates search for his 'father'.

by Kim Newman |
Published on
Running Time:

70 minutes



Original Title:

EMPIRE ESSAY: Frankenstein

Universal's Dracula(1931), to which Whale's film was a follow-up, was a spooky adaptation of a Broadway play. It could easily have been a one-off, remembered only as a footnote to the drawing-room mystery. Without Frankenstein, there wouldn't be a genre called the horror film, and the form would never have found its greatest star.

The English Whale took the project, which had been prepped by director-writer Robert Florey as a possible vehicle for Dracula star Bela Lugosi, to escape being typecast as a director of World War I-themed movies like Hell's Angels (1930) and Journey's End (1930). Later, after The Invisible Man (1933) and Bride Of Frankenstein (1935), he regretted even more his close identification with a genre that swiftly became the most declasse in Hollywood. But while he was putting the picture together, he exercised all his peculiar creativity, hacking out of Mary Shelley's unwieldy novel a fable of an overreaching scientist and his abused, childlike outcast of a monster.

For the role of Henry Frankenstein (as opposed to Shelley's Victor), Whale rejected Leslie Howard and cast his neurotic Journey's End leading man Colin Clive, whose clipped British vowels sound strange in the supposedly mid-European setting (the film seems to be set in a light opera-style no-place, no-time rather than a real country). From the cast of Dracula, Whale retained both Edward Van Sloan as the sceptical elder who strongly disapproves of Frankenstein's experiments, and the unforgettable Dwight Frye as the hunchbacked dwarf assistant who drops the normal brain he has been told to steal and substitutes that of a mad criminal.

However, the career break-out of the film was William Henry Pratt, a 42 year- old Englishman who had turned his back on a privileged upbringing and emigrated to become a truck driver in Canada and a jobbing bit-player in the States. Pratt had popped up in a few gangster and melodrama movies, but Whale saw something in his eyes that fitted his conception of the Monster. Universal's make-up genius Jack P. Pierce devised the flattop, the neck terminals (not bolts), the heavy eyelids and the elongated, scarred hands. Meanwhile Whale kitted the creature out with a shabby suit like those worn by the ex-soldier hobos then riding the rails, and added the clumping asphalt-spreader's boots. But it was Pratt who transformed the Monster from a snarling bogeyman into a yearning, sympathetic character whose misdeeds are accidental (drowning a little girl) or justified (hanging the dwarf who has tortured him with fire). In the opening credits, the Monster is billed as being played by " ?". Only at the end of the film were the audience told it was a fellow by the name of Boris Karloff, Pratt's stage handle, who had terrified, moved and inspired them.

The pain in Karloff's eyes is real — all the clobber was agony to wear, and the experience turned the mild-mannered actor into a militant: he helped found the Screen Actors Guild to save others from suffering for long hours under the California sun and the burning arc-lights. Modern audiences find some of the plot scenes trite and chatty, with winsome heroine Mae Clarke and stiff second lead John Boles tiresome unless the Monster is threatening them. But all of Karloff's scenes — and most of Clive's and Frye's grave-robbing —remain as compelling as ever. There are a number of wondrous theatrical set-pieces, among them the "creation", with lightning crackling around the tower and the Monster raised to the angry sky on an operating table; the Monster's first appearance (seen from behind, he turns to show us his face and the camera stutters towards him); the heart-breaking sequence with the little girl; the primal attack on the heroine on her wedding day (one of few bits taken from the book); and the pursuit of the Monster by a mob of peasants, winding up in the old mill where creator and creation confront each other in one of the earliest horror movie inferno finales.

Originally, Clive died and Clarke paired off with Boles, but post-production tinkering saved Frankenstein for the sequels. Whale, Karloff and Clive were persuaded to come back in 1935 for Bride Of Frankenstein, a sequel that is more elaborate, sophisticated, cynical and entertaining than the original, if also a trifle more calculated in its sentiment and misanthropy. Oddly, Whale again tried to kill Frankenstein and again changed his mind at the last minute. Whale quit, but Karloff became the grand old man of horror. He had another spin in his best role in the spirited Son Of Frankenstein (1939), then made way for lesser horror stars Lon Chaney Jr. (Ghost Of Frankenstein (1941) and, sadly, Lugosi (Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943) before stunt man Glenn Strange got into the boots for House Of Frankenstein (1944) — in which Karloff plays a mad doctor — House Of Dracula (1945) and the death knell wind-up Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

The cycle runs the entire gamut from perfection through pastiche and pulp to parody. But Frankenstein remains chilly and invigorating, the cornerstone of its entire genre.
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