When I first decided to write about this classic, my thought was to call the piece, The Horror of Frankenstein. Then I remembered that title was used in a 1970 retelling of the story. That isn’t why I changed the title. I changed it because my perception of the movie changed as I watched it again—with a writer and filmmaker’s eye.
Growing up with the film and the story, I always thought of it as a horror—or “monster”—movie. Most of the tale’s many film adaptations—like the aforementioned Horror of Frankenstein—were indeed horror movies with all the tropes—scares, shocks, and disgust. Later, after reading Mary Shelly’s novel—I came to regard it as a prototype “mad scientist” Sci-Fi film, with enough horror to qualify as “Sci-Fi Horror.”
When I screened it again for this essay, I was struck by how little horror there is in the original film story. Sure, it features midnight scenes in a cemetery and beneath an occupied gallows, stolen brains, the creation of a fearsome monster, and a murdered child, but none of it that scary, shocking, or disgusting. I turned to IMDb, my go-to reference to see it’s “official” genre designation, and found it tagged as a “Drama, Horror, Romance.” That gave me pause and a new perspective.
It is indeed classic drama—a man explicitly and maniacally plays God and is nearly destroyed by his own hubris. It’s also a tragic drama about his Creature, abandoned by its feckless creator to wander from mishap to mishap until the creator returns with a mob to destroy it.
It’s also a romance—albeit unsatisfying—a man abandons his true love out of insane ambition and returns to her, broken and humbled. Complications ensue—his vengeful Creature assaults his fiancé—before a hopeful ending and a toast, “Here’s to a son to the House of Frankenstein.”
Between the drama and the romance, there is just enough horror to transform a dramatic romance into a dramatic horror romance.
As drama, the film has issues, the first being its protagonist. It sets up Henry Frankenstein, as a brilliant narcissist, a would-be “modern Prometheus”—the very subtitle of Mary Shelley’s novel. “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” His character peaks in the film’s 1st Turn—the archetypal creation scene in the mad scientist’s laboratory— “It’s alive!”
After that, Henry goes limp, degenerating into a meek, passive “daddy’s boy” and simpering romantic. Sure, he seeks revenge when the Creature attacks his fiancé, but only in the company of a mob, and then all he accomplishes is wandering off to fall into the Creature’s clutches. Henry’s no hero.
The Creature is a far better character—a tragic monstrous anti-hero. It is born in a blaze of lightning in the dark of night, then locked in the dark and tormented with blazing torches. It slays its tormentor and escapes to seek revenge on its creator. Most audiences come away feeling more sympathy for the Creature than for its creator—notwithstanding the death of a little girl—the Creature only wanted to see her float like the flowers. Say the name and what image comes immediately to mind? Not Henry! The Creature is the most—the only—empathetic character. We share in its terror at its horrible end. That’s probably why the name—Frankenstein—became attached to the “monster” almost immediately in common usage.
The real problem with the film as drama is that the Hollywood adaptation removed the novel’s tragic core—the death of both Henry’s little brother and his fiancé at the creature’s hand and Henry’s ultimate death in the far North on his epic and unsuccessful pursuit of his Creature. Remove tragedy from a tragic drama and you end with mere melodrama. Remove tragedy from the arc of a tragic hero and you end up with a whining lover boy—Henry, born again homeboy, recuperating in a paradisiacal garden, feted at his wedding—Young Frankenstein indeed.
You can, if so inclined, project some psychological or mythic tropes onto the drama. You could describe it in terms of Henry investing all his mania in his Creature, leaving him effectively denatured and the Creature free to act out the man’s darkest impulses—a child killer who attacks Henry’s fiancé. That would make the story similar to Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde.
As romance, the film is as limp as Henry. There’s never a doubt that his fiancé will marry him. It’s boy abandons girl, returns to girl and (after the mob dispatches the Creature) marries girl. Not much suspense emotion or drama (or anything else save a gorgeous wedding gown) in this romance.
Frankenstein (1931) is unsatisfactory as drama and romance and not horrific enough, especially by contemporary standards, to stand out as a horror film.
Why then call it a fantastic tale?
Why keep returning to it as a classic film, worthy of repeated screening, analysis and study?
Sometimes the synergy of less than brilliant parts results in a brilliant whole.
What elements make Frankenstein brilliant and fantastic?
It’s incredibly imaginative and fanciful, especially in its visual elements. It’s monochromatic art design and cinematography range from chiaroscuro nighttime exteriors that look like animated impressionist art, to a now-iconic mad-science laboratory, to softly lit romantic but realistic garden bower and sitting-room interiors. The visual contrasts highlight and heighten dramatic suspense.
The Creature’s rendering—in makeup, lighting, and camera angles—is so imaginative, so striking that it remains iconic after ninety years. It created a horror film archetype—the “walking dead” if you will—that still animates horror movies and TV series.
It’s a bizarre story— something we are not likely to encounter in real life and—in 1931—something most moviegoers had never seen even on the screen.
It’s settings and the Creature itself are exotic and unfamiliar—or were in 1931—nighttime cemeteries, a mad scientist’s laboratory full of sparking arcing electrical devices, even a charming—pre-Third Reich—Bavarian village.
You may argue that it’s hopelessly dated, archaic, primitive—clichéd. You can say that about much classic literature and film. The clichés you may cite are now clichés because they were so successfully first realized in the classic work. As my alter-ego DF Tims argues in a recent post, “Everything is a process,”—including a film—and “Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can understand any process in isolation” —“Context is king.” When considering a classic work, regard it in its original cultural context and evaluate it using timeless criteria.
One final criterion of a fantastic tale—it’s extraordinary. It stood out in 1931 and continues to do stand out in both popular culture and in my personal esteem.
The ultimate achievement and effect of this film is indeed fantastic.
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