Reviews

Reviews

Frankenstein

Frankenstein

James Whale

USA, 1931

Credits

Review by Leo Goldsmith

Posted on 04 October 2005

Source Universal DVD

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From HAL to Humpty-Dumpty, Pinocchio to the Pet Sematary, the desire to give life to nonliving matter is a persistent theme in our cultural traditions. And while there are those happy examples of giving or restoring life to the inanimate (usually the province of fairy tales), playing God is more often viewed as a bad idea, and the horror film is all too painfully aware of this. Tales of reanimation, of summoning the dead back from the grave, are a staple of the genre. And with special emphasis on the foundational reanimation myth — Frankenstein — each Wednesday of this month will be devoted to the idea of digging up corpses, sewing them together, and endowing them once again with life. And, of course, all of the horrible things that happen as a result.


Apart from its general themes and the famously formidable surname, Whale’s Frankenstein bears almost no resemblance to Mary Shelley’s. And this is not entirely for the worst. Shelley’s novel is a work of High Romanticism, concerned with the power of Nature, knowledge, hubris, and other such weighty themes. Whale is interested in spectacle, and his film marries Shelley’s grand motifs with a visual style drawn from German Expressionist film. In both romantic and expressionistic modes, landscape is closely linked to interior states, and here the dead trees, the distant black hills, and the grey, menacing clouds prime the viewer for terror in every frame of the film. Once inside the doctor’s watchtower laboratory (cum dungeon), winding staircases, impossibly canted masonry, and shadows (both cast and painted) presage enough evil to become the stylistic mainstays of an entire genre.

But where exactly is the evil? What is perhaps so singularly fascinating about the Frankenstein story is the question of who the villain is: is it the murderous, brutish monster? Or the egoistic grad student of “chemical galvanism and electrobiology” who has called it into being? This ambiguity would seem to account for the perpetual confusion over the bearer of the name “Frankenstein”; so many always seem to forget whether it refers to the creature or the creator. The answer is, of course, both. The two characters are so intricately bound to each other — as father and son, and as doubles for each other — that they are each hero and villain interchangeably. In the film’s hasty happy ending, one cannot help but discern a touch of grisly irony in the words of the doctor’s father as he toasts “to a son for the house of Frankenstein.”

Here again, along with thunderstorms and mad scientists, Whale identifies another common interest of English Romanticism and German Expressionism: the doppelganger. And while the film does not play upon the conventional uses of this trope (the monster doesn’t quite act out the repressed desires of his creator, for example), it nonetheless frustrates the viewer’s sense of whom to root for. Colin Clive is a drab leading man in his amorous moments and a bit of a creep at others; and Boris Karloff’s performance swings wildly from catatonic to brutal to downright goofy. The realization of the monster often seems dated and campy today, but there are still occasional subtleties (Karloff’s strangely feminine hands, his heavy-lidded stare) that instill the creature with pathos.

It is this strange pity that the monster evokes that would seem to make this particular story so enduring. If perhaps we fancy the notion of reviving deceased relatives or creating life anew, we nonetheless feel sorry for the poor creature pulled so unnaturally back from the Great Beyond. The idea of reanimation — like the pomp of funerals, in La Rochefoucauld’s famous maxim — has more regard to the vanity of the living than the honor of the dead. And so, while we may abhor the monster’s tossing a little girl into a lake (that is, if we don’t laugh), we positively cheer when he throws Frankenstein, like a rag-doll, off the top of a burning windmill.

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