1931, US, Directed by James Whale
Black & White, Running Time: 67 minutes
DVD, Region 2, Universal, Video: 1.33:1, Audio: Mono
While an eminent vampire was crawling out of his crypt-bound coffin somewhere in Eastern Europe, a devout but possibly unhinged scientist was discovering the secret of granting life to that which has never lived… Somewhat abbreviating Mary Shelley’s early nineteenth century novel Universal’s first version of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus warns us in the opening two minutes through an onscreen narrator of the ghastliness we’re about to witness (a tool Ed Wood would later naïvely employ in similar fashion with Criswell), before introducing Henry (though he was actually called Victor in the book) and his deformed servant Fritz as lurking body snatchers waiting for a recently deceased corpse to be buried over so they can exhume it to take it back to their laboratory. Assembling a makeshift body from other people’s parts the last component required is a brain, but the imbecilic Fritz accidentally takes a damaged specimen from the nearby medical school after he drops the only good one. This of course forms the catalyst for Henry’s eventual failure in creating a Nietzschean ‘superman’. Using electricity provided by a storm the hulking monster is ’granted’ life but it proves to be sporadically violent, lacking observable intelligence and the means to integrate socially, unpredictable, and a moral burden to its creator. Soon Henry is persuaded to go home and marry Elizabeth but he’s unaware that the creature has broken free of its prison and is now roaming the countryside. The innocent murder of a child sparks a mob congregation, partly led by Henry himself, intent on tracking the wayward monster and destroying it.
Jack Pierce unwittingly developed one of the most iconic characters in cinema history with his creature design, painstakingly applied to Boris Karloff over a period of hours. The bolts in the neck, the flattened cranium, darkened fingernails - all possibly thought of as clichéd nowadays but innovative at the time, and certainly possessing everlasting longevity. The first proper appearance of the monster is strange, and partly achieved with a lovely piece of editing: footsteps as it approaches (and a verbal warning offered by Henry himself so our anticipation is heightened), the door creaking open, and the monster facing… backwards? Yes, it actually walks into the room backwards before slowly turning for our first full view of it, a series of three or four cuts that progressively bring us closer to the distorted, morbid face. This was the movie that really launched Boris Karloff’s career and seeing him in other films tends to bring it home how great this performance is; it’s an easy thing to forget through years of repeat viewings. In fact I tend to prefer his portrayal of the monster here over his work in the sequel. Bela Lugosi was famously offered the role, declining to become involved due to what he felt was an apparent lack of talent required. This misjudgement is sometimes blamed on his later vocational misfortune but to be fair he’d already received plentiful recognition with Dracula and I doubt his future would have been significantly improved by taking on the role of the monster, firstly because his restricted versatility as an actor would have inhibited his progression one way or another and secondly because he finally got his chance to play the monster a couple of films later for one of the sequels and it didn’t shake the world. Having said that it’s impossible for anyone to predict what might have happened. Henry’s dedication to his work is quite heavy handed however there is an omnipresent duality to his motivations: is his work that of a man who wishes to master science to create life through manipulating naturally evolving cells, thereby offering evidence that there is no God, or is he seeking to emulate the God that he believes exists (signified by his most famous line, “…now I know what it feels like to be God.”) to reinforce either his admiration or competitive contempt? In fact, the name ‘Victor’ (Henry’s name in the book) itself may not have been chosen randomly in this light of theistic questioning: as indicated by the use of a quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost at the end of her book, Shelley was influenced by the poet and it is in this book that Milton refers to God as ‘the Victor’. This possible allegory is unfortunately lost in the Universal film by their renaming the scientist as Henry. Further characterisation of the protagonist comes when the monster is on the loose and we see Henry craftily lock his wife in her room - is this to protect her or because he doesn’t want her interfering, something which she has already done enough of. Probably the former in this case but throughout the film there are thoughts in Henry’s brain we feel are remaining unspoken and this makes his character much more interesting. Mention must also go to the castle/watchtower where Henry performs his experiments as it’s an incredible gothic design of twisted angles, warped walls and shadows, echoing some of the German silents that preceded it years before. As a film it’s much better in many ways than its brother project, Dracula, released the same year and similarly successful.
The Monster Legacy DVD was at the point of its release the best home video incarnation of the film - picture contains a surprising amount of detail whilst contrast fluctuations and grain are not too distracting. Sound does tend to meander between a little too quiet for some of the dialogue passages and too loud for thunderclaps and crowd noise but it’s obviously been cleaned up somewhat. It is remarkably free of hiss and crackle and as a result the dialogue is often refreshingly clear for film so old, and Mae Clarke’s voice never sounded so soft and beautiful. The aforementioned line that was once considered blasphemy was fully restored for the first time, something possible thanks to the discovery of a separate audio disc recording combined with modern technology, and the young girl’s drowning - another previously censored item - is also intact. There has since been a slightly superior US release in the 75th anniversary DVD.