Having seen bits and pieces of this at various times on cable growing up, it was an interesting experience to finally sit down and watch this in its entirety. I found I was most familiar with the latter half, which while interesting, is less striking without the first. Most people know the story: Dr. Frankenstein is determined to create a man, taking body parts from digging up graves, the gallows, and even the medical school. When he has all the pieces in place, and with the aid of a lightening storm, he is able to channel the needed energy into the man, giving him life. But Frankenstein’s new man ends up killing people, leading to a violent confrontation to end the film. But this is a film about much more than a monster story. It confronts questions as large as what it means to be human, and the beauty of it is, it asks us to examine these questions by looking through the eyes of a monster.The opening half of the film works to set up the tragedy to follow. Of course, the moment we meet Frankenstein, he and Fritz are preparing to dig up a freshly buried man. As they do, Frankenstein heaves a shovelful of dirt right onto an image of the grim reaper, there in the graveyard. He is above death, for he knows how to give life, to breathe life into a dead body. This is the power of God, and it is Frankenstein’s mission to create a man in his own image, without the participation of God. This arrogance serves notice of troubles to follow. But it also sets up an important characteristic about Dr. Frankenstein and his own humanity: he is completely self-serving. Even at his own wedding, his mind is clearly on his experiment. In this sense, Dr. Frankenstein is one-dimensional. He has no complexity in the moral arena, there seems to be no tension there. Even after things go badly, like at the wedding, he never has a crisis of conscience.
This is a great contrast to the monster. Once the monster is created with the help of the storm, we see it – or is it him? (This is an interesting point, for while the monster is supposed to be Frankenstein’s creation of a man, he never gets above referring to the monster as “it.”) However, the monster begins to act violently toward Fritz, but only in reaction to Fritz’s nervousness and aggressiveness. This eventually leads to Fritz’s death. And if the monster kills anyone, it is either because he is being attacked in someway, or it is much more ambiguous, as with Maria. Signs point very strongly to it having been an accident with Maria, and the monster runs when he sees what he’s done. He seems to know he has accidentally done a bad thing. These elements lead to a lot of questions: Is the monster really evil? Does he have any moral sensibility? If there are no moral sensibilities, is he a man? Can he be human without any moral sensibility? In that sense, what does it say about Dr. Frankenstein, who is only ever concerned about himself and achieving success in his experiment? I mean, at least the monster has some variance – fear, violence in self-defense, playfulness. It seems then, that in a moral sense, the monster is more complex and advanced than the doctor.
Thus, it is the ending that is so troubling. Yes, the monster is responsible for the deaths of multiple people. Yes, he seems likely to kill even more people if left alive. However, one cannot help but feel sorrow as the monster is chased down like a dog and given the worst possible end he could be given. The idea here seems to be that he was created that way – he could not help but act the way he did. He really didn’t know any better. And no one seemed too anxious to help him. Dr. Frankenstein was too consumed with himself and the success of his project. Once it started to get out of hand, Frankenstein essentially gives back to the monster what the monster has doled out to Fritz and others – violence. Yet this only ends in tragedy. Was there an opportunity for reasoning with the monster? He surely seemed open to playfulness with Maria. He was far from one-dimensional, but due to the pursuit and taunting, most of what we see from him are fearful reactions to the ill-treatment from others.
On top of all this, I cannot help but see how this really speaks into the life of director James Whale, a man known not only for directing this film, but for being a homosexual at a time when it was much less acceptable than it is today. One can easily slip Whale into the shoes of the monster, a man who was simply created with a particular kind of brain, and is thereby forced to act this way. Yet, those actions are not acceptable, so the man must be treated poorly. There is real pathos from the monster, and I wonder if that comes not only from the performance of Karloff, but from the strong connection Whale no doubt had with this material. It’s no wonder then that this is often considered the greatest of all the old monster pictures of the 30’s. And maybe we need to say that even more strongly: this is just a great film period.