Saturday, October 16, 2010


What amazes me about FRANKENSTEIN is how-- despite the unbelievably high level of over-exposure that the figure of the titular mad scientist and his ghastly creation have gotten over the last eighty years-- the original movie still retains its power to chill. I mean, just walk into any department store this week and count all the Halloween decorations, tchotchkes, and geegaws that you can buy with jokey post-Herman Munster renditions of the Monster: flat head, green skin, clunky boots and neck bolts. Looking at the cheap plastic salt and pepper shakers and pumpkin-scented candles, you’d think that the Monster would be a completely exhausted and clichéd idiom by now. But it’s not.

There's something almost mythological about FRANKENSTEIN; I watched it last night in quiet wonder and was raptly caught up in the performances and the sets and James Whale's marvelous direction and Arthur Edelson's riveting camerawork. As near as I can recollect, I probably saw FRANKENSTEIN for the first time on a winter afternoon in February 1971 ; since then, I've seen it innumerable times on television and home video. But I was not distracted by over-familiarity even once last night. Seeing this on television in October 1957 must have been thrilling, even with commercial interruption.

In fact, here's the thing about watching this movie on TV with commercials: there are a few scenes in FRANKENSTEIN that end with black0uts that seem custom-made for ad breaks-- many scenes are self-contained intensities of horror that snap together nicely and build on top of each other, so I can imagine that commercials would be only a minor annoyance: you could ease back in your seat and catch your breath during the ads for some local pharmacy or automotive dealership, grab a snack, and settle in for the next segments of the movie. The pacing of the movie, in other words, could survive intact and still impress the viewer.

Of the assembled parts that make up FRANKENSTEIN, it is the creation scene in the expressionist medieval (some sources say "ancient Roman") watchtower that I find most arresting: the delirious excitement of Frankenstein, the perversely eager puppy-dog complicity of Fritz, the three aghast on-lookers in the "audience," and all of it going down amid Ken Strickfaden's sparkpunk arrays of "electrical illusionations, electresence and auratronics" -- it's really a sharp piece of filmmaking. What I find most well-done is that point when the operating table is hoisted up during the climax of the thunderstorm and we never get to see what exactly happens up there: we viewers all stare expectantly at the ceiling along with the five characters, but all we are shown is the result when the Monster is cranked back down into the lab. The mystery of creation stays a mystery.

As with RKO’s KING KONG, FRANKENSTEIN is one of those motion pictures that I wish I could travel back in time to see for the first-time with a cinema audience during its opening week. What would it have been like? Reviews from 1931 help to capture the mood a little (I like the one from Bioscope quoted by Bryan Senn in Golden Horrors: "As a crudely constructed blood-curdler, it will certainly thrill those who find their pleasures in things morbid and horrible"). I assumed that the next best thing to being there then would be to watch it now with someone who had never seen FRANKENSTEIN before. But I could not find anyone in my extended social circle to watch it with me last night, not even those few self-described horror movie aficionados. These people were especially disappointing for they, despite having never seen the movie, said that they weren't interested because FRANKENSTEIN was "too old," "too slow," "boring," and "black and white" (presumably this means "not worthy of any consideration").

Charleston, WV, 1956
Hamilton, OH, 1957

But television viewers fifty-three years ago were interested in FRANKENSTEIN. Right up to the premiere of SHOCK! in 1957, you could still find FRANKENSTEIN playing in movie theaters and still making money in the box office. So it makes sense, then, if you were programming the SHOCK! package on your station as part of an existing late-movie showcase or inaugurating a new "shock theater" show, FRANKENSTEIN would be the first movie of the bunch that you'd select to be shown because of the popularity of its theatrical re-release afterlife. As far as I have been able to tell, FRANKENSTEIN was almost unanimously the first of the SHOCK! films broadcast on television by the stations who had purchased the package (DRACULA appears to have been the only other choice). FRANKENSTEIN, in short, was the pick of the litter.

Dunkirk [NY] Evening Observer
Thursday, October 17, 1957

Most terror film scholars would agree that FRANKENSTEIN helped to launch the first "cycle" of horror movies in 1931 (Senn, for instance, calls it "the primary progenitor [if not by right of nascence, then by weight of influence] of the sound horror genre"). And, as I'll discuss in more detail in a few weeks when we get to DRACULA and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN in my viewing project, FRANKENSTEIN also helped to kick off the second cycle of Golden Age in 1938 when it was officially re-released by Universal after the collapse of the so-called horror film ban. But if the SHOCK! syndication series did indeed spawn the Monster Culture revolution as I have been hoping to explore for myself with this blog, than FRANKENSTEIN was also the midwife of a third horror cycle (classic horror movies shown on TV in the Silver Age). The power of this movie is remarkable and undeniable.

NEXT: "Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff star in Shock's full-length feature film THE INVISIBLE RAY. Tune in and see the man who had death in his finger tips. It's a shocker!"


Mirek said...

Wonderful review and very astute comments. I've never given thought to the commercial breaks that could be inserted "naturally" into this film or several other early horror films because of the fade-outs.

I had a theatrical experience of FRANKENSTEIN when it was shown in some film festival in New York, and I remember that though I felt beforehand that the film could not offer up anything new to me--it did, and held me fairly spellbound. Seeing Karloff's face as the monster, in the scene when he turns around, is still a jolt, and one gets so much more detail of his features (and the work of Jack Pierce) on a large screen. I was also surprised by how much Karloff's acting becomes more pronounced on the big screen. He did a great job as the monster, as he only could speak with his eyes and gestures and a growl.

I had a question about FRANKENSTEIN and other Universal classics, which you answered. That is, were these films still playing in theaters somewhere in the States right before the SHOCK! programming kicked in? So now we know that the Universal monsters never left the landscape for any long period of time, and indeed became familiar friends and perpetual curiosities, integrating themselves into the consciousness of a nation (and probably much of the world).

The Creeping Bride said...

I'm envious of your having seen FRANKENSTEIN on a movie screen, Mirek. When I lived in cities with very serious cinema scenes, it was at a time in my life when I was far more interested in going out to see other kinds of movies at revival houses (like film noir) rather than the old-skool Universal horrors.

But now as a born-again Uni-holic, I want to kick myself whenever I think about how I passed up screenings of THE BLACK CAT and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN for NIGHTMARE ALLEY and TOUCH OF EVIL.

kochillt said...

The third season of Pittsburgh's CHILLER THEATER featured the premiere of 1931's FRANKENSTEIN (Sept 11 1965), which became the most broadcast title in the show's 20 year history. 11 further SHOCK titles aired before the debut of DRACULA on New Year's 1966. July 11 1970 was the only time they were shown together, no 4 for Bela, no. 7 for Boris. New York's WOR-TV aired them together in 1982, for the last time. Had Lugosi played the Monster under Robert Florey's direction, it might not have turned out quite so well. Bela was passed over once James Whale took over, and it was his vision, and the casting of 43 year old unknown Karloff, whose gifts for pantomime had not been utilised in such a multi-faceted, challenging role that guaranteed him everlasting fame (his best friend indeed). Well and truly deserving of all the enduring praise that it continues to receive. Shame on those who show disdain for movies only because they aren't in color.

Christopher Wibberley said...

I first saw the beginning of this film in July 1977 but I had to wait until 1983 to see it all . In 1995 in homage to the film I purchased a 1m print of it which I still owm