This month, as a countdown to Halloween, blogs from Robbins Realm will feature reviews of horror or supernatural films and television shows. In addition, there will be: one piece pertaining to a few short stories of a famous novelist; one television show with a Halloween theme, that is fun for the whole family; as well as one blog that will spotlight an individual who has made a significant impact in the horror genre. This will mark the third annual October that I am doing this.
One of the most indelible images in the annals of horror film cinema is the Frankenstein monster. The creature was created by English author Mary Shelly, in her gothic novel of the same name, that was first published in London in 1818. At the time, Shelly’s book was published anonymously; it wasn’t until the 1823 edition, published in France, that she received credit for her work. While this blog focuses in on director James Whale’s (The Invisible Man) film, that premiered on November 21, 1931, his was not the first time the story had been brought to the screen. A sixteen minute silent movie, directed by J. Searle Dawley, was produced for the Edison Company in 1910. Additionally, there was a feature length, 1915 silent film “Life Without a Soul” directed by Joseph W. Smiley, produced by the Ocean Film Corporation, all existing prints of which have unfortunately been lost.
Taking the iconic creature from page to screen was two time Academy Award nominee, John L. Balderston (The Bride of Frankenstein). The ideas for what was included in the film can be attributed to two different sources: Mary Shelly’s novel, and a stage play written by Peggy Webling. Contributions to the screenplay were also made by Garrett Fort (The Mark of Zorro), Francis Edward Faragoh (Little Caesar), Richard Schayer (The Cameraman), and although they did not receive credit, Robert Florey & John Russell. Upon its release, the seventy minute film was a critical and commercial success. Made for an estimated budget of just over two-hundred and ninety thousand dollars, the movie would go on to gross approximately twelve million dollars.
Before the credits even begin, there is a prologue delivered by actor Edward Van Sloan (Dracula), who portrays the character of Doctor Waldman in the film. The remarks are a warning to the audience as to the nature of the movie they are about to see:
“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 story 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.”
After the friendly warning, and the credits, credits that don’t include the identity of the actor playing the monster, the first scene takes place in a graveyard, during a funeral. Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), a brilliant scientist, and Fritz (Dwight Frye), his hunchbacked, dimwitted assistant, are hidden out of sight, watching. They are there to steal the corpse once the mourners leave. After the grave digger has performed his task of burying the body, Frankenstein and Fritz dig the coffin back up, and haul it away on a cart. While on their way back to Frankenstein’s laboratory, they come upon a man, who has been put to death by hanging. Fritz cuts the body down, but once it hits the ground, Frankenstein instructs him to leave it, because the neck is broken, thereby causing the brain he wants from the body, to be no good.
Frankenstein needs a brain as the final piece for the experiment he is conducting. He sends Fritz to his former school, Goldstadt Medical, to steal one. Fritz waits, as Dr. Waldman finishes delivering a lecture on the differences between a normal human brain and that of a criminal. Waldman is teaching his students about the distinctions between the frontal lobes of each of the brains. Once class is dismissed, Fritz opens a window and climbs into the room. He initially picks up the normal brain, but hearing a noise which frightens him, he drops it on the ground. Instead of just leaving, he opts to take the abnormal brain back to Dr. Frankenstein, failing to tell his employer what happened.
Henry Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) is worried for his well being. She hasn’t heard from him in months, and after receiving a letter from him, she can’t decipher what he is trying to convey to her. She only knows that he has isolated himself from her, and with the exception of Fritz, from everyone else as well. These are concerns which she relays to Victor (John Boles), Henry’s best friend. Victor informs Elizabeth that he did have a chance encounter with Henry, three weeks earlier, when he spotted his friend walking alone in the woods. The conversation was brief, basically Frankenstein telling Victor that no one was permitted to interrupt his work. The two set out, at Elizabeth’s insistence, to see Dr. Waldman, Henry’s professor and someone who he greatly admires. They hope he can provide them with the answers as to what, exactly, is going on with Henry. During this time, Victor lets it slip that he might not be such a good friend to Henry after all, as he makes his feelings of love known to Elizabeth.
Doctor Waldman is disturbed by the news about Henry. He speaks to the fact that Frankenstein is an extraordinarily intelligent man, but at the same time, an erratic person. The experiments he conducted pertaining to chemical galvanism and electro-biology, while at the medical school, had reached dangerous proportions. The young doctor’s desire to bring people back from the dead, and his uncaring attitude as to how the corpses were obtained for those purposes, was something the school could not tolerate. Waldman is not aware of what Henry is currently working on, until Elizabeth informs him of the little that she knows. She implores him to accompany her and Victor to Frankenstein’s laboratory.
Once there they are turned away by Fritz and Henry. If not for Elizabeth begging Frankenstein to give them shelter, from a raging storm that is taking place, he wouldn’t have let them in. Once inside, he lets Elizabeth, Victor, and Dr. Waldman know they must leave him alone while he finishes his work. Victor calls him crazy, which Frankenstein takes as an affront to the experiment he is doing. Henry escorts the unwelcomed guests up to his laboratory, and locks the door. On an operating table, under a sheet, lays a lifeless corpse, comprised of stolen body parts from different cadavers, that Frankenstein has stitched together. He explains to his former professor, how he took the knowledge Waldman imparted to him, and progressed beyond it. Henry permits Dr. Waldman to inspect the body before the table is lifted into the air on pulleys, and through an opening in the roof. Frankenstein is counting on the electrodes in the neck of the creature being struck enough times by lightning, in order to bring his creation to life. After the table is lowered back down, there is no sign of Frankenstein’s experiment having succeeded, until the creature’s right hand moves, indicating that it is stirring to life.
Henry Frankenstein: Look! It’s moving. It’s alive. It’s alive… It’s alive, it’s moving, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, IT’S ALIVE!
Victor Moritz: Henry – In the name of God!
Henry Frankenstein: Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!
(As an aside, the AFI (American Film Institute) voted the “It’s alive” line number forty-nine, out of the one hundred top movie quotes of all time. Additionally, Frankenstein was the first film to use the castle thunder sound effect).
Credit must definitely be given to two individuals, without whom this film would have never reached the heights that it has. The first is actor Boris Karloff (The Mummy), who while never uttering a single line of dialogue, breathed multi-faceted life into the creature. Karloff’s monster isn’t just a brute who murders people; in each instance that the creature acts aggressively, he is doing so out of self-preservation, self defense, or because he simply doesn’t have the capacity to think as a rational human being. Karloff wore a suit that was too small for him, in order to make his appearance seem larger. The boots that he used during filming, weighed a combined twenty-six pounds, and aided Karloff in terms of the lurching way the creature walks. The daily makeup sessions he endured, which lasted upwards of four hours, was a testament to his professionalism, as was the fact that he allowed dental work he had done to be removed, so it would give his face a more gaunt appearance. Secondly, gifted, makeup artist, Jack Pierce (The Wolf Man), who worked from sketches drawn by James Whale, was able to create the exact look the director wanted for the monster. A lesser talent might have made Karloff’s appearance come across as cartoonish or cheesy, but in Pierce’s capable hands, the monster’s image became iconic.
It is doubtful that anyone, but the youngest of children, will be scared while watching “Frankenstein.” The film, however, is extraordinarily important because of its historical context within the genre of horror. Every silent stalker, that is popular in modern day film, whether it be Michael Myers from the “Halloween” franchise or Jason Voorhees from the “Friday the 13th” movies, owe a debt to Shelly, Karloff, Pierce, and Whale, for creating the blueprint for their existence.