It’s alive! An elegant declaration of mad-scientific achievement, that. Dr. Frankenstein’s (Colin Clive) terse interjection means more to horror-movie lore than all the chainsaw gorefests and Michael Myers clones that the slick John Carpenters in the “sequel industry” ever reinvented. Still, the original Frankenstein is a bit stiff and blockheaded at times and should probably best be known as the prequel to the magnificent Bride of Frankenstein, which is doubtless among the greatest horror movies ever made. This first installment seems pedestrian by comparison, its script often awkward and prosaic despite a few iconic moments (like the above-cited declaration of success). Nevertheless, the melodrama is sure to elicit a few chuckles from the camp-inclined, and its contorted camera angles (particularly in the tower) and close-ups may even raise the occasional hackle. In short, it’s a pretty respectable father of the bride.
Like the prophetic novel of Mary Shelley on which it’s based, Whale explores the premise that evil is attributable to mankind’s innate hubris in presuming that the power of technology, as the new enlightenment, was boundless (an idea that became fashionable in the nineteenth century) and could even be harnessed to create life from scratch. In the words of the deranged doctor, “Now I know what it feels like to be God.” As the serpent in the garden might have said, such life-giving power constitutes the knowledge that God didn’t want to reveal to Adam and Eve lest they become like Him. But even a titan is no match for a god: Prometheus attempted to wield Zeus’s sacred fire (The Modern Prometheus was the alternate title of Shelley’s work, an allusion to Prometheus Bound by the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus) and was chained to a rock for his transgression. Analogously, the mad doctor flaunts the divine lightning to spark his creation into being, then cannot control him and is indirectly responsible for the deaths that result.
Yet the monster (Boris Karloff), fitted with the stolen brain of a criminal, is not the savage brute we might expect but a pitiable, misunderstood creature. His actions are not wicked but a reflection of man’s own fear and hypocrisy. Like a wild animal, he has a primordial fear of fire and lashes out when confronted with torches by the doctor’s hunchbacked assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye), whom the monster later hangs from a noose. We don’t really see the monster’s true nature until near the end of the film when he escapes to the outside world from his tower prison. By a lake in a nearby village he meets a little girl who befriends him by offering him a white flower. Overjoyed that he has finally discovered another being who understands him and wants to be his friend, he picks her up and tosses her into the lake, accidentally drowning her, then runs away screaming in terror. Despite the unfortunate outcome, in this scene the film finally removes from our eyes the veil that had caused us to side with the assessment of Frankenstein’s mentor, Professor Waldman, (Edward van Sloan), that the monster is dangerous and must be destroyed. We are aided in this realization by Karloff’s sympathetic performance. His head might look like a concrete block, but his facial expressions are remarkably flexible, vacillating between foreboding, rage, and even joy with ease.
The film is often weighed down, however, by the treacly melodrama involving Frankenstein and his fiancée Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), whose delivery is particularly monotonal and studied. Though too engrossed in his work to think about his betrothed at the film’s outset, Frankenstein has a convenient change of heart when his creation doesn’t turn out as he’s hoped. At one point, the two sit across from each other at a table on the terrace, sipping cocktails and exchanging insipid dialogue about how wonderful it is to finally be together. There’s just one incongruity: egomaniacal mad scientists don’t have changes of heart and they certainly don’t care about women. Their minds have but one purpose: machinations. Witness the demented Doctor Pretorius in Bride.
Granted, it may have been Whale’s intention to simply establish his primary cast and plot before developing them in the sequel. Despite laying the groundwork for the ingenious Bride, however, Frankenstein fails to ultimately find the central coherency that would have individually made it a great film.
Joe’s Grade: B