James Whale's 1931 version of Frankenstein remains a cinema miracle that defies time. Some 50 years since its premiere, its sensitive craftsmanship and relentlessly macabre tone still set horror movie standards, even after decades of noisome parodies and splatterfilm overkill.
Whale treats his protagonist's obsession with galvanizing life from sewn corpses as a stark and shadowy moral tale, more in keeping with the German Expressionist influence of Robert Wiene's Caligari than Mary Shelley's Gothic overtones. Though heavy on dialogue in the beginning, Frankenstein unfolds as an intensely visual nightmare, a sleepwalker's journey along hideous graveyards, gibbets, and gnarly corridors – leading up to the meticulous penultimate climax when Dr. Frankenstein's creation slowly turns his face towards the camera.
Ironically, Frankenstein profits from the very qualities other critics have claimed drag it down. Its leaden mood, stagey acting and lack of a musical score make it all the more somber and bleak. Whale's camera is quite active throughout these funereal settings and suffers very little from the manacles inherent in other early talkies. In fact, practically all of the cinematic innovations credited to Whale's sequel Bride of Frankenstein are already here: the tracking camera, the sudden jumps from long-shot to close-up, the extreme high and low angles during the creation sequence, and the lurid sets with their demented religious icons.
At the same time, Whale flaunts his theatrical origins with a reverence for the stage. The very first frames when Edward Van Sloan (who plays Frankenstein's mentor, Dr. Waldman) confronts the footlights for his teasing introduction, and the later tracking shots along the opulent rooms of Baron Frankenstein's castle, remind us that this is, after all, nothing but artifice, a world where scenery is a trompe l'oeil projection of Dr. Frankenstein's subconscious fears.
Frankenstein still scares viewers because it works as both a horror film and a psychological study. As Frankenstein, Colin Clive, with his harsh enunciations and jittery motions, is perfect in his portrayal of a man beleaguered by twisted dreams and ambiguous morals. Is this really, as Shelley claimed, a story about the perils of hubris, or is it more concerned with a man apprehensive about falling into a connubial quagmire? By suggesting more of the latter, Whale may have directly borrowed from Thomas Edison's long lost silent version, which reportedly ends with a dissolve between the mirrored faces of Dr. Frankenstein and his Monster just before Elizabeth is about to be murdered. Edison allowed the creature to die so that the doctor could face up to marital obligations, but Whale suggests that Frankenstein's darker passions surpass the tedium Elizabeth (an appropriately bland role for Mae Clarke) has to offer him. In this regard, the Monster is less a sub-human fiend and more like the third party in a lover's triangle or quadrangle when we consider that Frankenstein's friend Victor Moritz (John Boles) has eyes on the future bride.
Whale's delight in lampooning "normal" sexual mores (a penchant culminating in his 1938 film Wives under Suspicion) is buttressed by Garrett Fort and Francis E. Farragoh's ambivalent script which questions how the characters really feel about one another. Elizabeth has countless anxieties about her nuptial partner and even seems coy when Victor vies for her affections. On the wedding day, when news hits that the Monster is loose, Whale inserts a curious close-up of Frankenstein's hands locking Elizabeth in her bridal chamber, suggesting perhaps that the doctor is unconsciously making her more vulnerable since the would-be killer will soon enter her room through the window. Off to reunite with his nemesis in a vigilante search, Frankenstein looks firmly into Victor's eyes while surrendering Elizabeth into his care. The scene ends with Victor creeping towards Elizabeth's room.
As a homewrecker, Frankenstein's Monster merits the humanity and dignity of Boris Karloff's performance, despite the grease paint, wire clamps, wax eyelids, and a 48-pound steel spine designed by Jack Pierce. Karloff's empathy is unfortunately diminished by the subplot in which Frankenstein's hunchback assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye as comic relief) unwittingly acquires a "criminal" brain from his boss, thereby ruining the notion that the Monster's brutality is a learned response.
Whale's film leaves us with the unsettling conclusion that the real monsters are the diurnal world's dim-witted denizens, a fact made more apparent when Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr) predicts that the townspeople revelling over his son's wedding will soon be fighting again. Hours later, the news of little Maria's murder turns the jocular crowd into a bloodthirsty mob. The recently restored footage (missing since its screen debut) of the Monster throwing Maria (Marilyn Harris) into a lake transpires so quickly and nonchalantly that the pedophile scenarios left to our imaginations all these years are debunked. Now we have proof that the child murder was an innocent error. Not content simply to cast his Monster as a pariah, Whale promotes him to a Christ figure in the final scene when the creation throws his creator from the abandoned windmill into the vengeful crowd. An extreme long-shot of the burning mill resembles the cross on Calvary. Though he disapproved of the tacked-on happy ending when Frankenstein survives his fall, Whale still achieved that supreme inversion of "good" and "evil" that makes the best horror films survive.
Essay by Joseph Lanza
Release Date: 1931
Starring: Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Edward Van Sloan, Dwight Frye, and Frederick Kerr
Director: James Whale
Writers: Garrett Fort, Francis Faragoh, and John L. Balderston, uncredited first draft by Robert Florey
Source Citation: Lanza, Joseph. "Frankenstein." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 432-435.