To the Gods and the Monsters: Observations on Classic Horrors (I)

Theodor von Holst’s frontispiece to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein. (Public Domain)

Five Fragments on Frankenstein

“It is my only weakness” —Pretorius, Bride of Frankenstein

Like Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), my self-professed weakness(es) extend beyond the odd shot of gin in a chemistry beaker or a cigar in a church crypt. Though opera is usually first among my penchants, I have a great love of classic horror films that reaches back long before the music of Richard Strauss ever touched my ears. I was an eclectic viewer, but the movies produced by Universal Studio during their token “golden ages” were the best friends a teenage me could ask for. Awkward adolescence drew me to stories of the phantasmagorical, yet I remember relishing little of the “horrific” in them. In the protagonists of these films, I saw fellow outcasts and misfits, and the gasps were always far fewer in frequency than tears and laughter. (Years later, I would find Boris Karloff, that ever-genial doyen of the macabre, was of a similar opinion.) I’ve visited these friends time and again over the years, and while some plot twists now come off a little worse for wear, they still exude an undying magic.

While Dracula and the Mummy each held their mystical sway over me, my true devotion—ever since handling those musty old Crestwood House MONSTERS books—was always to the Frankenstein Monster. Thanks to the brilliance of Boris Karloff’s performance and the directorial panache of James Whale, the 1931 Frankenstein still reigns as one of the most seminal films in history. While its sequel Bride of Frankenstein usually takes the lion’s share of critical acclaim, each of eight installments in the franchise stalks forth with their own distinctions.[1] One may lament that some are not up to the perceived quality of the first three, which starred Karloff as the Monster, but the brand’s endurance is still, to quote Inspector Krogh in Son of Frankenstein, “indelible.” Rereading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for a course on Romanticism triggered a nostalgic “reunion” with the Universal saga a few weeks ago. The rest of the films followed suit, and my contemplations worked their way out here. What follows are some ruminations on the films, their makers, and their legacy. Some stitches may occasionally show, but I hope that, to quote the good Dr. Pretorius once more, “there is a pleasing variety about my exhibits.”

I. “Cannot be destroyed. Cannot die. Your father made him live for always!” —Ygor, Son of Frankenstein

Of all those to don the Monster’s flat top, none comes close to rivaling Boris Karloff’s three nuanced performances of the role. While his principal successors Lon Chaney, Jr., Bela Lugosi (once the first choice for the 1931 film), and Glenn Strange each have merit, Karloff above and beyond exuded a pathos and presence all his own, even as the character began the inevitable lurch towards brute automatism in Son of Frankenstein.

What is it about Karloff, that make-up, that performance that is so spellbinding? What is it about the infamous flat-top and electrodes (not bolts) in the neck? Why has it become one of the most durable images of twentieth-century popular culture, recognizable nearly everywhere? In some ways, it was the luck of combination—the right collaborators, the right ideas, the right timing. But that design could not have worked on just any actor, and it is hard to fathom who else or how else it could have transpired except with Karloff (and makeup artist Jack P. Pierce, of course). For this reason, one cannot overlook the significance of Karloff’s peculiar facial architecture for the success of the Monster—that lean V-shaped mask, that point of the tubercle on the upper lip, those large and enigmatic eyes. Universal did not bill him as “Karloff the Uncanny” for nothing, and he would seem to be a clear embodiment of, to quote Freud on the unheimlich, “that type of ‘unsettling’ which flashes back to what was once-known and long-familiar.”[2] The attribute pervaded every aspect of his performances, and not just as the Monster. One can note many examples of “uncanniness” in either Karloff’s appearance, voice, and movement, but more than anything else, it remained his gift that no matter what his role, he could convey gentility and jeopardy in the same breath, frighten as quickly as he could comfort, and bring forth terror with tears.

The cadaverous aspects of his face notwithstanding—Karloff had far fewer lean years following Frankenstein’s runaway success—it is the draw of his eyes that truly distinguish his performances as the Monster, especially in the first film. This ocular effectiveness was heightened in Frankenstein by the building up of Karloff’s brow with the headpiece, darkening the eye sockets, and the pronouncing of the bags under the eyes. (These aspects, modified in later films, also showed a clear debt to the appearance of Conrad Veidt in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.) Though the lids were laden with mortician’s wax, the orbs still projected an alertness and a penetrating quality hard to express in words, but always clear in the visual. They convey a special menace in moments when the Monster observes other characters at a slight remove, particularly Mae Clarke in the boudoir scene in the first film. Beams emanating from the eyes of uncanny beings were also part of the promotional material and the film’s title sequence, a cue perhaps to the film’s emphasis on “the great ray that first brought life into the world.”

For varying reasons, Karloff’s successors maintained somnambular expressions for much of their screen time, and the effect diminished what little agency the Monster possessed in later installments. One cannot truly fault Lugosi’s Monster for this, however, since the script for Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man carried over the convention from the previous film that the Monster had been blinded by surgery complications. It is all the more a pity since Lugosi, just like Karloff, had a magnetic stare and a commanding profile. (Who can ever truly look away from his Murder Legendre in White Zombie?) Indeed, when the Lugosi Monster is brought to full power in the final sequence, the opening of the eyes with that leer is chilling. One laments that Lugosi’s masterful creation in Son and The Ghost, the broken-necked Ygor, did not play a greater role beyond the latter film.

No less consequential to Karloff’s interpretation were concerns of movement and voice, or relative lack thereof in the case of the latter. Despite the weight and constraints of his costume, Karloff gave the Monster a fluidity as uncanny as the face at the top of it all. This also extended to those potent moments of stillness where the Monster was at his most pitiable, and dangerous. There was no scripted dialogue for the Monster in Frankenstein, a major point of criticism since Shelley’s Creature exhibited an unbridled mastery of rhetoric. (It is worth pointing out, however, that Shelley’s Creature learned speech indirectly over the course of several months, thanks to the acquisition of a satchel of books and his observation of a family instructing a guest in language.) As a result, Karloff was confined to vocables in the first film, blossoming into more developed speech in Bride, a choice which the actor famously resisted. Thankfully, the choice prevailed. While most of the Monster’s dialogue is frequently, if not annoyingly, quotable, one moment deserves singling out for its anguish: his plaintive cry of “Friend?!” as the Hermit’s hut goes up in flames. Given Karloff’s avowed affinity for English literature of the nineteenth century, however, one does wonder how Shelley’s text would have sounded. (Excerpts from the novel would have made an excellent addition to the actor’s catalog of spoken word recordings.)

II. “Quite a good scene, isn’t it?!” —Henry Frankenstein, Frankenstein

A source of perpetual beauty and eeriness in the Universal Frankenstein films is the subtle ambiguity of their settings, an uncanny bricolage of places and anachronisms that stretches across all eight installments. A visual aesthetic that melded past, reality, and fantasy was a conscious choice of the first film. Writing to Colin Clive before shooting began on the first film, director James Whale laid out his conception: “I want the picture to be a very modern, materialistic treatment of this medieval story—something of Doctor Caligari, something of Edgar Allan Poe, and of course a good deal of us.”[3] Whale was true to his word, and the successor installments followed suit in melding a variety of styles in their own unique state of consciousness—potent but never over-assertive. Reliable geographies, dates, and material objects fragment, feign, and fuse into a world that never existed, except perhaps in an impish nightmare, and like all nightmares, they are never consistent or easily explicable in their unfolding.

When any indicators appear in the films or their associative texts (screenplays, press kits, etc.), they only serve to reinforce the singular unsingularity of the films’ locales. The first two films transpire in the Teutonic arcadia of Goldstadt, an oblique nod to the Ingolstadt of Shelley’s novel. (The name “Goldstadt” is a holdover from the Webling/Balderston play adaptation that served as a source for the first film’s screenplay.) A retcon in Son, however, renames the village “Frankenstein,” triangulating the tragedy of the maker and the Monster with that of the populace that lives around them. (A nobility upgrade for the family to “von Frankenstein” occurs in the interim as well.) The remaining films cut back and forth from Frankenstein to the equally fictitious (and pliable) Städte of Vasaria/Visaria, Neustadt, Reigelburg, and finally, La Mirada, Florida for the Monster’s rendezvous with Abbott and Costello. In each case, the world strikes an uncanny concordance with reality.

Chronology is equally nebulous. The press kits for Frankenstein and Bride ominously describe the “time” of their setting as “the present.” Yet in no way can we consider that “present” realistic. Late Victorian and Edwardian attire juxtaposes contemporary-to-production fashions, and technologies like the telephone exist alongside grave robbing and body snatching from mountain gallows. Bride does provide the saga with its only reliable chronological anchor: Pretorius’s ghoul Karl reads the date “1899” a casket inscription during a body snatching, and considering the skeletization of the corpse within, the action must take place decades into the next century. (A cut scene from Bride would have shown the date “1869” on the sign of the Goldstadt morgue.) Yet apart from natural decay, little in this world seems to age in any way. New characters come and go, but all and sundry seem marooned in an unavoidably nasty and brutish world. Even though Son takes place a generation after the events of Bride, little of this world seems to have changed. If anything, the world seems doomed to repeat its history over and over, with no escape.

III. “Pretty little thing in her way, wasn’t she?” —Karl, Bride of Frankenstein

To a young me, Bride of Frankenstein truly was (and is) a masterpiece to end all masterpieces, a Gothic dramma giocoso that fuses the ironic, the expressionistic, and the subversive into most sublime tragedy. Re-watching Bride once again revealed the mastery of the film’s execution and how its thematic underpinnings had in no way faded with age. In many ways, Whale’s achievement in this film mirrors Richard Strauss’s accomplishment with Salome thirty years earlier: a decadent melding of styles and aesthetics in telling a blasphemous tale tinged with wickedness, flecked with wit, and ultimately cloaked with catastrophe. Nor could one ask for a better-crafted film.

Every shot by cinematographer John Mescall presents visual excellence, which Whale always imbued with his own panache. Both Karloff and Colin Clive are back in rare form as Monster and maker, now buttressed by the acid menace of Ernest Thesiger’s Dr. Pretorius and an outstanding roster of supporting players—Valerie Hobson, Una O’Connor, E. E. Clive, Dwight Frye, the always redoubtable Elsa Lanchester, and the divine O. P. Heggie as the Hermit—all under the umbrella of William Hurlbut’s fantastical screenplay. (Whale’s shooting script, reproduced in facsimile by MagicImage, lists Hurlbut and John Balderston as co-authors of the screenplay, but Hurlbut would receive sole credit in the credits for the final film, while Balderson would receive co-adaptation credit.)

Returning to Shelley’s novel for several plot elements, Whale and Hurlbut developed the state of the story at the end of the first film to the point where the two films effectively operate as a holistic entity, which pivots around the so-called “Prologue” sequence with Mary Shelley (really still Mary Godwin in that summer of 1816, as film historian Scott MacQueen has rightly pointed out), Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron. For those concerned with lapses in continuity (and convention), the Prologue provides a convenient palimpsestuous conduit. Mary admits that the story extends beyond the immolation at the end of the first film, with the implication that other details have been interpolated and modified as well.

Not all was destined to survive to the final release print. Numerous scenes were trimmed, including the Prologue along with Pretorius’s first scene with Henry which elaborate his history with Henry and his knowledge of the Monster. A lengthy sequence following the Monster’s escape from the Goldstadt dungeon was also excised, including a scene wherein the Monster finally confronts E. E. Clive’s disbelieving Burgomaster. Had it survived to the final print, this culling scene would have mirrored a similar moment in Whale’s preceding film The Invisible Man (1933). Following his first escape, the lunatic Griffin returns to the Lion’s Head Inn in Iping to retrieve his notebooks. In the process, he disrupts a police inquiry and murders the pompous Inspector Bird, who similarly doubts his existence. (Clive’s Burgomaster is given no name, but it is worth pointing out that Lionel Belmore’s Burgomaster in the 1931 film’s name is “Vogel,” the German word for bird.) These trouncings of an overly supercilious authority figure resonate throughout Whale’s work, going to back to the murder of Dr. Waldman in Frankenstein. In that instance, however, Waldman fully recognizes the Monster’s menace. Other masculine authorities from the first film are summarily omitted in Bride: the “old Baron Frankenstein” dies off-screen (and not shown in the final film), and Victor Moritz and his memory simply vanish.

While the Monster happens about his misadventures, the charismatically vicious Dr. Pretorius emerges as the true antagonist of Bride. One would be hard-pressed to find a better Mephistophelean gatecrasher that Ernest Thesiger, who gloriously infects each scene in which he appears. (Throughout the film, Whale cements the character’s dominance by awarding him the final close-up of the scene before the dissolve.) The emphasis given to Pretorius’s character reconfigures the doppelgänger tension between Henry Frankenstein and the Monster, one of the defining relationships in Frankenstein. Removing the Monster from the equation for a moment, in Bride Whale dispenses with the conventional love triangle in the first film (Henry, Elizabeth, and Victor) in favor of a much tighter and more fraught threesome between Henry, Elizabeth, and Pretorius. Rather than have Elizabeth as the focus of the triangle, the object of contest is Henry. Caught in the pull between Elizabeth and Pretorius, the latter temporarily prevails while Elizabeth is the ultimate victor in the final shot. Pretorius inverts the roles of the romantically anemic Victor Moritz while absorbing the authority of the ignobly dispatched Dr. Waldman (no offense to the memories of John Boles and Edward van Sloan). In the case of the latter character, Pretorius pushes Henry to continue his experiments rather than deter him. Though the Monster is the instrument of Pretorius’s destruction as much as Waldman, Pretorius first enjoys mastery over him. Victor’s absence replaces the more conventional romantic triangle with a more compelling alternative. A more dynamic rhomboid would return in Son of Frankenstein, with Wolf von Frankenstein pitted against his wife Elsa, the wily Inspector Krogh, and malevolent Ygor, a worthy successor (and foil) to Pretorius’s suave iniquity.

Thesiger’s performance serves as a complement to Karloff in its reliance on peculiarities of appearance. The actor’s countenance in the film is marked by its angularity, an effect heightened by the prominent upturn of his nose and the size and orientation of the eyes. In contrast to his previous macabre roles in The Old Dark House (1932) and The Ghoul (1933), Thesiger’s eye sockets are not darkened in Bride in any way. Pretorius is always on the alert, always scheming. Mescall’s cinematography in Bride seizes upon the contours of Thesiger’s face, especially the severity of the eyebrows and the wrinkles on his brow and around his eyes, which convey a tremendous effect of texture in almost every close-up, particularly those at the end of the homunculi scene and during the creation sequence. Like Karloff, Thesiger had a lisp which produced an idiosyncratic effect on both the timbre of his speech but also the movements of his mouth. Thesiger’s lisp favors the lower left corner of his mouth, Karloff’s the whole lateral length. The total effect is best described by a note in the screenplay that Pretorius’s entrance is “something to make a witch’s skin creep.”

IV. “Don’t knock the castle over! We’re not all dead yet!” —Minnie, Bride of Frankenstein

Irony would be one of the major forces at play in Bride, as evinced by the epigraph on the cover of the shooting script, a modified quotation from William Blake’s “The Garden of Love”: “So I turned to the Garden of Love / That so many sweet flowers bore; / And I saw it was filled with graves.” The potency of Whale’s comedy, substantial additions to the shooting scripts of both Frankenstein or Bride, comes from its grounding in the story and its characters. The moments are small in nature, but the extent of their balance amid the larger narrative showcases the director’s keen sense for irony as an essential aspect of story. The opening sequence of Frankenstein shows three such instances. In one way or another, they condescend death. First, the sexton’s matter-of-fact slinging of his bell post over his shoulder as he makes his way down the hill (prompting an abstruse look from the pall bearers and mourners). Second, the gravedigger’s almost contemptuous toss of a burned-out match on the fresh mound of the burial. And third, and most effective of all, Henry’s toss of a shovelful of dirt in the face of a nearby grave monument of Death with wild abandon as he and Fritz loot the sepulcher. Both the statue of Death and the adjacent giant crucifix monument cameo in the graveyard scene in Bride, the former part of a scene cut from the shooting script wherein the Monster tries to free the Christ figure from its mount. What its replacement, the toppling of the statue of a bishop, lacks in pathos, it more than compensates for in its visual irony.

Whale’s strength as a cinematic ironist would only grow over the course of the intervening projects The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man, where believably innocuous gestures are interwoven between acts of terror or discomfort. In the former film, Rebecca Femms’s adjustment in the mirror and exit following her harangue and unsubtle grope of Margaret Waverton stands as a notable example. From Jenny Hill’s shrill fits to Griffin’s incessant quips while committing his atrocities, irony saturates frame after frame of Invisible Man like the scientist’s Monocaine.

As usual, Whale works the humor into the discomfit of the characters. Names and their repetition play such a role in the humor of Bride. The repeats of Pretorius’s name in his introductory scene are the most obvious, but in the scenes following the Monster’s escape from the jail, the hyperbolic reiterations of the names of Freda and the mutilated Neumanns turns the tragedy of their demises into something approaching sardonicism.

V. “The undying monster.” —Neimann, House of Frankenstein

Like their monstrous protagonist, the Frankenstein films have been constantly hunted by torch-bearing detractors who decry their often-tenuous relationship with their source material. (The first three installments do credit Mary Shelley’s original story, though the third Son possesses at best threadbare connections.) To some, though, there’s no sin like a loose adaptation. Furthermore, while they are often denounced in favor of more “faithful” cinematic incarnations, ultimately all dramatic iterations of Frankenstein appropriate from each other in some way, shape, or form if only as intentional departures—a testament to the work’s solid foundation in popular culture. Inevitably, though, those cinematic adaptations that purport to hew closer to the source material inevitably end up conjuring the specters of the characterization by Karloff and the famous creation sequence(s) with their elaborate electrical paraphernalia and histrionics.

Universal now moves towards another reboot of its Monsters series, a more expansive reimagining on the heels of the Mummy franchise and multi-monster Van Helsing from Stephen Sommers, and Joe Johnston’s Wolf Man remake. David Koepp has been charged with tackling the Bride, and we can only speculate how many more of the “Devil’s brood” will be once more revivified and set against each other. Yet as before their mettle is such that the no matter what is hurled at them, they restore and renew no matter what. To quote the blasphemous Pretorius once more, “Be fruitful and multiply.”


[1] The films are, in order, Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Son of Frankenstein (1939), The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), and finally, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

[2] “das Unheimliche sei jene Art des Schreckhaften, welche auf das Altbekannte, Längstvertraute zurückgeht.” Sigmund Freud, “Das Unheimliche,” 1919. My translation.

[3] New York Times, “FRANKENSTEIN finished,” October 11, 1931.

(c) 2017, Ryan M. Prendergast

Author: Ryan M. Prendergast

Ph.D. Candidate @ the University of Illinois. Theater, opera, music, media, art, history, detritus. I smile, of course, and go on drinking tea.

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