For Halloween themed entry into the Classic Film of the Week column, we have one of the most iconic visions of all time; Universal’s Frankenstein.
I always find it incredible when one person’s vision of something becomes a universally acknowledged symbol, look or institution. This is true of Coca Cola’s Santa Clause, Les Paul guitars and is most definitely true of the Universal studios Frankenstein character. Just look at the above image and tell me that whenever anyone mentions the word Frankenstein you don’t instantly picture that face. In fact don’t tell me that, because I won’t believe you.
The great thing about the movie itself is that despite being aware of all the parody and re-envisionings over the years it has lost none of its potency.
“Think of it. The brain of a dead man waiting to live again in a body I made with my own hands!”
Now I’m not going to sit here and tell you that it can hold up today as a genuinely scary movie. It can’t. In fact I would say this is the perfect horror film to show to children to get them accustomed to shock and suspense whilst never actually haunting their dreams and making them soil themselves. But then I don’t think the “horror” elements are what makes this story so powerful. It is the pathos that makes it work.
I totally understand why a young Guillermo Del Toro sat talking to monsters at night and making them his friends. the monster is a victim. Never given a chance to become anything good. Dr Henry Frankenstein (his creator) says that he “put the body together” himself and that it has “never yet lived”. But then upon creating life he wastes no time in torturing it. His mad laboratory assistant Fritz (AKA Igor) deliberately scares the ‘monster’ with flaming torches. It comes as no surprise then that the ‘monster’ is confused and angry; like a victim of domestic violence or a child suffering parental abuse. So why would he do anything else except lash out at the world?
The real tragedy comes in the quiet moments. When the sun first catches Frankenstein’s face he is at peace. He reaches up to it, unable to quantify but fully aware of its innate beauty. And when he watches flowers floating on the water he smiles, again not able to speak but emotionally connected to the world. All of this rests on the performance of the great Boris Karloff; a career defining effort that is not only great in terms of its ability to command empathy, but also in its (literally) towering presence.
As a counterpoint to the nuanced Karloff performance sits the downright insanity of the earlier mentioned Fritz (as played by Dwight Frye). It is odd to think that at this point the Igor type character hadn’t been done to death because it is as if Frye is committed to outdoing any other actor that would ever dare to mimic him in the future. And to be honest he fully succeeded. Intimidating, hilarious, moronic, pitiful, hammy and bat shit crazy are just a few of the traits he imbues into Fritz; all the while looking like Tom Hardy on a heavy night of cocaine!
I wonder what original audiences made of the film. Were they petrified? Did they want to see the ‘monster’ burn? Were they so scared by the image of a re-animated corpse with bolts in its neck that they were unable to see the real truth; that he never asked to be created and seemingly only existed to be persecuted. Maybe I’ll go round the local retirement homes and find out……..maybe not!
Either way this is a great movie and is a rare kind of horror film that focuses as much on its scares as it does on its social commentary.