Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Surprisingly Beautiful Monster

I've been working to watch every film on the AFI Top 100 list for a couple years now. The latest film knocked off my To See list was James Whale's Frankenstein. James Whale had built his career from making war films and when Universal offered him the chance to make a monster picture, he jumped at the chance. As pre-production began, the adaptation of Mary Shelly's novel proved to differ quite a bit from the source material. The quintessential image of the Frankenstein monster derives from the make-up design of Jack P. Pierce. Pierce was the one who came up with the electrodes sticking out of the monster's neck, the flat head, and even the small suit he wears.

This quintessential image is actually one of the reasons I never watched Frankenstein. Like The Wizard of Oz or Star Wars, anyone even remotely familiar with popular culture knows at least the basics of the story and the film. It became a Why Bother film. If I've basically seen the whole movie, what's the point in watching it from beginning to end? The important scenes were played in courses I'd taken or shown in documentaries or parodied in other films to the point where I felt familiar with every one of Whale's frames. Had it not been for the AFI Top 100, I might not have ever watched this incredible classic.

Old monster movies aren't usually my favorites. They're enjoyable but not usually much to write home about. Frankenstein is different. The writing is remarkably strong as are the film's performances. Boris Karloff, as the titular character, gives a much deeper performance than I assummed he would. Instead of a monotone beast and killer, this film's protagonist is pushed to kill, tortured whenever humans get the chance, and treated like a sadistic evil instead of a misunderstood creation. From the very beginning, the creature is labeled as evil, as his brain used to belong to a criminal. This logic serves as the justification for a number of terrible acts against the non-verbal science experiment. What's interesting about Frankenstein is that the most horrific acts are committed by humans. That being said, while the audience is supposed to sympathize with the creature, the motivation of the townspeople is understandable and even the last scene seems somewhat justified.

One of the film's best scenes follows Maria's father as he carries his daughter's limp body through the festival. The sounds of the cheerful crowd plays against the speechless father's desperation as he approaches town hall. As he moves through the festivities, the joy around him quickly turns into outrage. In moments, those jovial Swiss turn into an angry mob. This scene clearly depicts the development of "mob mentality" and how quickly it can spiral out of control.

Frankenstein is surprisingly beautiful film. The cinematography is exquisite and somehow the film quality looks just as crisp and clean as Young Frankenstein (1974). The look of the film mirrors the German Expressionism movement. Dr. Frankenstein's castle is made to look giantic, not unlike the sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Metropolis (1927). This great style, along with the other positive attributes, make Frankenstein a must-see, even if you think you've seen it all before.


Jonny said...

I'm just gonna throw this out there: I think Bride of Frankenstein is slightly better and one of the few examples of a sequel surpassing the original -- not to take anything away from Frankenstein, which is great on its own merits.

Have you seen Bride, Scott? It's more on the campy side (apparently, Universal had a tough time getting Whale to do a sequel, so he only agreed to do it if he could have more fun with it). It's really enjoyable, and its legacy is pretty impressive considering how iconic The Bride has become while only being on screen for a brief time.

Paul Arrand Rodgers said...

Bride of Frankenstein is better, but Frankenstein is an all time great.

You should definitely check out The Invisible Man, which is probably my third favorite Universal Horror movie.

Anonymous said...

Young Frankenstein is one of my favourite shows. I know all the words by heart so it was nice to remember again in your post. Thanks for bringing back some fond memories about Young Frankenstein . This weekend I’m going to visit my sister and we get pretty good tickets to attend it again so I'll be analyzing as well as enjoying that show. Here:
I know that I will enjoy every blessed minute of it!