Thursday, November 05, 2009
Movie Time: Rewind : Frankenstein
So with it being Halloween (okay, sorry I was a little lat eon posting this) I thought I would take a look at one of my favorite Halloween movies, 1931's Frankenstein, by James Whale and starring one of the kings of monster movies, the indelible Boris Karloff. Next to Dracula, Frankenstein may be the most universally recognized monster ever put on film. I should point out that the only reason I went with Frankenstein this year over that film is that last Halloween I put the spotlight on Dracula's director Ted Browning with his film Freaks.
Universal Picture established the horror genre throughout the 1930's and into the early 1940's with it's stable of great horror icons, like Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, and his son, Lon Chaney, Jr. Teaming these actors with their collection of great movie monster properties, like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Wolf-Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and so on, Universal was the pre-emanate studio for horror. What I loved about Frankenstein, and the other early 1930's films produced is that they are all pre-Hayes Code films, meaning made before they instituted the motion picture rating system. These films tend to be very sensational (for the time) and exploitative, the likes that won't be seen again until the independent film rush of the late 50's and early 1960's.
Let's dive deeper in to the story of Frankenstein, I think a tale we all know very well. Scientist Victor Frankenstein discovers the ability to re-animate dead tissue and decides to create life. Using a body salvaged from several different corpses, the doctor and his assistant (named Fritz in this film, though displaying all the qualities of the character of Igor that will eventually become ubiquitous with the film) they discover they still need a brain. Fritz is sent t get the brain of a former colleague of the doctor's brain who has passed on, but he damages the brain and takes a different one. Using the doctor's technology the duo re-animate the monster in one of the screens most famous scenes. Unfortunately they realize they have created a monster, and lock the beast away. Fritz mercilessly teases the creature, until he revolts and escapes, finding a young girl on the edge of a lake, whom he bonds with, then kills in the lake. Dr. Frankenstein tries to move on with his life and find happiness in marriage, only to discover that his monster still hunts for him. Frankenstein leads the angry mob of townsfolk after the monster, culminating in a final battle an an old mill.
Like I said, a story we all know very well. First off you have to look at the hype surrounding the film. The studio didn't release any photos of the monster and many people speculated that Universals biggest star, Lugosi, was set to play the monster. Frankenstein became the signature role for Karloff, which really launched him into continued success for Universal throughout his career. The make up and effects at the time were cutting edge, and I really think the make up still hold up on Karloff today. Designed by Jack Pierce, with input by director James Whale, they created the signature flat head and neck bolts that is now synonymous with the character. Pierce would also design Lon Chaney's Wolf Man make-up, as well as Karloff again in The Mummy. Legend has it that it was after the make-up tests, which where found to be disastrous, that Lugosi was removed from the project, opening it up for Karloff.
The impact of director James Whale can't be denied either. Whale directed several hits in the early 1930's, becoming one of Universals go to guys for horror. He made not only Frankenstein, but the sequel Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Man in the Iron Mask, The Old Dark House (which launched the haunted House genre of films) and a very off cast success for him, the musical Show Boat. While many consider Whale's sequel, Bride of Frankenstein his masterpiece (and most successful picture) I love the original. Unfortunately by the late 1930's and into the early 40's, Whale's career stalled, being relegated to a string of unsuccessful B pictures before retiring from film all together. You can really find a lot of Whale's personal life in his films, persecution, fear, and pain. Even loneliness and abandonment, issues he struggled with in life. Whale was a homosexual, forced to keep his orientation a secret, many believed that this was a contributing factor to his suicide in the 1950's. A movie starring Ian McKellan as Whale with Brendan Fraser called Gods and Monsters tells the tale of Whale's final days.
Whale changed a lot of the books original plot to fit his vision of the film. There are elements from author Mary Shelley's book that are skipped or truncated to fit into the film. Really I think Whale was boiling the film down to the base elements, using things from his own life to create a movie that wasn't trapped by the Victorian language and make it something that audiences could relate to. Shelley's beast teaches himself to read and rationalize his violent behavior by the treatment he has received. In this version the "bad brain" is the factor that makes the creature a monster. I also think that creating this silent and imposing creature really added to the mytholgy that Whale was looking for. For my money, Karloff is far more menacing barely speaking than delivering speeches.
This film, along with Dracula, really launched Universals success throughout the Depression. It helped to create a genre of films that are still prevalent today. Horror is not one of my favorite genres, but anytime any of the great classic horror films comes up, I watch them. Frankenstein is one of the best films sof its time, a classic that withstands the years because it's theme is something we all can relate to. My Halloween pick this year is Universals Frankenstein from 1931, by director James Whale and starring Boris Karloff. If you have not seen it, you are missing out.
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