James Whale’s Frankenstein was special. Okay, let me not say just that, but let me say that James Whale himself was special, having directed a string of superbly produced genre films that started with Frankenstein. Whale moved on to The Old Dark House, delivered a legendary adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man and just a few years later defied odds, expectations and early established rules of the genre by shooting the insanely important Bride of Frankenstein. If you think of Universal Pictures, the studio as a whole entity, from its official 1912 inception, you should be thinking of James Whale, somewhere in the mix, as Whale was absolutely paramount in Universal’s success. Horror is what truly set Universal off and running, and Whale’s Frankenstein may be the most important picture of the early Universal Monster movies.
Mary Shelley’s story, like Bram Stoker’s, Dracula, oozed greatness, and the masses knew that immediately. They’re special reads, they truly are. And they were both destined to be transformed into special films. As a whole, Stoker’s work has probably received a better bunch of transfers, as many, many men have struggled to turn Frankenstein into the masterpiece that Whale managed, while a far greater deal of filmmakers have created special vampire films through the years, but Frankenstein was that true monumental effort that changed history. Never before had we seen such a sympathetic monster, and never before had we seen what is, essentially a middle man of a character – Doctor Frankenstein – portray such an enigmatic and crucial piece to a puzzle. Having said that, the frightened townsfolk in this tale might be what many would argue as a collective protagonist. That leaves us looking at, in theory, the bad guy, Frankenstein’s Monster; the good guys, those who fear, but may not be overly aggressive toward the monster; and the Doctor himself, who – again, in concept – sits in the center of the whole ordeal.
But here’s where Frankenstein separates itself from virtually every genre film made: that typical arrangement I just outlined? It’s completely done away with. Frankenstein’s Monster isn’t this menacing beast of a villain. Rather, he’s a confused creation that doesn’t embark on a violent rampage because he’s a brute. He’s a sad, lonely, muddled assemblage of pieces of lost souls that finds himself forced into a corner out of fear and instinct, initially. And that really comes out on screen. It really, really comes out on screen. And that middle man, Doctor Frankenstein? He’s an ambitious lunatic with little respect for life, an intelligence far too grand for his own true grasp and an almost schizophrenic quality about him. He’s far more villain than his creation, and even he has a number of sympathetic moments. As for the townsfolk, they’re responsive. They’re seeing something they’ve never seen, and they do what most human beings do, they lash out, fueled by that fear of the unknown. It’s a polarizing lineup that somehow manage to all share a number of extremely similar predicaments, and that, along with technical precision of the cast and crew, is what makes Frankenstein one of the defining moments of the horror genre.
Continue the countdown of the 15 films that defined the horror genre on the next page!