As Caroline Picart notes, "The Universal series, and in particular Whale's films, bear the stamp of German Expressionism with their atmospheric and symbolic settings" (24). While Universal's "monster" films would vary in their use of Expressionist elements, Frankenstein is full of them whether it's the sharply angled steps of the watchtower, the heavily angled cell the Creature is imprisoned in, or the long shadow the Creature casts in one of his earliest scenes. This is not a surprise as "the films that most influenced the look of Whale's Frankenstein were Paul Wegener's The Golem (1914 and 1920), Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), and Hands of Orlac (1925) and perhaps not surprisingly in its portrayal of technology pitted against archetypal values, Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926)" (Gerblinger 2). All of the aforementioned films were very Expressionistic. For example, the scene where Fritz breaks into the university to steal a brain is reminiscent of Nosferatu with Fritz casting a long shadow as he skulks about the auditorium, just as Count Orlok did when he climbed the stairs, staling his prey.
American producers were astonished when they saw the effect that Expressionism could create. Universal's owner Carl Laemmle brought many European directors (Expressionism began in Europe, primarily Germany) with him to Universal (Laemmle would gift the film studio to his son Carl Laemmle Jr. who in turn would go on to make the studio's iconic monster films)..The Expressionist elements of angles and shadows would be seen in several of the Universal monster films. For American audiences unfamiliar with Expressionism, this must have been astounding and it surely contributed to spooky atmosphere of Expressionist films.
As historian Rudy Behlmer notes in the film commentary, Hollywood films were usually shot in high-key lighting (aka flat lighting). This created a bright effect in order to let audiences see everything that was going on. It could also be used to show a happy mood. In Frankenstein, there are scenes of happiness and scenes of joy that give the audience time to recover from the horror they have seen. One such scene is after Henry has returned home and is recovering from the shock of his experience with the Creature. He and Elizabeth share a romantic moment in their yard, discussing marriage and leaving the audience to wonder if they can find happiness. In this scene, the mood in this pastoral scene is heightened by the bright light.
Whale also uses the combination of high key lighting and a pastoral scene to manipulate the audience's emotions. In one scene, a young girl is sitting by a lake, a picture of a happy pastoral life. However when the Creature shows up, the audience has to wonder what will happen as the Creature killed Dr. Waldman in an earlier scene. As the scene progresses, the audience sees the Creature happily playing with the young girl by throwing flower petals into the lake where they float. This playful scenario turns to horror when the Creature throws the girl into the lake, not knowing that this will kill her. The bright pastoral scene conflicts with what we have just seen, showing that the Creature does not belong in this world, even though this is no fault of his own.
Here, James Whale departs from the Expressionist style he uses for much of Frankenstein and uses flat lighting. This creates a bright cheery atmosphere which contrasts with the unease the audience must feel at the sight of the Creature with a young girl.
Whale's filming techniques consist of more than just the use of Expressionist techniques. The scene where the Creature appears for the first time utilizes clever shooting to achieve the perfect combination of build-up and release. At first, the audience only hears the Creature's footsteps. The Creature is seen from behind and then slowly turns to reveal his face. Whale uses a close-up to show us his face then an even closer shot to display more of the Creature. However after that, the next few scenes involving the Creature are medium to long-shots which tantalize the audience.
Whale's loose interpretation of the novel makes for an interesting film, particularly in his focus on how the Creature is made. Shelley left the details of the Creature's creation very vague, particularly its animation. However in Frankenstein we see details of Henry Frankenstein and assistant Fritz' efforts to build the Creature, ranging from their retrieval of a hanged man to Fritz' bungled theft of a brain. Both scenes are creepy and I can only imagine what they were like to a film-going audience who were not used to horror films as contemporary audiences are. This builds up to the famous scene where Henry brings the dead body parts he has assembled to life using an elaborate electrical process. The highlight of this process is the chilling scene where Henry Frankenstein looks at the Creature's hand, waiting for any sign of life. The camera cuts to the Creature's hand and shows it moving. Henry then utters his unforgettable lines "It's alive! In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God". James Whale considered the creation scene to be the most important scene of the film (Behlmer). According to Sir Christopher Frayling, Whale felt he had to convince the audience that the Creature's animation was believable or the film would be ruined.
James Whale's version of Frankenstein looks great despite the technological limitations of the time. Frankenstein's special effects hold up well, even by today's standards. Of note are the electrical effects by Kenneth Strickfaden. Strickfaden would reproduce these effects for future Frankenstein films as well as other films, well into the 1970's (even utilizing them as part of the rock group KISS' stage show). Another one of the film's strength are the make-up effects. As noted in "The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster", Make-up artist Jack Pierce cemented his reputation by creating the Creature's make-up for Boris Karloff. Make-up effects were much more limited when Pierce created the make-up for the Creature but that did not stop him from creating an American icon. Pierce's work at Universal would continue as he created monster effects for films like The Mummy and The Wolfman. His work continues to inspire make-up artists to this day. Charlie D. Hall's art direction on the film created sets that would become a brand image for Universal's monster films (Frayling).
Cultural norms could have been a problem for James Whale but instead, he challenged them with Frankenstein. The film contained several disturbing scenes despite the Production Code of 1930. At the time, horror films hadn't caught on yet in America, and the physical horror depicted in Frankenstein was new to American filmgoers (Frayling). Although the Production Code had gone into effect in 1930, it would not be strictly enforced until 1934. This allowed Whale to include a scene of Henry proclaiming he knew what it was like to be God, a scene where the Creature is pierced with a hypodermic needle, and a scene where the Creature throws a young girl into a lake, accidentally killing her. Several years later, Frankenstein was re-released and the above-mentioned scenes were cut. It should be noted that even in 1931, some regions of the United States censored certain portions of the film (due to states and municipalities having censor boards of their own) and in some cases, the film was even banned in overseas markets (Behlmer).
Frankenstein remains a film classic and while it may have lost some of the scariness that horrified audiences in 1931, it is an entertaining film thanks to James Whale's use of Expressionist filming techniques, clever directing, and great visual effects. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is an entertaining film but I prefer Whale's 1931 version.
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