For forty-four years I have loved the Universal Monsters (that’s right, I’m gonna say since birth). Even before I had seen Gill-man’s movie, I liked the character. The same goes for the Phantom (although I liked his movie less than the others, I respect its place in the franchise– the best version will always be the 1925 adaptation with Lon Chaney). I love The Wolf Man, The Mummy, and Dracula, but Frankenstein is my hands-down favorite. I knew who these creatures were before I actually saw their movies (or in the case of the Count and the Monster, before I read their source novels). These horror creations are cultural icons, as important and recognizable, if not more so, than Batman, Superman or Spider-Man.
I watched Frankenstein for the first time when I was about nine- or ten-years-old. I was immediately taken with its atmosphere. Back in the day, Universal (the horror pictures anyway) had production design down to a science, even in their lesser– read that as lower budgeted– efforts.
The opening scene, beyond the public service announcement, in the graveyard alone is a horror maniac’s wet dream. I could live in that scene with its skeletal trees creaking and cracking in the wind. I’d even keep the tombstones and the lay of the land. From there, I was pulled into Frankenstein’s world. This movie alone laid the foundation for Francis Ford Coppola’s production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. A Nightmare Before Christmas has origins here, too. For all its Gothic decrepitude and decay, and obsession with death, Frankenstein is immediately alive.
This monster, in this movie, more than any other film incarnation or portrayal, or even in Mary Shelley’s book, is a touchstone in the history of horror cinema. Other actors would don the famous flattop and ghoulish make-up— Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr., (the very underrated) Glenn Strange— but none would ever come close to what Boris Karloff accomplished.
As if you didn’t already know the story of Frankenstein, the book or the movie, it is the story of a scientist who plays God and creates life. Doctor Frankenstein assembles a man from the bodies of other dead men, complete with a purloined brain. The problem is that instead of his henchman, Fritz, stealing brain of a normal man, he takes the brain of a criminal. Harnessing the power of lightning, Frankenstein brings his creation to life. Naturally, with a criminal brain, the big, lumbering monster is uncontrollable and has a tendency to exhibit his violent, murderous streak.
Such as all things go, though, even the most monstrous have their moments of innocence, purity, of common good. As simple as the monster seems, Karloff imbues him with complexity and pathos.
I cannot properly express how much I love this movie. Or how good it is. Frankenstein’s Monster reaches me on a deeper level than other characters in either cinema or fiction. I’ve never been an outsider, never been bullied, but I sympathize with the Monster. A large part of that may be attributed to the great Karloff’s performance. Whatever it is, I feel like I get him. Maybe, like the creature, I’m still trying to find my place in the world.