Universal Monsters: Frankenstein (1931)

Written by Garrett Fort & Francis Edward Faragoh
Directed by James Whale
Starring Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, Boris Karloff, Dwight Frye
US Release Nov. 21, 1921
RT 70 min.
Home Video Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Classic Horrors rating = 9 (out of 10)


Until I re-watched it recently, I would have told you that the “monster” in Frankenstein was simply misunderstood, a mere victim of circumstance. However, I’m now reconsidering that assessment and am willing to argue that the creature stitched together from dead bodies and brought to life by science was, in the absolute sense of the word, a true monster.  In fact, as an older and wiser man, there are several things about Universal’s 1931 horror classic that I never consciously realized until now.

First of all, in making my case that Henry Frankenstein’s experiment was a true monster, let me remind you that it was installed with a criminal (abnormal) brain when hunchback assistant Fritz dropped the glass bottle containing the normal brain. It’s hard to imagine the corrupt neural pathways of an abnormal brain were corrected when transplanted into a new head.  Likewise, it’s hard to imagine that a criminal mind brought back to life would suddenly have turned over a new leaf.

Next, we’ve always assumed that Fritz was a cruel sadist when taunting the monster with fire. However, we don’t really know why he does that.  Perhaps there’s a reason.  Is there a scene we didn’t see where the monster purposely terrified Fritz?  Maybe he’s scared of it instead of trying to demonstrate superiority over it.  Yes, Fritz seems to be the aggressor in the scene we do see, but remember, he’s simple.  He’s the one responsible for the abnormal brain in the first place.

So what about the scene where the monster throws little Maria into the lake after running out of flower petals? Surely that was a result of innocent confusion.  Except, what if it wasn’t?  If you’re with me so far, it’s not a stretch to say his action was purposeful and he murdered the child.  This doesn’t change the motivation of the angry, torch-bearing mob; however, it definitely changes our entire set of feelings toward what ultimately happens to the monster.  He’s no longer a victim; instead, he’s a villain.

Finally, we don’t know from what kind of criminal the monster’s brain was harvested. Listen to its growl when, on her wedding night, Elizabeth turns to find it lurking behind her.  She screams and it growls, not angrily, but lasciviously.  Why did it come after Henry’s bride, anyway?  If it were a confused, innocent creature, wouldn’t it have run as far as it could from its creator?  It’s almost like it knew that threatening Elizabeth would hurt Henry more than physically harming him.

Frankenstein was made in the early 1930s. I’m certain the filmmakers did not intend for the monster to be a child molester or sexual predator.  Based on these points, though, I get a little vibe of that.  What complicates all this is that, even if the monster is pure evil, the performance by Boris Karloff is sympathetic.  If my theory is true, we feel sorry for him regardless.  We could spin it all a positive way and say the movie demonstrates how we have the capacity to forgive people who do terrible things.

There’s also a story the movie doesn’t tell about a possible Henry-Elizabeth-Victor Moritz triangle. Early in the movie when Victor and Elizabeth discuss the absence of Henry, he’s opaquely hostile toward Henry, more than what is suggested by his comment that Henry’s manner was “very strange” when he saw him three weeks ago.  Later, when Dr. Waldman, Victor and Elizabeth visit Henry in his laboratory, Henry is visibly hostile toward Victor, focusing all his anger directly on him.

While this dynamic suggests Elizabeth may have had a “thing” for Victor before or during her relationship with Henry, Baron Frankenstein places the blame for any romantic complications to his son. He believes Henry’s absence on the eve of his wedding is due to another woman.  Henry isn’t too fond of his father, either, stating that he “never believes in anyone.”  That relationship carries through from Henry as a father to his “son,” the creature with which he is also disappointed.

Again, I’m not saying that any of these ideas purposefully come from the intentions of the filmmakers; I’m saying that they crossed my mind when watching Frankenstein for the first time in many years. Also, I’m not looking at the character based on subsequent Universal sequels; I’m simply commenting within the context of one movie.  Bride of Frankenstein is historically considered the more subversive movie, but perhaps James Whale, the director of both, infused a little subtext into the original as well.

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