It's Alive...It's Alive. It's Alive!: Frankenstein (1931)

Well it was purely serendipitous, it is nonetheless fitting that my last blog post for the horror marathon this month is devoted to the phenomenal and eerie mood piece that is Universal's 1931 Frankenstein.  Coming out the same year as the company's other famous monster movie Dracula the two depict the highest ends of their genres possibilities, particularly for the era.  Both look sumptuous in their recent high definition upgrades, seeping off the screen and asking viewers to consider how and what shocks them about the cinema going experience, a rather intrusive act for a time when sound had just begun to emerge within filmmaking.  Frankenstein is most certainly on no level with its follow-up Bride of Frankenstein, however, comparisons between the two would be foolish, particularly since the later is one of the highest achievements ever reached in film.  Here under James Whale's direction the pieces of the film come together in wildly inventive and engaging ways, wholly equating to every aspect and understanding of how a film should exist on screen, combining stunning performance, inconceivably evasive lighting and cinematography and enough of a breaking away from the literary material to still provide it with a sense of permanence, while being accessible without having read the text.  It also goes without say that Boris Karloff steals the show here, sure it, as is the book, is only minimally concerned with the experiences of the monster, but the screen time he does possess, including one of the most infamous moments in cinema history are timeless and evocative, made all the more so by the crisp and cinematic new transfer.  I found myself thinking while watching the film that this work has all the audacity and cinematic inventiveness of the most recent critically-acclaimed blockbusters, taking no less a risk with technology than say Gravity, or being no less meticulous in its composition than Inception.  Yet, where in the previous two films, less so for Inception, story and genuine emotion are lost in the overt visual and psychological exploitation of the film, Frankenstein is work on a much purer and more rewarding level of reactionary filmmaking, explaining how it and many of the other Universal monster movies have managed to attain and continually retain such a degree of timelessness.

Frankenstein begins not in the story, but with an unnamed gentleman stepping through a curtain and warning audiences that the cinematic experience they are about to undertake will be unlike anything they have previously encountered, something that will both shock and terrify.  This act draws upon the theatricality of it and the medium of film in general, only to constantly push away from it once the film proper begins, with images of Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his hunch-backed assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) prowling about a graveyard late at night in search of a recently deceased human brain, passing on a hung suicide victim due this broken neck threatening the value of the brain.  After obtaining a brain from a medical school, Henry's fiancee Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) becomes concerned with his constant involvement in experiments, thus recruiting the help of Frankenstein's old professor Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) to help deter his preoccupation with the creatures of his experiments.  Arriving at his laboratory, Waldman, Frankenstein and others discover the scientist feverishly at work attempting to reanimate a corpse that is comprised of various body parts and a brain obtained from Waldman's classroom.  Through the use of natural technology, Frankenstein is able to do so, bring to live his Monster (Boris Karloff) a barbaric beast that, nonetheless, has a considerable degree of intelligence, as well as a desire to destroy, after it is made known that the brain implanted into the monster was one of the abnormal, therefore having a much higher desire to harm.  After a tough but valiant effort to subdue the Monster, Frankenstein leaves his laboratory and promises to place all his care into preparing for his wedding, completely ignoring the presence of the Monster in favor of Elizabeth.  This choice proves foolish as the Monster eventually breaks free and begins to roam the countryside, at one point meeting a girl named Maria (Marilyn Harris) who instantly befriends the Monster, teaching him how to make flowers float in the water, but when the Monster mistakes his trick for something that can also work on Maria, the results are dire, resulting in his being chased by an angry town mob.  Frankenstein returns in an attempt to again subdue the Monster, although it proves unsuccessful and the Monster is ultimately burned to re-death in a fiery windmill grave, while a recovering Frankenstein is left to focus fully on him upcoming wedding.

The great question in literary theory since the release of Shelly's classic novel is as to what exactly Frankenstein's Monster is intended to represent and many readings have emerge from the historical approach to the outwardly psychoanalytic, all pulling from various sources and making astute and plausible arguments to its metaphor and implications.  I want to entrench myself within the camp of the late Alexander Doty and suggest that one must read the text, in particular this film, against the grain and lift from it a narrative of queer identity and its violent suppression, wherein the Monster represents the young Frankenstein attempting to draw attention to his queer desire only to have society (i.e. his father, professor and fiancee) suggest that such desires are not only bad, but literally monstrous.  Keeping this in mind then, the navigation of the Monster, whose "abnormal" brain purportedly causes him to act out differently really proves to be quite similar to humans, whose reactions to being caged up and taunted with fire would, in all likelihood, be quite similar to the frustrations of the Monster.  In this reading it is also important to remember that Frankenstein functions far differently than other horror films, first because Frankenstein is only minimally about the Monster, and second, when the Monster does emerge it is in an almost ephemeral manner, as though to be a passing reminder of some threat to others' livelihood.  This is no more obvious than in the scene when the Monster scales a wall to enter into Elizabeth's room, only to have her arise from her bed unannounced before it can strike her.  Extending the queer metaphor, the Monster is present, but Elizabeth chooses to play ignorant to the fact, instead seeking solace in heteronormative constructs, hoping that the Monster, like Frankenstein's queerness will magically disappear.  The laboratory that Frankenstein resides in becomes his safe space, adding a tense, but present, layer of the homosocial bond between himself and Fritz, one that takes on a bizarre servant master element as well.  Of course, Shelly's novel, as well as Whale's film exist in a time when homosexuality, and any non-normative sexual identity were not only socially condemned, but also deemed scientifically disturbing, so queerness in such a context must be destroyed and in the case of this film it is in the most violent and fiery of manners, moving the film into a final moment of the idyllic, emphasized by a return to natural soft lighting and a private domestic space where Frankenstein is not only the object of his fiancee's affections, but a bevy of attractive nurses as well.

Key Scene:  The Monster's encounter with Maria in all its latent tragedy still manages to be one of the most moving scenes in all of cinema.

I just picked up a great deal on the Universal Classic Monsters bluray boxset.  Keep an eye out for it to go on sale again, it is as worthy an investment as one can find.


  1. Yes, that key scene always gets to me. I never really thought about Frankenstein's symbolic value, but the shoe does fit anti-gay themes. The main thing that always speaks to me is that Frankenstein isn't the monster, but the people are. The movie 'Gods and Monsters' says a lot about James Whale, so I think it's imperative for people to see that film, (or read the novel it's based on), and then watch his movies.

    Great review :)

    1. Gods and Monsters. On it. Thanks for stopping by, and glad to know there is love for James Whale in the world!