I have seen Frankenstein, directed by Frank Whale, twice. I saw it for the first time when I was still a kid, and I considered it to be one of the scariest movies ever. I saw it a second time in the class screening and I was rather disappointed by the movie. This may either result from my expectations I had from my childhood remembrances or due to the fact that Metropolis, which was shown before, was so great.
He behaves like a god when he “creates” a new life form.
To me, Frankenstein is about mankind´s striving for superiority and its fatal outcomes. Dr. Frankenstein wants to surpass the laws of nature by bringing a dead body to life again. He behaves like a god when he “creates” a new life form. But nature strikes back, the creature is evil and destructive and everybody has to learn that it is better not to play with nature and o behave god-like. Nowadays, whenever there is a discussion about biogenetic engineering and cloning, it is very likely that somebody comes up with the example of Frankenstein´s monster.
The plot is clearly motivated by the monster.
The movie is narrated from an omniscient point of view. The spectator has insight in everything: We can see Dr. Frankenstein in his castle, then we can see the people standing outside, waiting for Frankenstein to open the door, we can see the monster when it escapes. The story is trying to create tension and suspense right away from the start. There is some kind of a foreshadowing when we have to learn that Igor has stolen a madman´s brain. This can mean no good and the spectator is impatiently waiting till the monster is created and becomes evil. So, the plot is clearly motivated by the monster. The movie´s whole idea is about a creature made by a human, the monster´s awakening, his behavior and his looks, the monster´s escape from the watchtower, his actions, his killing and the excitement what is going to happen with the monster.
The sound reinforces the impression of the movie´s artificial setting and studio atmosphere.
There´s not much to say about the sound, I think. It is no silent movie, so people actually talk in this movie. But nevertheless, the conversations are very one-dimensional and somewhat artificial sometimes: Short sentences, meaningful proclamations (“It´s alive! It´s aliiiiive!…”). To me, the language and the way of how the characters talk in the movie reinforce the impression of the movie´s artificial setting and studio atmosphere.
Again very interesting is the photography in the movie. There is very often an establishing shot as an introduction to new settings: scenes in the watchtower lab and in the living room are always introduced by an establishing shot. The sequence of how shots are taken changes in the movie. Sometimes, the typical long-shot-followed-by-a-medium-show-followed-by-a-close up-sequence prevails, most often in conversations between people. But it also happens that only medium shots are used sometimes, and again, sometimes only close-ups are used. This is the case, for example, when Frankenstein talks with the professor about the monster and what it means. In thise scene, we can mostly see their faces. In other scenes, we see people talking from the hip upwards so we have a medium shot here. I think the close ups are mostly used to create more closeness and importance to the conversations. But one shot is outstanding in the movie: When Dr. Frankenstein marries, the scene starts with a close up of the couple and zooms/pans backwards to a wide long shot, showing the church and the audience attending the ceremony.
In the movie, the choice of the camera angles is also very interesting. The camera angles always seem to serve to emphasize a character´s perspective. Accordingly, a low angle is used when Dr. Frankenstein is looking up into the sky in his watchtower lab. A high angle is used when Fritz is looking down the stairway. Very interesting is the perspective that is used when the monster is introduced: A straight angle is used that fits the other character´s body height. We see Dr. Frankenstein and the surrounding people completely, but we only see the monster´s body up to the neck. This angle is used to show the monster´s gigantic size compared to an ordinary person. Moreover, this perspective creates suspense. The panning is often very static. It reminded me very often of a stage play. This impression is even more reinforced when the camera pans from one room to another (using a dolly) without a cut. This happens for example in the watchtower scenes. We see the scenery from the front, Igor leaves the lab and heads for the stairway, the camera pans from the lab to the left, passing the brick wall, the stairway is shown, Igor descends the stairs. This method is also used in the living rooms scenes when somebody leaves the living room, the camera pans to the left, the wall is shown from the front, and the person standing in the hallway can be seen now. This again, as mentioned before, contributes to the artificial atmosphere of the movie. The movies backgrounds, which are paintings (graveyard scene) and studio constructions appear very one-dimensional, there are no real outdoor scenes.
Most of the time, the scenes are well lit and high-key lighting prevails. In some scenes, the light comes from above, especially in the lab scenes when Dr. Frankenstein looks into the sky or when the monster wants to see the light and looks up.
I have written this film response in 2000 in my “The Horror Movie” undergraduate class (University of Massachusetts at Amherst).
Image: Universal Pictures