Family Fears: “It’s Alive!

Boris Karloff Frankenstein Close Up
Nosferatu – A Hundred Years of Frights!

Originally this week was going to involve some discussion on the Universal Classic Monster movies like Dracula, The Wolf Man, and maybe even the Bud Abbott and Lou Costello “Meet the Monsters” series. But upon reflection, considering I’m planning on (possibly) doing an article about an entire actor next, I felt I should cover a single movie from an early director who had a huge influence over the horror genre. Plus, this movie is definitely appropriate for family viewing! Readers, let me introduce you to James Whale and his classic, Frankenstein

A veteran of the First World War and a British man from a working-class background, Whale became arguably the first true auteur director of the horror film. It was the talkie era, and audiences had just been thrilled by Dracula a year before. Whale had come to America to make musicals and war films, which were clearly his more personal projects. However, when Universal studio head Carl Laemmle wanted to make an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the big follow-up to Dracula, he turned to Whale. Frankenstein was a major success, and Laemmle would rehire our friend Jimmy for three more all-time horror classics. With these at his back along with many other projects, Whale had a very strong and prosperous career. But unfortunately, his life and career came to a close when he ended his life by drowning in his swimming pool. The first openly gay director in Hollywood, Whale (at least to this writer’s eyes) seemed to struggle with his place in the world as well as how hard life was for him in the movie business. He’d had several dreams shattered. He was well-liked but lonely. And yet, because of his genius, we have an amazing legacy left to us as a gift from one of the greatest early cinematic talents of the golden age. 

With that context to guide us, we must move on to the movie. Maybe the most influential and recognizable horror film in history, this is a true classic. If you want to be critical, there are dated elements that bring the movie down a bit. For instance, there are bits of editing that probably wouldn’t have turned an eye back in the day that impede somewhat on its effectiveness to a postmodern audience. There are a few things that feel inconsistent with its message that bother me a bit. And still, this is a masterpiece.

We all know the story so I won’t waste words on that, but we all might not know how this all came together. To remedy that, let’s look at what makes this movie work. Starting with the special effects of Jack B. Pierce is a no-brainer. This monster is simply the most iconic creature-feature image in cinema. I mean, who doesn’t know what Frankenstein’s Monster looks like? But a closer look reveals how good the effects really are. Pierce painted Boris Karloff’s skin green so it would show up as a sickly pale-gray onscreen, giving the effect that he was stuck at an early part of deathly decomposition. Add in the scars on his head, the shading around the eyes, and heavy eyelid makeup, plus Karloff’s genius idea to remove his dental plate so his cheek would sink in, and you’ve got a very scary image. I don’t think contemporary audiences had ever seen anything so horrible—and yet, he’s human enough that we feel sorry for him at times. 

Boris Karloff in James Whale Frankenstein

Largely that bit comes from Karloff. He’s truly a master performer, scary when he needs to be and puppy-dog-like — or even infantile! — when that’s the goal. There’s one particular scene where they open up the skylight above the Monster while he’s still in Frankenstein’s lab, and the way Karloff plays it is like he’s looking up into the very face of God. He stretches his hands up, as if to reach the Creator, and before he can ascend Frankenstein shuts him back in. It’s tragic. It’s beautiful. It’s the essence of the film. 

There are other great performances here, though, like Colin Clive as the title character, who plays the role with equal maddened menace and broken pathos. Then you’ve got Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant Fritz, played by Dwight Frye, who gives a stellar supporting performance. I also think this is Edward Van Sloane’s best monster movie role, playing Frankenstein’s mentor. But we must go on to Jimmy. 

I think what Whale really brings to this movie is energy. While, for example, Dracula is a good mood piece (well, for the first twenty minutes or so), it plods really slowly and feels oppressively stage bound. In Frankenstein, Whale uses his camera and his editor and the spaces he’s been given to work with to fill the screen at every moment with interesting visuals and spooky atmosphere. There are some great uses of framing here that really show how visually-oriented a man Whale was. Even when the camera isn’t moving all that much, Whale refuses to simply give “visual information”. Instead, he uses canted angles and shafts of light and shadow to make nearly every image visually stunning. I think this is particularly good in a scene near the middle where the monster is shackled and trying desperately to break out. In fact, I just can’t explain more except to say it’s like something out of Dr. Caligari. Just beautiful.

Now, besides some thematic elements I’d rate this movie 100% viewable for kids. If you’re going to show your children any monster movie this October, I beg you, let it be this one. If you’ve got the time, this movie’s sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, is kind of like the Gremlins 2 of this series. It’s more subversive, more adult, and I think creepier. But just for the themes, maybe preview that one before throwing it on for the kids. But hey, guys, sometimes you just need to watch a movie with YOUR Bride!

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Stephen McFerron Christian Podcast Cinematic Doctrine

Stephen McFerron likes movies. It’s that simple. From the lowest depths of the drive-in to the highest peaks of arthouse; the grand golden age to superhero spectacles, he’s all in! Since watching Gremlins and Jaws at a young age, Stephen has had an appetite for the strange and fantastic, as well as the old! If you’re here to explore movie history, or learn more about the best of today, Stephen’s your guide! He may even say something mildly profound along the way… if he’s lucky!

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