Sometime in the mid-to-late-1980s, KTXH Channel 20 — the local UHF channel in Houston, Texas — showed 1931's Frankenstein and Dracula. I could not yet have been ten years old, and I don't know why I wanted to watch these two movies, how I'd heard about them, if I had seen them before, even — nothing like that. But I remember being excited to watch them, I remember finding them in the TV Chronilog (the Houston Chronicle's broadcast TV listings), and to this day, I remember sitting down on the floor of my parents' bedroom to watch them.
|Me, as I type this.|
* * *Since Mary Shelley first published Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus anonymously in 1818, re-tellings and adaptations of her vision have abounded. From stage to screen, there are almost certainly too many versions to count. And I've seen a lot of them...all the Universal versions from the 1930s and 40s, Young Frankenstein, Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and God help me, Lady Frankenstein, Flesh for Frankenstein, and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter.
But for our purposes, I'm going to focus on discussing Mary Shelley's novel and the two films James Whale made in 1931 and 1935, respectively, Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein. I feel like the novel (specifically the original 1818 edition) and Whale's film adaptations are all excellent, and these incarnations capture the thing that has kept me so fascinated by the story since...well, literally since I can remember. If I can boil that attraction down to a single sentence, it is this:
The "monster" is not the monster.
* * *In many ways, I believe Shelley and Whale were both outsiders, and however intentional or not, I believe their work to be a celebration of the misunderstood and the outcast. Shelley was a woman living among the intelligentsia of the late Regency Era in England, the daughter of a trailblazing feminist writer (Mary Wollstonecraft) and a progressive thinker and writer critical of society's structures (William Godwin). James Whale was openly gay throughout his Hollywood career. I cannot speak to the pressures either Mary Shelley or James Whale felt, or their experiences with belonging to traditionally marginalized groups. But that belonging has been in my awareness of Frankenstein for at least the last 20 years, and I have felt for all that time that these two storytellers may have had good reason to identify more with the misunderstood, underestimated "monster" at the heart of this story than with the landed gentry and prosperous, "civilized" individuals like Victor Frankenstein.
In my reading of Shelley's novel and my interpretation of Whale's films, I find these to be subversive works released via mainstream outlets. In both, I don't think it's an accident that I empathize the most deeply with the "monster." But from the way that they told their stories, I believe that both of them crafted their presentations in a way that gave audiences cover for not getting it...allowing them to miss the point and still enjoy the work. Neither novel nor film paint the masses of humanity in a pleasant light, so it follows that the underlying message might have sailed right over the heads of most of their audience.
In the book, Walton and everyone in Victor's life praise him to the stars as all that is noble and good in mankind. But his actions don't bear out this celestial approbation. Upon his creature waking, Victor is so revolted that he runs headlong into the street, bumps into his friend Henry, and reluctantly returns to his apartment and laboratory. Finding the creature gone, he feels relief, and then never seems to give it another moment's thought. "What happened to that giant creature I created from spare parts? Well, he's not here, so oh well, not my problem!" Later, his refusal to grant the creature's wish is rooted entirely in the creature's physical appearance. He listens to the creature's words and entreaties, decides to acquiesce to the request, and then literally looks at him and changes his mind. This happens repeatedly. And finally, on his deathbed in Walton's ship, Victor berates the crew members for not willingly dying in pursuit of impossible folly. He has learned nothing, it seems, and as he looks back at all that has happened, he finds himself blameless in his dealings with his own creation. He seems like kind of a dick. But as the novel's main character and principal narrator, Shelley allows her reader to invest in and empathize with Victor, should they want to. And the other characters in the book help make the case for him...but I don't think Mary Shelley believed he was blameless, or noble, or just.
Similarly, Boris Karloff's monster was sold as an absolute horror. Audiences were expected to recoil from the abomination, and hide their eyes behind their popcorn buckets. But James Whale didn't shoot him as an abomination. The lingering shot of Karloff reaching for the sun the first time he sees it, the playfulness and naivety that lead him to a deadly mistake with the young girl Maria, and the suffering the monster endures at the hands of a torch-waving Fritz all serve to humanize Frankenstein's creation, and these moments abound likewise in the second film. I don't think James Whale thought the creature, despite its billing, was a monster.
And nor do I. To me, in their own ways, these are works that signal to other outsiders that you may be different, but you are still worthy of understanding.
Posted by Vance K — cult film reviewer and co-editor of nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012, Emmy-winning producer, writer of two songs about Frankenstein, and author of at least one unproduced script inspired by it.