ZC Rating 6 of 7: Classic
Shadows were everywhere. Ominously large shadows mingled with mysteriously short ones. As I tripped and groped my way through them, the dank, dust-laden air irritated my nose and throat. Lightning flickered occasionally, revealing the shadows for what they were--only briefly, gone in an instant--leaving a faint mental snapshot behind, confusing me even more.
“Did you find it yet?” squawked a petulant voice in the darkness.
Startled, I dropped the two-way radio and banged my head on the sloping attic roof as I stooped to pick it up. Rubbing my head, I tapped my foot along the floor, hoping to find Zombos’ blasted new toy. I found it. I pressed the talk button.
“No, I’m still looking,” I whispered.
“What? Why are you whispering?” he asked.
Good question. I cleared my throat. “The dust...I’m still looking. The lights are out and I can’t see a damn thing. Are you sure you left it up here?”
“Yes. Of course I am sure. I definitely remember I put it--what? Oh? But I thought--oh. Never mind then, Zimba found it. You can stop looking.” He clicked off his radio.
Lightning flashed through the dormer window as I stood in the darkness, desperately searching for reasons why I should remain valet to the once renowned B-movie horror actor, now known only by a few remaining--and just as decaying--fans. Thunder rumbled in the distance. I sighed and began the arduous journey back through the clutter of shadows towering and tilting across the west attic's floor.
Suddenly there came a tapping, then a frantic rapping on the dormer window behind me. At first I thought it was a tree branch blowing in the wind but realized no trees were high enough to reach the mansion’s attic. I went to the window. A lightning sprite lit up a large flittering shape outside. Thunder rumbled, shaking the window's broken latch open. A spray of water blew into my face as a flopping ball of wetness and blackness rolled onto the floor. Startled, I tripped over something in my surprise and fell backwards. The ball unfurled into wings. It was the largest bat I had ever seen.
“Damn, it’s a night only Frankenstein could love,” said the bat, shaking his wet wings. “Hello, might you hand me that please?”
I stood there. My lower lip hung an inch lower than my upper one. I reached into my pocket to see if I had left the two-way radio on. Nope. I then felt my head to see if I was bleeding or had a bump suitable for hallucination. Nope. I still stood there.
“I say, if you would, I’d appreciate it greatly.” The bat pointed the tip of his right wing at my left foot. I looked down and saw a small Al Capone slim cigar sticking out from under it. I lifted my foot and used the tip of my shoe to roll it to him.
“Ah, many thanks,” he said. He folded his wings together and used their tips to pick up the cigar. “You don’t happen to have a light?”
I checked the two-way radio and felt my head again. Still nope.
“I’m Wally,” he said.
“Wally...the bat,” I mouthed the words without a sound. I stood there looking at him. He looked up at me. We looked at each other for about a half-minute. “We don’t allow smoking in the mansion,” I finally said.
“Yes, well, it’s soggy and flat anyway.” He dropped the cigar and flicked his wings, sending droplets of water across my patent leathers. “Sorry about that. I must say, this is the most cluttered attic I’ve ever been in.”
We looked at each other for another half-minute or so.
“Is that an English accent?” I asked. Bat hallucinations speaking with English accents always fascinate me.
“I hadn't noticed myself. Must have come from my hanging out at Oxford.” He flicked his wings again. "Sorry. Force of habit." He puckered his lips as if he were whistling. We continued to look at each other in silence.
My mind began to wander. I, understandably, at a loss for words, and Wally the bat looking, forlornly it seemed, at his wet flat cigar. An odd night indeed and one more suited to mad scientists. My thoughts meandered around English accents, lightning storms, undead monsters, their reluctant brides, and other times...
...While our dull yellow eyes may no longer be shocked or horrified by James Whale’s Frankenstein, we are still thrilled by it. Perhaps it is the gothic-expressionism in its scenes alternating between light and dark, or perhaps it is the funereal sounds, the crackling electrical arcs from infernal machines, and the thundering, stormy nights that keep us coming back for more. Then again, it could be the story's scintillating pace, filled with luridly atmospheric, yet poetic, macabre images, and vivid--now archetypal--characters revealed through Wale's inquisitively roaming camera. Whatever the reasons may be, one thing is certain: Frankenstein solidified Universal Studios’ unique brand of talking-onscreen horror, which began with Dracula, and threw open theater doors everywhere to let in more monsters, madmen, and mayhem than you could shake a flaming torch at.
Mischief and madness are afoot in the sleepy town of Goldstadt, somewhere in Europe. Or is it Europe? Both locale and time period are unclear. English accents mix with American ones, and architectural styles mingle haphazardly. But one thing is certain, or should we say two? During a late-night funeral service, two odd-looking men wait behind a wrought iron fence, just out of sight. Like little school boys ready to play a nasty prank, they can barely contain their impatience until the last clump of earth is tossed with a heavy thud onto the coffin-lid. As the gravedigger leaves, they rush to the newly turned earth to retrieve the fresh corpse. Under the stony gaze from the Grim Reaper statue wildly tilting behind them, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and Fritz (Dwight Frye), his hunch-backed, unkempt assistant, gleefully cart their prize away.
But their night’s work is not yet done. Coming across a gibbet at the crossroads, Fritz reluctantly climbs the shaking hangman’s post and cuts the body loose. Henry is disappointed. The neck is broken of course, thus ruining any chance for a useful brain. He sends Fritz off to snatch one from the local Goldstadt medical school.
Dwight Frye played Renfield in Dracula so well he became typecast in the role of the manic, misfit, mad scientist's--or evil vampire's--assistant. His kinetic Fritz in Frankenstein sealed his fate, but it remains the performance of a lifetime. With his stubby cane, woefully too short to do much good, his crippling hunchback and skittering walk, and his tremulous speech, he is pitiable and contemptible at the same time; a character whose look and mannerisms will become copied and parodied in countless spookshows and movies.
At the medical school, clumsy Fritz drops a perfectly good brain when he frightens himself. The only other brain conveniently pickled close by is the one from a psychotic killer, conveniently labeled “ABNORMAL”. Oh, well, what’s an illiterate hunch-backed, demented assistant to do?
As Henry toils away the midnight hours blaspheming against God with his body-parts suturing, his fiancee Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) is worried. In one of Whale’s signature close-up compositions, he introduces her and Victor (John Boles), Henry's rival for her affections, filling ordinarily static dialog with movement and tension, keeping the pace trotting inside and outside the laboratory. Elizabeth insists she and Victor see Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan), Henry’s former professor, to find out why Henry is acting strangely.
In their meeting with Dr. Waldman, the more properly starched doctor tells them about Henry’s unhealthy, heretical habits, like trying to create life out of dead bodies. Dr. Waldman is Henry’s moral and societal conscience, the polar opposite of Henry’s other teacher, the amoral--but fun-loving--Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein. Like Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan also became typecast. He became the perfectly knowledgeable, morally upright, and strong-willed man of reason and science for any occasion, no matter what his other acting credits said.
There’s a wonderfully quirky embellishment made by Frye as the trio of Waldman, Elizabeth and Victor knock on the front door to the old watchtower, Henry’s laboratory, at night as rain pours down. Both Fritz and Henry are busy preparing for the storm’s full electrical fury and they can’t be bothered with visitors at such a critical time. Hobbling down the long, steep flight of stairs framed by the tower’s walls, sloping in odd, off-plumb angles high up into shadows, Fritz hurries to the door, dismisses them brusquely, then hurries back up the steps, pausing ever so briefly in his frenzy to pull up a drooping sock while juggling a lantern and his useless cane: a brilliant, toss-away move that belies the childlike in Fritz, caught between his gnarled adult body and ambiguous soul.
Eventually Henry realizes who’s at the front door and comes down to let them in. In another signature use of his dynamic lens, Whale follows Henry, passing the camera’s view across--and seemingly through--the wall separating the lab from the stairway in one fluid motion. Henry invites them in to view the creation of the Monster; and what a creation it is! Kenneth Strickfaden’s awesome electrical apparatus sparks and arcs and crackles with brilliance as the body, stitched together from dead tissue, is raised to the heavens during the height of the storm. In a crescendo of lightning flashes, electrical discharges, crashing thunder, and anxious faces, the body is brought back down. Slowly, the lifeless hand is lifeless no more, and Henry utters the formerly censored words, “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” Frankenstein's Monster coming to life proves Henry's scientific skills, but what follows his triumph really needed more of his parental ones, which he was sorely lacking.
Is the Monster really evil or is he just misunderstood? Henry and Waldman argue this point, and whether to keep the Monster (Boris Karloff) alive. Everything quickly goes wrong when the Monster makes his first onscreen appearance. First you hear clumping footsteps ascending the stairs, then the door slowly opens as he enters, facing backwards. Slowly he turns around, and two zooming close-ups reveal Jack Pierce’s creepy cotton and collodion makeup that surely must have made hearts skip a beat in 1931. Directing the Monster to sit, Henry opens the skylight to let in sunlight. The Monster reaches upward, attracted by the sudden brightness, trying to touch it. When Henry closes the skylight, the mute Monster again expresses want with his hands. Karloff’s pantomime performance is poignant. Perhaps Waldman is wrong and--damn, what’s Fritz doing with that torch?
As the composure of the Monster turns from fear to frustrated rage, so does Henry’s reason begin to shatter and Waldman presses his argument to destroy the blasphemous creature. Like all mad scientists, Henry was only interested in the experiment, not its consequences. Fritz should not have mistreated the poor thing, though. Fire, whips, chains, such abuse is bound to make any monster inordinately angry (and more monstrous). A long scream of terror later, Fritz is found hanging by his own overly used whip. Making matters worse, Waldman becomes choked up over his work--the Monster throttles him to death--before he can disassemble Henry's patchwork creation. Henry meanwhile has succumbed to exhaustion, disappointment, and doubt.
The Monster strolls out the front door and goes wandering the countryside looking for understanding, but finds none. Each peaceful moment is ruined by skittish villagers, or his blundering and uncontrollable anger. In one scene previously lost to the censors, but eventually restored, his happy moment of play with little Maria (Marilyn Harris) is cut short when he runs out of flowers to toss on the water’s surface. He innocently tosses her in to see if she will float like the flowers, but not being a water lily, she doesn’t. This, naturally, upsets the villagers.
With Henry back on his feet and ready to marry Elizabeth, their wedding day is marred by little Maria’s death and the Monster’s sudden attack on Elizabeth. Beginning with Maria’s father’s solemn walk through the singing and dancing villagers, carrying her small limp body, followed by the hasty assemblage of torch-wielding mobs to hunt down the Monster, leading to Henry’s confrontation with his now loathed creation, the movie moves to its incendiary climax at the old windmill. Henry and Monster have a dad and son reunion that leaves both apparently dead and theater audiences clamoring for more.
Never say die when boffo box-office receipts are involved.