Sunday, June 12, 2011

Universal's Frankenstein Monster

Of all cinematic deformed destructive beings (DDBs), my favorite is the Frankenstein monster as incarnated by Universal Pictures in their series of eight films from 1931 to 1948. I love his physical deformity--how the combination of flattop head and Neanderthal brow suggests something both futuristic and primitive; the supernatural strength; the bolts in his neck. Then there is his psychological deformity, brought on by the placement of an abnormal criminal's brain in his skull. He is spiritually deformed, because his creation is a blasphemous attempt to usurp God's prerogatives over life and death. And he is positionally deformed, because he is made up of dead body parts that are now living, and when the dead live, they are in the wrong position at the wrong time. A four-way deformity: now that's a monster.

The Frankenstein monster is not as sweeping in destructiveness as, say, Godzilla, who can level whole cities at a trot. But what the Frankenstein monster lacks in scale, he makes up for in individual attention. He kills close up, one at a time, and brutally. Perhaps the most appalling murder in horror movie history occurs in the first Universal Frankenstein movie, Frankenstein (1931), when the monster drowns the little girl, Maria, with whom he has been playing just a moment before, presumably because he thinks it's part of the game. The complete innocence of the victim, matched only by the utter confusion of the perpetrator, mark the monster as peculiarly destructive, and yet sympathetic. As played by Boris Karloff, the monster inspires pathos as well as horror.

The Universal series began with an excellent entry, Frankenstein, then topped itself with the sequel, Bride of Frankenstein (1935)--in my opinion, the best horror movie ever made. Both films were directed by James Whale, who got better as he went along. Bride is satiric and rich, with suggestive images such as the crucified monster and the dual casting of Elsa Lanchester as both Mary Shelley and the Bride. Karloff is great again as the monster, developing as a character and acquiring the power of speech.

After Bride, the characterization of the monster declined steadily, and with it the effectiveness of the series. Episode three, Son of Frankenstein (1939), had good production values and Basil Rathbone, and Karloff was still playing the monster. But Whale was gone, and with him the satiric edge and manic energy of the monster. The monster was comatose at times, at other times robotic, though there were a few moments of life in the portrayal.

Subsequently, Karloff gave up the role of the monster, and his successors never fully recaptured the character's potency, whether it was Lon Chaney, Jr. in Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Bela Lugosi in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), or Glenn Strange in the final three entries, House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). In these films, the monster progressively had less to do and did it with less style, shambling around more or less by rote, competing for screen time with other monsters (beginning with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man), and finally presented for laughs with co-stars Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

Despite his decline, the Universal Frankenstein monster remains impressive not only for the first two films but for his whole body of work. For seventeen years, he was a constant of movie screens, and he has not left the popular imagination since. He is the standard for DDBs everywhere, and he has yet to be surpassed.

George Ochoa
Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films

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