Thursday, October 4, 2012

Frankenstein. (1931) James Whale

An October Chillers Delight.

I haven't seen Frankenstein in decades, probably not since I was a prepubescent freckle-faced punk. The last time I saw it was most likely on the Saturday afternoon Son of Svengoolie show, on WFLD Chicago. It would have aired sometime in the early eighties, probably having commercial breaks featuring Svengoolie himself, the weirdo/host-in-a-coffin who had rubber chickens whipped at him every weekend and continually made references to Berwyn. (audio: "BEHR-winnn!")

Screenings like these, fun as they may be, unfortunately do more damage than good to the general perception of a film like Frankenstein. I always knew the novel, first published by Mary Shelley in 1818, was more significant than shows like Svengoolie and their like deserved. But having not seen the original film as an adult, I didn't realize what an achievement the story is on screen. It's not just a classic novel -- it's a classic in cinema, a film that obviously set a high standard not just for horror, but for motion picture Story.

Described by Shelley, both as the author and a written-in character in Bride of Frankenstein, as, "A moral lesson of the punishment that befell a mortal man who dared to emulate God," the opening scenes of Frankenstein are immediately concerned with a religious milieu much larger than an average monster movie: sin, death and the grave, the grim reaper, the cross, robbing the grave, and taking an executed man down from a cross. From there, the film compares and contrasts science and faith (spread across the film in many obvious references); immortality and the end-all mystery of death
(Dr. Frankenstein cries at one point, "Now I know what it feels like to be God!"); creation vs. recreation (is Dr. Frankenstein a creation, too? Does his Creator have an opinion on his creation?); and nature vs. nurturing (the switching of the brains, not present in the book but added into the movie, reminds us of just how little we've learned in the past eighty years about the brain and how it functions). Each of these themes are transcendent. They transcend the boundaries of time. You find themes like this in much great literature throughout history. Is it any wonder this story has been around for 190 years? How many other monster movies have come and gone since Frankenstein was originally brought to the screen?

The idea, too, that this is a monster movie intrigues me when I consider who or what the real monster might be. Is it the creator or the created? Is it the stirred up mob with their fiery torches and barking dogs, chasing an ugly, newborn giant in the woods, trapped in mob mentality, aiming their venom at the wrong object?

Does a monster even see itself as a monster -- does it recognize how it's seen? A speechless brute in this film, Frankenstein's creation can't speak for himself. But in Bride of Frankenstein, he does learn to speak in small words and phrases (contrary to the original book, where he went on for pages in philosophical musings). One of the first words the creature learns is, "Friend."

Frankenstein is a story about a blundering humanity that would rather worry about the afterlife or chase fear than connect. It's incredible how relevant this theme still fits today. In a two-party system with a judgmental church, The Monster remains that thing on which you project your worries and your fears.

With stunning cinematography that moves and brings the creature to life, and a musical approach closer to silent cinema than modern scares, Frankenstein's remarkable achievement in tension comes close to rivaling that of Murnau's Nosferatu, of the silent era. Though Orlock might be seen as a creature of blood and death and Frankenstein's Monster might be seen as a creature of death and the brain, both creatures revolve around temptations to become immortal, the idea that it is possible to be like God. Both creatures reflect the first lie told to man, their stories using thousands year-old themes, as old as the third chapter in the Book of Genesis.

I had no idea the film was this important in the canon of horror, nor could I have ever known what a great film it is even outside its genre classification. I'm glad I revisited it as an adult. I've found a new classic that I love.

Reprinted from A Black and White February (2011).

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