I lived for Saturday mornings when I was a kid. Not for the cartoons, although I watched those. No, the reason I got up early on Saturday mornings and ran to the road to grab the paper was so I could pull out the TV listings and find out what movie would be featured on TBS’s Super Scary Saturday (hosted by Grandpa Munster). As I remember, they tended to be kaiju or Universal monster movies. Super Scary Saturday provided my first introduction to Frankenstein.
I’m going to do something a little bit different for the Halloween season. My intent has always been to feature for Throwback SF Thursday not just vintage speculative fiction, but newer works that callback to that fiction. I did something like that in reviewing Old Venus after reviewing Pirates of Venus, but frequently it’s going to be movies. It being the month of Halloween, I’m not just going to reread Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I’m going to look at how it has been depicted on film in three different eras. I will cover 1987’s Monster Squad, 2014’s I, Frankenstein, and the book itself, but I’m going to start by talking about the movie that did more than anything else to fix an idea of Frankenstein in the public mind—the 1931 version.
(Scheduling note: This will take up all of October, so reviews of Vance’s The Narrow Land, Skelos vol. 1, Cirsova vol. 3, Orwell’s 1984, and Manly Wade Wellman’s Who Fears the Devil will be pushed back.)
(I bought the blu-ray Universal Monsters: The Essential Collection for my re-watch. I haven’t watched the other seven movies—Dracula (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Wolf Man (1941), The Phantom of the Opera (1943), and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)—yet, but Frankenstein looks fantastic.)
Old movies get a bad rap for slow pacing, but at a 71-minute runtime Frankenstein is tight. A quick trigger warning and the opens with Frankenstein stealing a cadaver. The monster is reanimated in the first 15 minutes. Today I can only assume this would require a three-hour origin movie just to get there (shockingly, I, Frankenstein is only 93 minutes long).
Of course that comes at a cost. A few things were striking when I read the book for the first time after walking in with an image largely created by this movie. First was the artic opening (I want to read a novel just about that expedition). Second is that it may be more of a science fiction novel than a horror novel (not that those are in any way mutually exclusive). It really does deserve to be called the first science fiction novel. But the biggest difference is that the book is the story of Victor Frankenstein; the movie is the story of his monster.
Which isn’t to say that the movie doesn’t present a very different monster. And not just visually. Shelley’s monster was highly intelligent and eloquent, his malevolence a reaction to rejection by humanity. The movie version is by all indications a dumb brute. He kills the little girl entirely by ignorant accident. He only reacts violently for the first time after Fritz shoves a flaming torch in his face (Fritz is a dick). Which leads to him being chained up, drugged, restrained again, and eventually prepared for a dissection that presumably was going to start while he was still alive. No shit he responds badly. Boris Karloff never speaks, but he imbues the monster with enormous pathos. His makeup not only holds up close to a century later, but it allows considerable facial articulation. And Karloff throws his entire body into the performance, especially his hands. His screams when initially restrained are the most arresting thing in the entire movie.
The initial reveal of the monster is supposed to be shocking but loses its effect when the monster is so iconic. On the other hand, the monster holds up well over the rest of the movie because imitations so play up the goofy factor. The movie looks bad any time it has to get physical—whether it’s the monster trying to strangle someone or a wooden beam falling on him. Otherwise, though, it looks great. The lighthouse Frankenstein uses as his lab provides the perfect creepy atmosphere. The inside is always half hidden in shadows and the outside always buffeted by storms. The contrast with the picturesque town and bucolic farm is stark. The farmer walking through town with his dead daughter in his arms, townspeople’s celebrations slowly stopping as they notice him pass, may be my favorite scene from the entire movie. But Frankenstein’s exclamation that his creature is alive is iconic for good reason.
The opening explicitly ties that in with the themes of the movie. Frankenstein is “a man of science, who sought to create a man after his own image.” That sort of thing is doomed to end poorly. (That in and of itself is a callback to Shelley’s subtitle, “The Modern Prometheus,” as is, more subtly, his fear of fire.) Neither Frankenstein nor Dr. Waldman come off well here. After speaking staunchly in the creature’s favor, Frankenstein quickly loses faith and soon loses interest. Not by coincidence does that coincide with learning that he put an abnormal, criminal’s brain into the creature. Dr. Waldman is against the idea from the start, encouraging Frankenstein to destroy the creature and later attempting to dissect it. He rejects its humanity. The brain is that of a brute, “only evil can come of it.” The movie at least suggests he is wrong. The monster only acts violently when provoked and kills the girl by accident. And Dr. Waldman, unlike Frankenstein, suffers death for his sins.
That view of Frankenstein and his monster would dominate for decades. I will pick up half a century later next week with his depiction in Monster Squad.