Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Posted by on Dec 15, 2011 in Scary | 0 comments

Franken2

Disclaimer: Crazed doctors play god and make edgy homoerotic references.

While recent years have seen Batman and Spider-Man vie for superhero superiority at the box office, in 1931 the cat’s pajamas belonged to Dracula and Frankenstein – two rare smash hits in a long line of hit-and-miss horrors from Universal Studios. Both led to dozens of sequels (Son of Frankenstein, House of Frankenstein, etc.), remakes (Robert De Niro played the monster in 1994 and Andy Warhol even directed one), and parodies (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and Young Frankenstein), but Frankenstein’s legacy has far exceeded the fanged count and some have argued this 1931 original as the most important horror film ever made.

You all know the story very loosely based on Mary Shelley’s nightmare-inspired gothic novel. In the first film, a daffy doctor and his slouching servant steal a recently deceased corpse, reanimate it using an abnormal brain, and wade in their own Godliness until the monster wreaks havoc and they loathe in self-pity. In the second (and in many ways superior) film, we follow Frankenstein’s monster through a series of educational misadventures as two homoerotic scientists aim to create a mate for the now-speaking creature.

Though very few people know it, Franken1Shelley’s original conception for the monster was that of Adam (to enhance the “playing God” implications) and make-up genius Jack Pierce is credited for the big-boned, scarred, neck-bolted lug’s look. Of course, bit-part actor-turned superstar Boris Karloff filled the large shoes quite nicely, but the opening credits left an ominous “?” for the monster character (which suits him well since most people wouldn’t have known his name anyway).

The first film combined unbelievable sets and set pieces with impeccable lighting and editing – not to mention James Whale’s fantastic direction. Colin Clive gives an over-the-top performance as Dr. Frankenstein who famously belts out the line, “It’s alive! In the name of God – now I know what feels like to be God!” Indeed. This first film presents the moral, ethical, and religious implications of creating (and, for that matter, taking) life. As the doctor later says, “It was with these hands that I created him; and it is with these hands that I will destroy him.”

The sequel poses much more interesting questions, combines dark comedy with terror, and blatantly references homosexuality and necrophilia. As a new scientist, Dr. Proctorius, explains, “Our mad dream is only half-realized. Alone, you have created a man. Now, together, we will create his mate. …That should be really interesting.” And it certainly is. Elsa Lanchester’s characterization of the bride (once again a “?” in the opening credits) is one of cinema’s most memorable characters (despite only a few minutes of screen time) with her Nefirtiti hair and incessant hissing.

The homosexual references start right away with someone describing Proctorius as queer-looking; Proctorius asking Frankenstein to abandon his marriage, then visit his humble abode because he’ll be “interested in what I’ll show you;” and a blind man telling the monster “I shall look after you and you shall comfort me.” It’s shocking to see now, let alone back then, when viewers had the knowledge that director Whale was openly gay. The kids won’t get it, but you will and it’s absolutely fascinating. But don’t get the impression that Whale is pushing his own politics. At the very least he’s throwing in some fun jokes and at the very most he’s commenting on the film’s implication that creation/procreation only requires men.

So with the adult themes, great production value, and very few genuine scares, why would kids enjoy this? The strange appeal of Karloff’s monster in both films is the combination of terrifying power and child-like qualities (in the sequel he becomes a Christ-like figure and even speaks a few words). This creates a unique sort of empathy for the character, who in many ways is an anti-hero, as society and Dr. Frankenstein fulfill the role of the villain.

Kids will find themselves reacting in a very polarized fashion as they cover their eyes with fright in one scene and stretch out their arms to hug him in another. And hey, even if they don’t empathize with the friendless foe, at least they’ll wake you up in the middle of the evening with nightmares.

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