George Romero’s minimalist nightmare unleashed a zombie plague on popular culture.
…because everything you know about Frankenstein’s Monster comes from this movie (and for the last time, it’s Frankenstein’s Monster, not Frankenstein – get over it). James Whale’s original version of Frankenstein defined not only our pop cultural image of the story, but also many of the standards of horror cinema. Inspired by German Expressionism, Whale crafted a visually striking film with exaggerated set designs, atmospheric lighting and dramatic camera techniques. Boris Karloff may not have spoken a single line of dialogue in his portrayal of the Monster, but his complete incarnation of the role remains a testament to the art of physical acting.
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So Mary Shelley may have written "Frankenstein," but James Whale’s original film (and yes, for all you Edison Kinetogram nerds out there, we know it’s not technically the first adaptation) has become engrained in our collective consciousness. Shelley’s novel is a great work of literature, so if you didn’t read the book back when your English teacher assigned it, you should go ahead and do that right now. That said, what worked on the page in the 19th century doesn’t always translate nicely to the screen, as anyone who saw the more faithful "Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein" starring Robert De Niro will admit. In fact, this version of Frankenstein is actually an adaptation of a previous stage adaptation of the book. Interestingly, perhaps the most notable change from the source novel is the decision to make the Monster silent, whereas Shelley’s Monster sounds more like the King James Bible. So when you think of the Monster as a grunting, lumbering giant, that’s all Whale and Karloff’s doing. And here’s another pop quiz: what’s the name of Frankenstein’s assistant? In the book, he doesn’t actually exist – the scientist is kind of a control freak. This film created the trope of the misshapen, demented lab assistant, but before you say Igor, the first incarnation of this character is named Fritz. From a cinematic standpoint, it’s more interesting to have two people in a room interacting than simply one person working mostly inside his own head. What’s more, giving the assistant a unique bodily characteristic isn’t just visually memorable, but actually primes the viewer to consider how physical appearance shapes our conception of characters. Again, both Mary Shelley’s novel and James Whale’s film are masterpieces in their own right, but they also make an excellent case study in how to adapt to the strengths of a different medium.
Director James Whale deserves much of the credit not just for telling the definitive film version of the Frankenstein story, but also for creating many of the aesthetic standards and dramatic devices that have become associated with classic horror cinema. Drawing influence from German Expressionist horror films like "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," Whale decided not just to make a straightforward film with a few scary scenes, but used the elements of film to create an atmosphere that reflected the story’s dark tone. From the twisted Gothic buildings to the kinetic laboratory, the entire set design conveys a world where everything is slightly askew, a reflection of Frankenstein’s messing around with the natural order. The director also combined dramatic lighting effects with camera movements and angled shots to convey the sense that even the simplest actions could stimulate fear. Whale also took advantage of something the German Expressionist filmmakers did not have: sound. Loud sounds like the jarring lightning cracks, low sounds like the Monster’s footsteps and even a lack of sound in the form of dramatic silences reveal Whale’s mastery in using different levels for the desired effect. In addition to all this, Whale also had a clear vision for what he wanted to do with the story, contrasting the philosophical ideas about man’s limitations with emotional empathy for the Monster’s outsider status. In more recent years, Whale’s legacy as a filmmaker has been reconsidered, with critics and scholars mentioning him alongside Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and John Ford as a brilliant auteur working inside the studio system; "Frankenstein" reminds us why.
Close your eyes and picture Frankenstein’s Monster. Inevitably, you’ll come up with something resembling Boris Karloff’s character. This iconic look has diffused through popular culture in forms such as Herman Munster and Frankenberry cereal – that’s right, the child-murdering Monster inspired a kid’s cereal mascot. Legendary makeup artist Jack Pierce spent hours each day on set creating just the right look for Karloff. Pierce’s intuitive grasp of how color chromatics would translate to black-and-white celluloid helped give the Monster a ghoulish appearance while also expressing a sense of his humanity. Karloff also understood that his eyes would be the main way to convey the Monster’s emotions, primarily because the cheek implants meant to give a sunken appearance restricted how he could move his facial muscles and what noises he could make. The Monster’s iconic lumbering walk was a result of the prosthetic enhancements to Karloff’s shoes, which gave the already tall actor an even more towering appearance. Yet Karloff’s own physical struggle added an authentic dimension to the character, as the Monster itself adjusted to its own body like a newborn child. We may think of great acting in terms of the ability to cry on cue or display emotional range, but Karloff’s performance demonstrates how an actor’s physical dedication can produce a classic character.
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