Revisiting Boris Karloff’s Hideous Frankenstein

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Cláudia Carvalho

Frankenstein has left a mark deeply universal in the hearts of classic horror aficionados, a social unconsciousness that through two centuries has endured in the minds of many, with his flat-top head, a pair of bolts in his neck, and a skin tone ranging from earlier grey to livid corpse green, Mary Shelley’s fictional character (or more accurately, ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’) may have started as a novel icon, but it was by the devious hand of James Whale’s 1931 horror classic film adaptation that brought the character to life.

Frankenstein’s adaptation opens with an introduction where the spectators are warned of the horrific nature of the film, a classic prelude to the horror scene of that era, as the screen opens with a funeral, on a creepy graveyard surrounded by crying mourners and shades of dark.

Off to the corner, out of the view of the bereaved, is one Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his hunchback assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye). Uninterested, Fritz watches the one man fill the grave, totally conscious that they will persistently work throughout the night to bring their Frankenstein to this earthly plain.

This is the prelude to pure madness, obsession and uncanny science that can only end in tears and enduring tragedy. As the plot evolves, remarkably closely to the original novel, a night sky, tempestuous and stormy, the mad scientist and his loyal assistant bring an inhuman being to life, stitched together from the parts of dead corpses, infused by a powerful lightning bolt that abruptly, energises the grotesque creature’s first heart-breaking breath.

In the early-to-mid 1930s, Universal Studios’ most infamous personalities were involved in the adaptation of the horrific novel, featuring Frye, Edward Van Sloan as Frankenstein’s mentor (an actor who was also involved in early adaptations of ‘Dracula’, and ‘The Mummy’), makeup artist Jack Pierce, writers Garret Fort and John L. Balderston, and English film director James Whale (which also was involved in the direction of the now classic, ‘Bride of Frankenstein’). Playing Frankenstein was a then-unknown British actor, William Henry Pratt, better known by his stage name Boris Karloff.

Boris Karloff is the most remarkable name until the date after the video cassette recorder first debuted, providing an enduring presence of Frankenstein through his solid interpretation he which he imitated, misinterpreted and occasionally, parodied more often than any devoted horror aficionado can treasure. He added an unparalleled depth to the character which could have remained as a lumbering hulk.

Frankenstein by the personal interpretation of Boris Karloff had close moments that resounded almost Shakespearean, all without vocalising one single audible word.

Frankenstein’s abnormal brain dimensions and subplot become utterly irrelevant in Boris Karloff’s hands. He gave another dimension to the “monster” that often resembles a child who’s given excessive power and yet, lacks the sensitive love emotion toward his “father”, dehumanising it somehow, still keeping Frankenstein strong enough to survive, even if his perception of hate and love, remains incomprehensive.

The adaptation is an admirable effort, mastered with insane histrionics that brought benefits to the film. The iconic scream of “It is alive!” is certainly one of the highlights of the film’s history, as Edward Van Sloan adds a hint of his undeniable British accent and confidence to his role, alongside with John Boles necromantic secondary lead, which back in the day tended to be a cliché for reasons yet unknown.

Concerning Elizabeth, Mae Clark is quite acceptable in the role, even thus, she disappoints to prove her ability to enunciate her part of the role clearly. There is a particular scene in which she describes a premonition of impending doom, horrible overwrought, and theatrical. Valerie Hobson however, would have been a much better choice to play the role in ‘Bride of Frankenstein,’ the sequel to this film.

James Whale added a frill ambience to the film, been Universal Studios’ current wunderkind, he reminded us that early stage adaptations did not have to be overwhelmingly eerie. The film is extremely cinematic, completed with flicking camera motions and abrupt visuals. He counted on the assistance of Arthur Edeson, who would later work on such classic films as ‘The Maltese Falcon’ and ‘Casablanca.’

Frankenstein’s conceptual designs are quite remarkable for the era, top-notch I must say, not to mention legendary nowadays. Jack Pierce did some thoughtful research when creating the design, by studying criminology, surgery, human anatomy, burial vestments from both ancient and current times, and electrodynamics. James Whale also stated that he deeply appreciated what Boris Karloff brought to the character, and wrote that “(Boris) Karloff’s face fascinated me. I made drawings of the head, added sharp bony ridges where I imagined the skull might have joined.” The make-up concept has become the trademark for more recent Frankenstein incarnations, and became copyrighted by Universal Studios.

Taking a favourite scene from the entire film is somehow, a hard task to accomplish. The entire film is a first-rate, classical masterpiece with top-notch lab sequences, with a fiery climax and eerie moments, Frankenstein was not overdone, nor exploited to the point that boredom takes over, instead, it is a subtle film filled with grand moments, and quite a heart-stopper in its time.

Indeed, a cult classic horror film, compelled with madness and elaborated visual creativity, a phenomenon that sprang from a single film.

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