Frankenstein (Dir. James Whale, 1931)

“Frankenstein the Monster”

Little did it occur to me a few months ago when I viewed James Whale’s film Frankenstein of 1931, complete with the scene of the drowning of Maria, that I would wonder what horror would creep up my skin and shock me. I imagine Karloff’s monster did give audiences a scare when it was first unveiled. The opening scene would indicate as much, when Edward Van Sloan, who played Dr Waldman, the university medical professor in the film, comes from behind the curtains to warn the audience about the extraordinary nature of the film and to give the faint-hearted a chance to depart before they are too deeply drawn in. This warning worked naturally as an added incitement to stay put and take the thrilling ride. However, where the film gave obvious expectation of scariness I felt little reaction, and throughout I watched fascinated in calm observation. Had I become so jaded by familiarity with the sordid, macabre, and grotesque that my anesthetized senses did not allow me to revolt at the sight of Dr. Frankenstein’s eight-foot-huge, patchwork monster? Perhaps I had become inured to the thought of deformity as something to recoil from, for the age we Boomers have passed through has taught us the inane bigotry of judging by appearances, whether of ethnic color, ugliness, misshapen form, or excessive and diminutive size or weight. Kind and humane, sad-faced Boris Karloff, after seeing the movie, did not wish his monster to be thought a child-murderer and had the drowning of Maria edited out. James Whale, having correctly read the pathos and sentiments in Mary Shelley’s novel, obviously tilted some of the sympathy away from Frankenstein (Colin Clive), the silly, privileged boy-man scientist, and towards the helpless, untutored Being. In my eyes, the horror of the movie had become pale and impotent, but pathos and art had taken its place. My memory of the film’s meaning and theme had been totally washed out, lost in the mists of time since I had first seen the film on a tiny black-and-white TV fifty years ago on the Saturday midnight program of horror flicks.

Horror movies of the early 20th century of film had already shown many strange and nightmarish creatures with whom the viewer was meant to sympathize: Conrad Veidt’s wraithlike Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (dir. Robert Wiene,1919); Lon Chaney’s Quasimodo in Hunchback of Notre Dame (dir. Wallace Worsley, 1923) and, later, his death-skull sewer-dweller in Phantom of the Opera (dir. Rupert Julian, 1927). The ghoulish Nosferatus, blood-sucking Draculas, rabid Wolfmen, and voracious Mr. Hydes all had something sad and uncontrollable in their nature that we found pitiable. John Hurt’s portrayal of the dignified John Merrill, the grotesque hero of The Elephant Man (dir. David Lynch,1980), was a modern example of the admirably human in a monstrous form. Mostly we have recovered from the fright of gothic ghosts, witches and monsters, and even yesterday’s sinister vampires have taken on beautiful form and found virtue in constraint, as in the Twilight series, recently the rage of young readers and moviegoers.

“Terror!” “Horror! “Oh, how horrible, how terrible!” “The War on Terror.” These words, as with “awful,” are almost drained of their original credibility. As we casually use them today, through too frequent and inappropriate use, we have killed the sense, thus committing “verbicide.” Though, I’m sure there was a time in the not too distant past when the very word “horror” made people’s hair bristle. The noun word, from the Latin “horrēre” meant just that—“a bristling up” as in one’s “hair standing on end” or the prickling of the hair follicles in goose bumps. Such effects were the sign of being “creeped out,” horrified, thrilled, terrified. What gave people the creeps or the “willies” in past times was probably very different from the stimulus today, but the physiological reaction that indicates the effect of a frightful vision or terrifying thought is obviously much in demand today by the young audiences who make horror flicks successful by their attendance. I would imagine today’s young person finding more of amusement at the strangeness of Whale’s Frankenstein drama than of shock or awe in feeling horrified, terrified, or thrilled. Familiarity with monsters big and ugly, with murders and corpses, with piercings of bodies and shedding of blood, and all the other horrific acts meant to scare the senses to distraction, has spoiled much of the entertainment of the macabre for many of us. With the proliferation of bloodbath slasher movies that are the sure box-office successes, it is apparent that each generation seeks to test its entertainment limit with shocking grossness and creepiness.

Felt experiences from movies are wonderful the way an old film can jar the senses and stir the mind to consider all kinds of social and cultural change. As a kid, I used to love what was commonly called the horror story and I read as past-times many juvenile stories of dragons and monsters. As for stories of monsters, there’s a long heritage of them, far crueler than Frankenstein’s creature, in mythologies of yore: Humbaba of the Sumerians, Tiamat of the Babylonians, Leviathan and Golem of the Hebrews, medieval, scaly dragons of the Anglo-Saxons, Grendel and Grendel’s mother of the Beowulf legend. Consider the behavior of the Greek cave-dwelling Cyclops, named Polyphemus:

The cruel monster made no answer, but just jumped up and reached out towards my men, grabbed two like a pair of puppies and dashed them on the ground: their brains ran out and soaked into the earth. Then he cut them up limb by limb and made them ready for supper. He devoured them like a mountain lion, bowels and flesh and marrow-bones.”[i]

This example, from Homer’s Odyssey, might still gross out the timid reader, but mostly I intend it to point out the antiquity of the murderous, cannibal monster. And this is one that youngsters were allowed to read and “enjoy” in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was deemed part of the humanities education for boys and girls to become acquainted with the ancient classics, through the epic of Homer, whether in the original Greek or in translations. As if that excerpt weren’t harsh enough, ferocity is returned by the hero: Odysseus, plotting revenge and escape after losing several more of his men trapped in Polyphemus’ cave, sharpens and hardens the narrow end of the Cyclops’s club in the fire till it’s white-hot and thrusts the point into the monster’s single eye: “so we leaned in and held the fire-sharpened pole and turned it, and the blood bubbled around the point. The fumes singed eyelids and eyelashes all about as the eyeball burnt and the roots crackled….”[ii] Sure enough, sadistic torture and gore-fests have a long tradition. In this same vein of excessive violence, the blood and horror movie genre of our time, from the Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) through the Friday the 13th series to the recent successful Saw I, II, III, and IV series, all of them sordid and gory B-films, continues to show the fascination of audiences for shockingly horrible images.

Indeed, full license is now granted moviemakers to depict such horror, with quicker slicing and piercing of flesh and thicker discharging of blood, even though theories persist to warn that watching disgusting murders in graphic detail can warp a young person’s mind. The films mentioned above are successful particularly with young rather than mature audiences who gang together at the multiplexes to revel in the shock. Of course, there may be ulterior motives and side benefits from sitting close together in couples, holding hands, leaning together. Like voyeurs, they ogle and scream at scenes of torture and dismemberment, clutching one another’s arms, and then recover from the fright and laugh after the joy of ecstatic excitation. Often termed “torture porn,” slasher films show an unquenchable thirst for very nasty, horrific spectacles.[iii] In James Parker’s Atlantic magazine article on the slasher-film renaissance, it is theorized that times of long, drawn-out wars bring forth a boom time for bloody horror flicks.[iv] One need only think back on Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, Soldier Blue and The Godfather films of the Vietnam era. Though it seems incredible that the U.S. torture scandal of Abu Ghraib would actually incite audiences to view Hollywood slasher films for entertainment, Eli Roth, director of the Hostel 1 and 2 horror series, nevertheless, thinks that is the case today.[v] Anyone interested in reasons for fascination with and high tolerance for blood-n’-guts displays will find a variety of arguments and none that wholly satisfy. Even with fine arts, it is hard to account why in one era an audience in Vienna gathered to ponder Titian’s painting The Flaying of Marsyas, but in another age and culture, hardly an individual stopped to observe the same image displayed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. More than anything, just as with my addiction to graphic novels in my youth, one cannot overlook mere escapism as the inclination at work in going to movies.

Is it possible that World War I spawned the popularity of Dracula vampire movies or Nosferatu ghouls, that the Great Depression gave rise to Frankenstein movies and the sequels, such as The Bride of Frankenstein (dir. James Whale, 1935), Son of Frankenstein (Rowland V. Lee, 1939)? The latter film was the one in which Bela Lugosi joined the Frankensteinian tribe. Once cast to be the Frankenstein monster Karloff gained fame by, Lugosi, best known for his pursed, black Count Dracula lips and Hungarian accent, was passed up by Whale in favor of his English friend. Under Lee’s direction, Lugosi took the role of Ygor, the name Frankenstein’s malevolent assistant became typically known by. Monsters have always been important antagonists of myth in literature, drama and movies because they push the nerves and senses to a degree of excitement that one can’t forget for a while after the experience. The gruesome events of the world at war will, anyway, return to mind soon enough

In my childhood, lucky as I was to be taken to the cinema by my parents or my grandmother, truly brutal, bloody, scary films were uncommon fare. Therefore, it’s not likely I ever saw James Whale’s classic horror film Frankenstein in a British cinema, because, born in 1944, I would have been unable to view the X-rated movie had it ever come as a B-feature to our hometown Odeon. In my juvenile years, before I came to America in 1958, the British censors took horror out of the hands of children, forbidding the sale of the “penny-dreadful,” graphic comic books depicting killings, murders, gore-fests, and underworld gang wars. And they prevented youngsters from viewing horror movies. The wardens of the realm prevented attendance by adolescents under 16, who would really have been the major ticket buyers to make the schlocky, creepy films successful at the box office. How far have we come today, probably because of huge profits, when cheaply made sci-fi alien and blood-letting films, pandering to the tastes of adolescents, are no longer questioned as damaging to the psychology of young, innocent minds?

How fortunate I was that my grandmother still idolized the George Rafts, Edward G. Robinsons, and James Cagneys of her era. In England in the 1940s and 50s, I was able for a pittance to view the American propaganda films of the early Depression years, such as the gangster movies of the early sound-era: Little Caesar, Public Enemy, The Big House, Front Page, and the host of crude, semi-violent gangbuster films that Hollywood pumped out by the score in the early 1930s. They played as vintage B-features along with some modern release, whether British or American. Those old, scarred, blotchy and sound-splocked black-and-whites were my regular Saturday afternoon fare. But–damn!–the horror flick I craved to see was off-limits to me, even the old vampire and monster movies shown frequently on American television for all to see. I recall at age 10, by then a thorough movie addict, unsuccessfully begging my aunt to buy me a ticket and sneak me in to see the 3-D version of House of Wax (1953, with Vincent Price). James Whale’s Frankenstein, for its mere spectacle, would have been a great treat. However, I now know if I had seen Frankenstein on the big screen in my childhood, I would have been deprived of the scene section of the monster throwing the little daisy girl into the pond. What I really had missed, though, was the opportunity to see the film with truly innocent eyes.

I remember the time and the very location, when I first saw the Whale-Karloff Frankenstein. After my immigration to America in 1958, I watched the deleted-scene version in a winter month of 1959/60 on a 12-inch TV screen as I lay under the blanket on an overstuffed couch in a pitch-dark room in Ogden, Utah. On the Saturday Late Night Horror Show from a local Salt Lake City station, watched by thousands of juveniles and adolescents, I was able, un-chaperoned, to glare, mesmerized and totally “shook,” at The Mummy (another Karloff success, dir. Karl Freund, 1932), The Murders in the Rue Morgue (Lugosi in the 1933 classic directed by Robert Florey, a friend of Whale’s and originally called to work on Frankenstein), The Invisible Man (James Whale casting another English friend, Claude Rains, in the lead, 1933), House of Wax, finally (dir. André de Thot, 1953, but not of course in 3-D and color), The Thing (XXXXX), The Fly (Vincent Price, again, dir. Kurt Neumann, 1958), and many others that today are labeled Sci-Fi rather than Horror, such as Creature from the Black Lagoon (dir. Jack Arnold, 1955). It was not long before I realized the inanity of the abominable X-rating of the British Cinema Board, which had bought into the sociological theory that fright and horror would terrorize young teenagers’ minds. Sadly, what I might have seen as scary or morbidly interesting in the televised, chopped-up Frankenstein back in my teenage years cannot be recovered. What I felt and thought in our recent viewing was without doubt altogether different from anything I could have conceived of consciously in my thrilled juvenile mind.

Naturally I remembered the iconic flat face, the hugeness and ugliness of Karloff’s form, the monstrous freak created from dead bodies and the stolen brain. I made instant recall of Ygor—er, I mean Fritz (Dwight Frye)—assisting brainy Dr. Frankenstein in the electrifying of the supine “Thing” by hoisting the stretcher up into the tower of the castle. The fiery destruction of the monster in the windmill struck a deep chord of reminiscence. However, to have seen it just weeks ago, I’m amazed at the thoughts it conjured up. James Whale’s worked artistically and imaginatively with great insight in presenting such a strange spectacle for audiences in 1931. The discarded scene of the drowning of little Maria I had viewed first through its inclusion in the Spanish film of Victor Erice, The Spirit of the Beehive, where the movie is viewed in the town hall by the peasant villagers of all ages. The scene is focally used to instill disturbing thoughts in a little girl’s mind. How strangely the mosaic of missing pieces comes together for one’s understanding.

Living in Craig Venter’s 21st-century genetic-experimental world and having suffered knowledge of the Abu-Ghraib torture effect, I realized, while viewing Frankenstein with fresh eyes, a new, i.e. modern, horror at Dr. Frankenstein’s hubristic creation and wayward treatment of his monster. Yes, it was a bit creepy when the monster’s hand twitched and Frankenstein proclaimed the thing was alive. But it was not the most profound dramatic moment that it might have been in days of old. The creation of the Being was itself a significant monstrosity that gave rise to Mary Shelley’s use of an alternate title for her novel–the Modern Prometheus. Goose bumps raised on my arms when Fritz, the hunchback, instead of giving food or drink to the Being, actually tormented the imprisoned monster with a huge, fiery torch. That was most disturbing. Even when Frankenstein ordered Fritz to take the torch away, the warning was not heeded and the fire was used to keep the monster at bay. Prometheus’s fire that played an elemental part in the monster’s animation soon became the dreadful element the monster recoiled at in fright. That scene was sufficient to call the presentation a “monstrosity film” rather than a “monster horror film.” The greater horror was at the human cruelty shown in the abusive behavior of the doctor and his sadist assistant, Fritz. Rather than a story of creative, scientific madness and ridding the world of a bad experiment, Whale turned his Frankenstein into a frightful study of inhumane cruelty and torture.

Dr. Frankenstein’s theory about creating life is a kind of madness resulting from intellectual hubris. But after he is faced with the brute fact of his actions, the doctor crumbles into impotence and no words can excuse his lack of forethought. The monstrosity, the shockingly abnormal creation of a huge freak, stems from the blind, daimonic urge of the precocious, neurotic doctor. Like Robert J. Oppenheimer’s horror in beholding the world-destroying force of the A-bomb he and his colleagues had wrought, Henry Frankenstein was aghast and horrified at the frightening creature he had animated into life. The monster, the abnormal human form of great force, lumbering and ignorant as he is, does what he can to adapt to living, moving about with inadequate physiological tools, but he was never once helped in his adaptation to life. Though the term “Prometheus” means “Man of Forethought,” Frankenstein simply never lived up to that meaning; he never contemplated the management or nurture of his monster. Consequently, Frankenstein’s creature was horribly neglected as a special creation, and the cowardly creator, as I perceived him, became a type of dead-beat father by his denial of responsibility. When the viewer comes to despise the insipid, thoughtless creator and sympathize with the mute Being, then a dangerous act of monstrosity has been represented more profoundly than the acts of a dangerous monster.

The connection of Whale’s script of the first Frankenstein film to Mary Shelley’s literary Frankenstein is almost completely severed, except for Frankenstein’s creation of a Being. Surprisingly, Mary Shelley does not make the creative act a thrilling spectacle. Whale’s film focuses for fright’s sake on macabre details of digging graves, gathering organ parts, and the awesome mechanics of the vivification of the monster. For Shelley, it was the Promethean idea and its consequences more than the creative and destructive processes that interested her. The elaborate saga of one story encircled by another story, through which Shelley granted the Being an education in language and mores by Peeping-Tom lessons and a fairly decent woodsman’s survival life, is overlooked by the filmmaker in his first Frankenstein for the sake of emphasis on the erroneous scientific creation of a monster and the community’s search to destroy it. One has to view Whale’s sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), hailed as the greater Frankenstein film success, to grasp a more comprehensive interpretation of the plot and characters of Shelley’s novel. Whale’s original Frankenstein does retain the creature’s murdering or killing, but these, except for Fritz’s death, are mostly accidental and performed only in order to give pretext to the villagers’ hunting down and destroying of the monster. It’s the old sci-fi pattern of alien nature versus culture: to bring a freak into civilization can only produce more chaos and deaths. Of the many versions of the 19th-century Frankenstein story, and there have been several, the elaborate and more faithful representations seem not to have appealed to modern audiences. Even Kenneth Branagh’s careful remake (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, 1995), with Robert de Niro as the creature, went almost unnoticed by the viewing public and critics.[vi] Shelley’s intellectual narrative of the monster’s inner life and learning, of its vast wanderings and calculated murders, happenings far beyond the imagination and ken of Frankenstein during his escapist, meandering sojourns, does not easily translate into dynamic frightening film.

In the old days of my upbringing, knowing only hearsay about the film, it was easy to get confused listening to talk about the film. Someone, for example, would err, naming “Frankenstein the Monster”? Another would protest, “No, it’s ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’”? Sorting this fact out was fashionable trivia among kids. Most of us then, uninterested in apostrophes and influenced by the creepy Teutonic ring of the word “Frankenstein,” would identify it with Boris Karloff’s hulking form, known from posters or film magazines, not with the weak-kneed, foppish, mad scientist who had had every privilege of his father’s wealthy baronial class. Childhood confusions aside, watching the film later in life, it’s impossible to overlook that the name “Frankenstein” is, of course, the doctor’s.

Whale obviously thought about names. Was there an unconscious aptness that Frankenstein, meaning “Dr. Frankenstein,” became transferred to the name for the monster? Frankenstein’s monster that Mary Shelley fictionalized in her novel is hardly the monstrous being that the scientific creator imagines him to be. One can see the monster’s sensitive side in Whale’s sequel, The Bride, where the blind cottager takes the monster in as a guest. Nevertheless, there is a similarity in that the novel’s Dr. Frankenstein, just as the film’s Frankenstein, cannot face up to the horrible, animated creature he made and runs away from it, trying to forget it exists. The modern Prometheus is aggrieved and troubled at his monstrous deed, knowing that the Being is walking about in the world, crazed, lost, and creating mayhem. The murders the Being committed were not made horrific by detailed descriptions, for these acts were meant to draw the creator back to his creation to consider necessary revisions, such as providing the Being with a female partner. Shelley’s Frankenstein thinks one tragic creation enough and so the monster does kill acquaintances of the doctor as retribution. Though Mary Shelley was respectful of the Being’s needs and potential, the 20th-century moviemaker granted no nurture or intelligent powers to the murderous infantile ogre, clod-stomping round the Ingölstadt countryside.

Shelley’s doctor, named Victor Frankenstein, becomes (for some unfathomable reason) a “Henry” Frankenstein in James Whales’ narrow and fragmentary version of the Frankenstein epic. Likewise, Whale transfers the name “Victor” to Frankenstein’s bosom friend, Victor Moritz (John Boles), who was named Henry–Henry Clerval–in Shelley’s story. Arbitrary as this seems on Whale’s part, perhaps he had reasoned insight in not granting Frankenstein the name Victor, for he did not represent a victorious hero in making and controlling his creature. Perhaps Frankenstein appeared to Whale as a wimpish “Heinrich,” a “Henry”—whatever “Henry” might mean—”chicken’ for example. Is a meaningful irony hidden there somewhere?

It is not without serious consideration that Shelley’s creature is finally left to wander the barren wastes of the Arctic, where Frankenstein journeys to track him down. Whale, having established the monster’s horror at fire, in opposition, chose a fiery ending, having the village rabble corner the monster in the grain windmill and torch the monster, building and all. Symbolically, the menacing torch is used yet again to torture to death. Whereas the original story has a plausible isolation of the monster in an inhospitable landscape of numbing coldness, Whale presents, for my concerns, an ironic conclusion, for villagers would hardly destroy willingly the mill where the essential grain of their fields is ground into flour. This seems quite preposterous, knowing the economic importance of the mill for the town’s livelihood in those agrarian times. And yet it does emphasize the Promethean double edge of creation and destruction to which human beings put their energy.

In conclusion, I would like to reconsider the scene that had been deleted at Karloff’s request: Maria’s drowning. First of all, it is the initial encounter the monster has with a human being other than his jailors. It is a most tender, lyrical scene, during which one’s skin prickles at the edginess of the encounter, the fragile innocent playing flowers with the unpredictable, clumsy monster. After the shared daisies are tossed and floated on the pond, the monster playfully tosses flower-child Maria after them, but she sinks from sight. This was an impulsive, not calculated, act, for the monster is frustrated and frightened by his action and flees in confusion. However, without having seen the event, a viewer would presume, when Maria’s father carries the dead girl through the village, a much more heinous act of murder, far too cruel to watch, had been perpetrated by the monster. The village rabble, unthinking, barbarous, and vicious, is a frightening posse setting out for revenge; their auto da fé of the monster in the mill is symbolic of human depravity. Seeing the deleted scene in Erice’s classic 1974 film The Spirit of the Beehive, which takes place at the end of the Spanish Civil War, I can now more easily perceive how the lyrical, poetic, mysterious force in Whale’s film might have influenced the tone and mood of the Spanish film, for in its plot a very young girl, beautiful, lonely and innocent, has more feeling and compassion for the outsider and stranger than the mature adults who are absorbed in the troubled world of their own making.

Mythological coda:

Mary Shelley’s alternate title, The Modern Prometheus, takes one’s mind back to Greek myth, back to stories of Creation of gods and mortals. The Greek god Zeus, covetous of divine powers and fearful of mortals’ strength when endowed with fire, forbade fire be given to the shivering, starving, purposeless earthlings, plodding about like clay-mation puppets. The danger of mortal challenge to the gods is allayed by withholding fire. Sensing an injustice, the Edenic Prometheus played rebel by stealing fire and carrying it earthward in a fennel stalk. Giving fiery coals to mortals, he became a benefactor of humankind and was considered the Robin-Hood culture hero whose side the listener identified with when the myth was sung. Fire was a great boon to mortals. The negative effects of fire, abuses of its power to destroy, were not so much in the vision of Prometheus in granting human beings hearths for their shelter, means of cooking meats and baking breads, and smelting ovens for metallurgic manufacture of useful tools for the kitchen, agriculture, and for hunting. Zeus had to punish the willful young god for disobeying his commandment. Tragically Prometheus, his Olympian privileges revoked, is then tortured far off on a snowy pinnacle of Mt. Caucasus for a very long time.

In almost all mythologies I’ve studied, the creator god, or gods, cannot manage the earliest creation and strives to destroy it, whether it is the world or the specially created being. The reasons vary, but something goes against the values of the creator. The Mesopotamian gods find human beings too noisy and want to get rid of the boisterous throng by flooding the earth. One god takes pity and urges a virtuous old-timer to build a boat. The Noah story of the early Hebrews fits into this pattern. The stories of rebellious Adam and Prometheus show the inability of the Creator to control the new generation. Even the earliest powerful beings of primal creation are inadequate for continuation of life on Earth and have to be destroyed. The monster Tiamat in the Babylonian epic is destroyed by Marduk, a young upstart, and from her parts the land is spread abroad and great rivers flow forth. Create and destroy—on and on it goes. Mary Shelley attempted to explain this problem of god-like creation, a scientific feat, and how the same danger, catastrophe, and tragic resolution are repeated because the creator cannot manage or control the newly created being. Something is always missing in the grand plan of creation. Greek Uranus wanted to keep his offspring from coming to light, but mother Gaia allowed Cronos to mutilate the father. Cronos swallowed his offspring to keep them out of his way, but mother Rhea hid Zeus away to come and avenge the father. Zeus wanted to keep humans impotent and so keeps fire from them. Prometheus thwarts Zeus’ plan, gets punished, but fire becomes as much a curse to humans as a benefit. So it goes, so it goes.

An interesting new insight into this dilemma can be found in David Eagleman’s Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives.[vii] “Mary” (chapter 3) is about God’s admiration of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley for her thoughtful novel Frankenstein, which is His favorite reading companion. For her revelation and understanding about the trials and tribulations of the creator, God has granted Mary Shelley a throne in the afterlife. Victor Frankenstein illustrates God’s problem and why eventually God, or one playing God, must depart from the human experiment, once it is set in motion. The created Being isn’t satisfied with mere being, but aches to have all that the creator has and becomes totally unmanageable in his avarice and desire. God needs someone to be understanding. What can He do about “the cries of pillaged villagers, the prayers of exsanguinating soldiers, the supplication from Auschwitz”? Just like Frankenstein, wanting to be free of his creation, God retreats to His room, and in Frankenstein “[He reads] again and again how Dr. Victor Frankenstein is taunted by his merciless monster across the Arctic ice. And God consoles Himself with the thought that all creation necessarily ends in this: Creators, powerless, fleeing from the things they have wrought.”[viii]

[i] Homer: The Odyssey: The Story of Odysseus, translated by W.H.D. Rouse (New York: Penguin Mentor Book, n.d. c1937), p. 105-106.

[ii] Ibid., p. 107-108.

[iii] James Parker, “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” The Atlantic, Vol. 303, no. 3 (April 2009) p.35, credits critic David Edelstein with the coinage of the term torture porn, which includes that modern day “Flaying of Marsyas” spectacle The Passion of Christ for which Mel Gibson was much praised.

[iv] Ibid., p.35.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] David Thomson calls Branagh’s film “one of the worst films of the decade.” New Biographical Dictionary of Film (New York: Knopf-Borzoi Books, 2002), p. 101.

[vii] Chapter 3: “Mary” (New York: Pantheon Books, 2009), p.17-19.

[viii] Ibid., p.19.


One thought on “Frankenstein (Dir. James Whale, 1931)

  1. Very well thought out and scholarly piece, David. Per usual you have found classical parallels in literature and antiquity to illustrate and support your various propositions. No one can construct one of these better than you can, finding your way back to the present, to the horrors of today and yesterday, the man’s nature at its basest.

    As a kid in the 50’s I loved the horror genre, but the Roger Corman weakly produced epics with Vincent Price, and elderly Karloff, were mostly historical and macabre, but not something for me to fear. I was blown away by the imaginative portrayal of madness and murder in Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. But when the British studio Hammer began to redo the horror classic of the 30’s in color with Christopher Lee, I began to squirm. These monsters seemed less latex and more evil, the stuff of nightmares; like the many female vampires seducing men and tearing out their throats and gobbling their genitalia. Sexy succubus’ waiting for some hormone raging male to let his guard down and seal his fate. FRIDAY THE 13TH and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and HALLOWEEN series all began the blood lust, the gore feasts, the nudity and insanity and things going bump in the night, making shadows alive with the devil’s horde. THE OMEN scare the beJesus out of me too. Things scraping and bumping in the attic still raise my hackles.

    I marvel at how you drew your parallels and found the energy and resolve to pity only the Monster, to point directly at the insipid weak selfish attitude of “Henry” Frankenstein and make sure we understood where blame needed to be lain, where justice was not well served.

    The SAW series, and the HOSTEL series make THE TEXAS CHAINSAW series seem tame indeed. When will there be enough gore, decapitations, evisceration’s, castrations, necrophilia, and madness of every complexion, ethnic group, and ilk?
    The military secretly pays some young gamers to develop more and more graphic DVD interactive games; heightening their reflexes, preparing them for the Exo-suits of the soldier of the future. 9 year old unemployed punks blast away with their stolen Glocks and handguns and semi-automatics, with better firepower than the cops and the military, with the cash to keep the newer weapons coming. I have never looked away from the screen, no matter how gross, scary, or risque the image, from those first female breasts filling the silver screen in THE PAWNBROKER, to the thousands of porn flicks that illustrate every form of degradation and vile practices, the S&M, the forensics, the autopsies, the brain surgeries shown on television. What does it take to scare us now that the Republican Fascists have been shouted down and pushed into the peripherary? Human stupidity, I guess, the folks who still support George W. Bush (be sure to watch Oliver Stone’s “W” by the way, what an outrageous eye opener!). One of my John Birch redneck students told a joke the other day. My stomach is still churned up over it. He asked, “If PLAYBOY wanted Sarah Palin for its cover, what magazine wanted Michelle Obama?” Answer, “NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC”. Now that mentality frightens me.


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