Every week, Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
There’s no list of classic horror – or even classic films – that’s complete without mentioning James Whale’s vision for Mary Shelley’s classic tale of science’s reach exceeding man’s control. Forged by the genius of Boris Karloff, taking a role that other actor’s felt themselves overqualified for, this film has continued to not only frighten audiences, but to make them question the very nature of existence itself.
That may seem like a bold claim, but Shelley’s original story is a masterpiece of questioning the nature of science and its role in a world built by religion and superstition. Where science seeks to know the greater truth and to, in a sense, control it, “Frankenstein” paints a grim picture of what happens when seeking knowledge is corrupted by the parallel search for that power – a power that will always lie just out of human hands. Dr. Frankenstein may know what it’s like to be God after creating the creature, but once the monster eats the fruits of self-awareness, he leaps out of the curious doctor’s control.
Whale’s film captures this essence perfectly. A difficult task considering the nuance of the story – a misunderstood monster, a naive scientist, a village plagued more by paranoia than true threat. Of course, most of the credit goes to Karloff for creating an iconic figure from behind Jack Pierce’s makeup design (a design that continues to be the mainstream ideal of what the monster looks like). Karloff emotes better than most actors while weighed down by the heavy makeup and a severe lack of dialog. The mythos behind his casting involves Whale running into Karloff in the Universal Studios commissary where he slipped him a note inviting him to audition for the role due to the uniqueness of his look.
And Karloff used that look, especially his eyes, to tell the story of a frightened being, reacting directly to the violence it saw around it. In perhaps the most notable scene, the monster meets a young girl at a pond where they share a beautiful moment throwing flowers into the water. When they run out of flowers, the monster picks up the young girl and throws her in, drowning her. This scene speaks directly to the complexity of the story and the way in which Whale chose to tell it. We get first a glimpse of childlike wonder followed by the horror of realizing what happens when immense physical power rests with a creature devoid of any real knowledge of how the world works. Like a dog who kills a bird while playing with it, the monster stares at the girl, ultimately picking her up to carry her back home to the horror of her family, with enough melancholy and ignorance to rip hard against an audience’s heartstrings.
The genius of all this beauty is that it truly is chillingly scary. As with most masterpieces, it’s sometimes difficult to know who to be frightened of. When Dr. Frankenstein screams, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” fear wells up at what he’s created, but that fear shifts to the desperate mob that chases the monster. The unthinking power of the mob mimics the monster’s own, and reminds the audience never to underestimate the threat of stupid people in large groups. Especially if they have torches and pitchforks.
Frankenstein is a near-perfect film that provokes just as many screams as it does deep thoughts and revelations. It’s beautiful and tragic to watch and remains one of the greatest films ever made, horror, sci-fi or otherwise.