I'm taking this October to finally get around to checking out those movies/genres I've neglected up until now. I call these my horror blind spots, and it's time for me to finally give them a look.
Spoiler Warning: You know what? This movie is over eighty years old. The statute of limitations has run out for spoilers on this one.
Frankenstein is actually one of the last of the classic Universal monster movies that I haven't seen. To be honest I get more out of them as historical documents than I do as fully immersive films. It's always been difficult for me to engage with these movies, and it's hard to say way. It could be the stilted dialogue or the clunky effects (by today's standards) but these types of things abound in shitty 80s horror and in some cases I love them all the more for it. And I also love older movies in other genres like Duck Soup or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. For some reason, though, horror movies of this generation just don't capture my imagination the way that more recent genre films do.
Frankenstein was directed by Carl Laemmle, Jr. and released in 1931. It is, of course, based on the classic 1818 novel written by Mary Shelley. For the three of you who may not know the plot, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is a scientist who believes he can create life, and he sets out to do so with a few visits to fresh graves to get the body parts he needs to create a new person, apparently by having it get hit with lightning. The newly created Monster (Boris Karloff) is violent and erratic, possibly because his brain is one of the abnormal specimens stolen by Frankenstein's assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye). The Monster proceeds to go on a rampage, and at the climax is cornered and killed by the villagers.
As with my previous experience with Universal horror, my enjoyment from watching Frankenstein was in observing it a prototype for future horror movies. Throughout the movie you can see where modern pop culture has borrowed from or referenced it. Even the introduction, where a man in front of a curtain warns the audience about the horrific show they are about to see, should look familiar to any fans of the Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror.
While the Simpsons may have parodied Frankenstein's introduction gimmick, a multitude of horror movies have genuinely used similar tactics to pique the audiences interest. As mentioned in a piece earlier this month, producer William Castle had life insurance policies taken out on audience members for his films. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre used prologue narration that claimed the film to be based on true events. Advertisements for Last House on the Left tell audiences in the trailer warns audiences "To avoid fainting, keep repeating, "It's only a movie...It's only a movie." So many films briefly break the fourth wall as a way to tell the audience how scary their movie will be in the guise of sincerity, and Frankenstein's introduction marks the beginning of that trend.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the movie is one where you actually don't see many horror movies follow suit: the death of a child. The Monster, during his wanderings around the village after his escape from Frankenstein, finds a small girl playing near a pond. As she teaches him to throw flowers in the water to watch them float, he tries to do the same with the little girl herself, and winds up throwing her into the pond where she drowns. In the decades of horror movies that have followed Frankenstein, I can think of only a handful that have depicted the death of a child. What's more interesting is that the movie does so while still managing to depict the Monster as sympathetic. His killing the girl was an accident born of a lack of understanding, so while it's still a horrible act, the Monster is not necessarily horrible.
Frankenstein, while not my particular brand of horror, will forever have my respect for what it did for the genre. It, alongside other movies in the Universal stable, laid the foundation for horror and essentially served as its birth in cinema. Certainly there are silent horror films such as Nosferatu that predate Frankenstein, but Universal was the first studio to really initiate horror as a phenomenon rather than a one-off. For us to fall in love with Freddy, Jason, and Leatherface, our grandparents first had to fall in love with Dracula, Wolfman, and Frankenstein.