Monday, 22 March 2010

Frankenstein

7. Frankenstein (1931)
Dir: James Whale

In my experience, the Horror genre is perhaps the most under-appreciated film genre amongst cinema snobs. True, the market has been flooded out by identical stalk-and-slash films or pointless American remakes of overrated Japanese chillers. There are also those who oversimplify the concept of horror films, seeing them as pointless exercises in the fantastical and grotesque. Again, many of them are but then every genre has its weak imitators of the pioneers and the greats. I've also genuinely heard someone in one breath wondering aloud why people would subject themselves to the negative emotions of fear and disgust and in the next extolling the virtues of the latest Weepie. No cathartic value in facing your fears then, but depressing yourself to the point of tears is A-OK!

For me, film genres all have the potential to offer us classics and the Horror genre has done so time and time again. Far more than just lascivious exercises in depravity and gore, at their best horror films compel us to face up to and explore our worst fears from the monsters of the Universal and Hammer Horror films to the madmen of John Carpenter's 'Halloween' (1978) or Alfred Hitchock's 'Psycho' (1960) to the intricately depicted psychological meltdowns of Roman Polanski's 'Repulsion' (1965) and Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining' (1980). If the point of great art is to explore human experience and emotion in all its facets then how can we possibly omit these creeping, festering fears from discussion?

When Universal first released James Whale's brilliant 'Frankenstein' in 1931, they were nervous enough about the power of its horrific story to tack on a (admittedly rather tongue-in-cheek) disclaimer at the beginning, in which actor Edward Van Sloan warns viewers of a nervous disposition that they may wish to leave the screening. While many of the Universal horrors are now considered tame enough to be shown on afternoon television (where I first saw 'Frankenstein'), in 1931 it is not hard to see how some of this materiel would have seemed horrific to cinema-goers to whom Horror was still a fairly new genre. For instance, 'Frankenstein' opens with a sombre funeral scene but the mood changes to one of grisly humour as the crazed Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his moronic assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye) descend upon the newly buried corpse in an attempt to find a brain for their creation, a quest which also takes them to a recently utilised gallows and a science lab, in which Fritz hilariously destroys a brain labelled 'NORMAL BRAIN' and has to steal another labelled, predictably enough, 'ABNORMAL BRAIN'.

The humour (which may well be completely unintentional) of these opening scenes soon gives way to a deadly serious, beautifully realised mood of encroaching madness and terror, an atmosphere largely set by Colin Clive's wonderfully baroque performance as Henry Frankenstein. Dwight Frye, who plays the hunchbacked Fritz, also gave a mesmerising performance as a madman in Universal's previous horror 'Dracula' (1931) but his was a deliberately over-the-top and hilarious turn. Clive strikes exactly the right note as Dr. Frankenstein, portraying his temporary insanity as largely contained, only spilling forth during moments of revelation (the famous "It's alive... It's aliiiiiiiive" sequence, which remains powerful despite the many, many parodies, again thanks to Clive's superb thesping). Clive's central performance contrasts with and makes up for the blandness of the majority of the other roles. These include Mae Clarke as Frankenstein's fiance Elizabeth, John Boles as his friend Victor Moritz and Frederick Kerr as his father. Clarke is decent though she is given little to do until her big screaming scene with the monster, while Boles manages to be dreadful in a part which demands practically nothing of him. His presence in the narrative is completely unnecessary and a potential love-triangle plot that is hinted at early on comes to absolutely nothing. Kerr, meanwhile, is limited to a few bits of feeble comedy relief which he plays relatively well but which are at odds with the main tone of the picture.

All these little quibbles are forgotten, however, when we factor in the film's other great performance. Boris Karloff as The Monster is simply astonishing. Aided by an exquisite make-up job by Jack Pierce (also responsible for the frankly ridiculous make-up in Universal's subsequent 'The Wolf Man' (1941)), Karloff sets about creating the most memorable monster that ever stalked the screen. As a character, Frankenstein's monster is a blessing for an actor of Karloff's subtlety. Unlike Bela Lugosi's one-note portrayal of Dracula or Lon Chaney Jr.'s lifeless Wolf Man, Karloff's Frankenstein is at once a sympathetic victim of circumstance. Like a lost, bewildered child, the monster only kills out of confusion, self-defense or his tragic inability to determine right from wrong. Karloff is touchingly infantile as he reaches up towards the sun in an attempt to grab it or when (in the film's most controversial, moving and horrific scene, often cut from the film for many years) he accidentally drowns a young girl who genuinely wants to befriend him when he misunderstands a game they are playing.

Throughout these misadventures, Karloff communicates the character beautifully through expressions, movement and unintelligible grunts and groans. The tiniest of half smiles he cracks when presented with a flower is incredibly touching, as is the innocent, uncomprehending terror he portrays as he is hunted down by a torch-wielding mob in the film's famous climax. Although Universal weakened the film by insisting that a happy ending be tacked on, in which Henry Frankenstein recovers from both his run in with the monster and his temporary insanity, it was never Henry for whom the audience was rooting. By the picture's end, only the hardest hearted of viewers could not find themselves hoping for the monster to escape the vigilantes whose anger he does not have the capacity to understand.

Many of the Universal Horrors, though still beloved by many to this day, have not aged particularly well. Whale's 'Frankenstein' (and it's classic sequel 'Bride of Frankenstein' (1935)), however, is an exception. It manages to sidestep the campiness and unconvincingness of 'Dracula' and 'The Wolf Man' thanks to the brilliant performances of Clive and Karloff and the intensely atmospheric direction of James Whale. Whale looked, for inspiration, to silent German expressionist classics such as FW Murnau's 'Nosferatu' (1922) and Robert Weine's 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' (1920), far more chillingly dreamlike and disturbingly memorable landmarks than the early Hollywood efforts of the sound-era. The result is a horror masterpiece filled with explorations of human shortcomings that characterise some of the best horror films and a level of real pathos that is rarely present in the genre.

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