“Frankenstein” was the classic movie monster that has never really gotten a decent update. There have been many witches and vampires TV shows and movies over the years, as well as werewolves and zombies. (How long has “The Walking Dead” been running now?) But Frankenstein was the one that stayed like he was, as that 1930s era iconic persona.
And Frankenstein has become a short hand in popular culture: “Misunderstood wretched monster created by science and the hubris of man,” is probably it. And he is kind of a funny character and relatable. He awkwardly roams through the countryside and he is very straightforward in how he tries to relate to people. In the second movie, he meets a hermit in the woods who finally treats him well, gives him shelter, food, wine. “Wine! Good!” he shouts.
But it’s only when you get into the wrong state of mind and watch Frankenstein – or maybe the right state of mind – that you see more clearly why it’s so horrifying.
Frankenstein, directed by James Whale and released in 1931, is relentlessly bleak. It’s a very short movie that’s just 70 minutes long. It’s so simple that it’s stark. The sets are gothic, but not theatrical, so it’s almost like you’re peering into this creepy world instead of having a story of it be told to you. Frankenstein has no big cinematic flourishes. It doesn’t even seem to try to entertain. It does not try to create sympathy for the monster or make his motivations very obvious. The monster, played by Boris Karloff, runs through everything, destroys everything, kills violently and at random and without sympathy.
And for me, the two scenes of Frankenstein meeting the little girl by the lake and the scene of her father carrying her body through the streets of the town are a couple of the most morbid and creepy scenes I remember seeing in movies.
In those two scenes, you catch a whiff of the violence and morbidity that was about to break out in the world in the 1930s. That’s the kind of moment in a movie that I really wonder what kind of human weakness and darkness World War II grew out of. It’s also a moment in that movie that makes me think of how much was transformed after World War II, in movies like “The Sound of Music.”
It’s not until the second Frankenstein movie that you start to understand what was going on.
When the monster first emerges, he gestures toward Dr. Frankenstein. It’s a gesture he makes more of in the second movie, especially in the scenes with the hermit in the woods. Hands open, he seems to say, “What do you want? What should I do?”
The ability to love and to relate is what this monster-man created by science wanted, but just couldn’t seem to get, even when his inventor makes him a bride.
“The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935) is a very different movie from Frankenstein. By the time this movie was made, the Frankenstein story became more theatrical and the “It’s alive!” line was performed with more fun. The movie is also more accessible and more real than the original Frankenstein. In the scene when the Bride comes alive, you can almost smell the metal and smoke in the room, the electricity and power in the technology. The original Frankenstein had conveyed a damp, creepy tower, and the power in that moment was more metaphoric – and that’s more the Frankenstein in the popular imagination.
The Bride, the havoc she could have wreaked. She doesn’t appear until the last 10 minutes of the movie, with that electrified hair and white streaks like lightning bolts. She looks around, and you see she’s obviously a different creature from Frankenstein. Maybe, actually more monstrous.
In the Frankenstein movie, when he emerges, he gestures toward the sun, and he opens his hands. When the Bride steps forward, she looks down and then looks up, not at sunlight, but up the tower where lightning would have struck her.
The monster approaches her, and she shrieks at him, and the shriek comes out unexpectedly, horrifyingly like a squeak, half machine, half animal.
Those 10 minutes are filled with mystery that was never explored, but still surprisingly relevant and alive (“Aliiive!”).
You wonder how much the movies in that era prepared people for war and for everything that was built afterward. In the moment when the Bride looks around and stares, there are so many questions: “What does this mean? What is this science or magic? What is it going to do with me? What am I?”
In that moment, you see all of the technology that followed in the 20th Century and the human instinct for its power, for its ability to transform, and to marvel at it.
And, here is a major spoiler: The same actress, Elsa Lanchester, played both the Bride and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley at the beginning of the movie.
Maybe during the making of this classic, how it all came together, the director and the actors had an instinct for some truth.