based on the novel by Mary Shelley
In the second season of Once Upon a Time, the identity of Dr. Whale, a mysterious character played by David Anders, is finally revealed: he is, in fact, Dr. Frankenstein. Pulling characters from sources that aren’t fairy tales is not a new practice for the show, but only Frankenstein’s story has been told with such a unique visual flourish. Dr. Frankenstein’s flashback is told entirely in the visual language of the classic Universal horror films—black and white, severe Victorian costume, and palpable atmosphere. And the cincher is Anders, who plays Frankenstein as prim and precise, eyes flashing from behind eyeliner that evokes early stage makeup instead of dashing pirate. (Once Upon a Time already has a pirate. And I hate him.)
It speaks to the Universal horror films’ centrality to American pop culture that I could swoon at this attention to detail without ever having seen a Universal horror film. Usually, I blame my pop culture blind spots on being raised by French wolves, but I think it’s half that and half pop cultural osmosis. Fifty years on from the last official Universal horror film (1959’s The Curse from the Undead), the shadow of these films is incredibly long. Not only do they continue to inspire filmmakers, but you can get a crash course in these movies by watching The Munsters or Scooby-Doo or buying your kids Monster High dolls or, during Halloween, cereal. They’ve become so iconic that their legacy overshadows them.
I have dubbed this phenomenon—finding older texts harder to engage with because of one’s familarity with the texts it inspired—urtexting. I have less trouble with it in books, my chosen medium, but, for some reason, it’s difficult for me to contextualize older films to get around it. I actually watched Dracula last Halloween, but I just couldn’t engage with it enough to properly review it. It probably didn’t help that it was half of a Halloween bill along with Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
However, as I get more and more into film, I’ve been craving older films—I’ve rented From Here to Eternity twice, but haven’t worked up the necessary free time to sit down and watch the thing. I’ve also decided to get a little more serious about film: I’d like to watch one a week, which isn’t too terribly daunting. Frankenstein seemed the perfect opener for another crack at my immense movies to watch list.
To my chagrin, despite Frankenstein’s running time of barely seventy minutes, urtexting set in halfway through the film. I found myself disengaging, remembering certain episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and uncomfortably noticing the lack of score, despite my best efforts to think about how this must have played in 1931. But there are still flashes of vital life here. The film dispenses almost entirely with Mary Shelley’s novel (even hilariously crediting her as Mrs. Percy Shelley), but the most important thematic elements remain: chiefly, playing with life and death.
Unlike the novel, which refuses to elaborate on the exact process of how to bring a corpse back to life, the film pays lavish attention to those details, resulting in its most iconic scene. The soundstage seems awkward in the outdoor scenes, but it works perfectly for the laboratory set, all claustrophobia, darkness, and sparking electricity. Colin Clive’s clipped, precise Frankenstein walks a very fine line between grim, insane vanity and hideous logic, which, unfortunately, gets compromised by the happy ending included in the cut of the film that I watched. (It does include the monster actually drowning a little girl, a clip shortened in the original release.) But he’s at his best as Frankenstein gripped by the mania of his greatest creation.
Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein is iconic for a reason. The height, the lumbering gait, the makeup (complete with gaunt cheeks created by Karloff removing some of his dental work), and the childlike wonder all come together to create a very sympathetic monster. I was fully anticipating to miss the novel’s erudite, passionate, and cruel monster, but playing the monster in a childlike manner—which he, essentially, is—is crucial to elevating the film above a very simple monster hunt plot line. But there’s also a flash of intelligence in the monster’s slightly wall-eyed dead gaze at points, although he can never speak. While playing with flowers with the little girl, he quietly notices that their hands are similar; the identification gives him joy. Later, he and Frankenstein face off in a crumbling windmill and look at each other through flickering equipment, and there it is again. I’d love to rewatch, in that mythical future where I have more free time, just to watch Karloff at work.
Ultimately, I do vastly prefer the moody, magnificent novel, but this is a good start to exploring the Universal horror film canon.
Bottom line: Urtexting strikes again, but Frankenstein’s two male leads show how iconic roles are made.
I rented this DVD from the public library.