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USA, 1931

Director: James Whale

Production: Universal Pictures; black and white, 35mm; running time: 71 minutes. Released 1931. Filmed in Universal studios. Cost: $250,000.

Producer: Carl Laemmle Jr.; screenplay: Garrett Fort, Francis Faragoh, and John L. Balderston, uncredited first draft by Robert Florey, from John Balderston's adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel adapted from the play by Peggy Webling; photography: Arthur Edeson; editor: Clarence Kolster; sound recording supervisor: C. Roy Hunter; art director: Charles Hall; music: David Broekman; makeup: Jack Pierce; laboratory equipment: Ken Strickfadden.

Cast: Colin Clive (Dr. Henry Frankenstein); Boris Karloff (The Monster); Mae Clarke (Elizabeth); John Boles (Victor); Edward Van Sloan (Dr. Waldman); Dwight Frye (Fritz); Frederick Kerr.



Fort, Garrett, Francis Faragoh, and John L. Balderston, James Whale'sFrankenstein, edited by Richard Anobile, New York, 1974.


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Verstappen, H., "Schept vreugde met mij, horror freaks," in Skoop (Amsterdam), no. 2, 1972.

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* * *

James Whale's 1931 version of Frankenstein remains a cinema miracle that defies time. Some 50 years since its premiere, its sensitive craftsmanship and relentlessly macabre tone still set horror movie standards, even after decades of noisome parodies and splatterfilm overkill.

Whale treats his protagonist's obsession with galvanizing life from sewn corpses as a stark and shadowy moral tale, more in keeping with the German Expressionist influence of Robert Wiene's Caligari than Mary Shelley's Gothic overtones. Though heavy on dialogue in the beginning, Frankenstein unfolds as an intensely visual nightmare, a sleepwalker's journey along hideous graveyards, gibbets, and gnarly corridors—leading up to the meticulous penultimate climax when Dr. Frankenstein's creation slowly turns his face towards the camera.

Ironically, Frankenstein profits from the very qualities other critics have claimed drag it down. Its leaden mood, stagey acting and lack of a musical score make it all the more somber and bleak. Whale's camera is quite active throughout these funereal settings and suffers very little from the manacles inherent in other early talkies. In fact, practically all of the cinematic innovations credited to Whale's sequel Bride of Frankenstein are already here: the tracking camera, the sudden jumps from long-shot to close-up, the extreme high and low angles during the creation sequence, and the lurid sets with their demented religious icons.

At the same time, Whale flaunts his theatrical origins with a reverence for the stage. The very first frames when Edward Van Sloan (who plays Frankenstein's mentor, Dr. Waldman) confronts the footlights for his teasing introduction, and the later tracking shots along the opulent rooms of Baron Frankenstein's castle, remind us that this is, after all, nothing but artifice, a world where scenery is a trompe l'oeil projection of Dr. Frankenstein's subconscious fears.

Frankenstein still scares viewers because it works as both a horror film and a psychological study. As Frankenstein, Colin Clive, with his harsh enunciations and jittery motions, is perfect in his portrayal of a man beleaguered by twisted dreams and ambiguous morals. Is this really, as Shelley claimed, a story about the perils of hubris, or is it more concerned with a man apprehensive about falling into a connubial quagmire? By suggesting more of the latter, Whale may have directly borrowed from Thomas Edison's long lost silent version, which reportedly ends with a dissolve between the mirrored faces of Dr. Frankenstein and his Monster just before Elizabeth is about to be murdered. Edison allowed the creature to die so that the doctor could face up to marital obligations, but Whale suggests that Frankenstein's darker passions surpass the tedium Elizabeth (an appropriately bland role for Mae Clarke) has to offer him. In this regard, the Monster is less a sub-human fiend and more like the third party in a lover's triangle or quadrangle when we consider that Frankenstein's friend Victor Moritz (John Boles) has eyes on the future bride.

Whale's delight in lampooning "normal" sexual mores (a penchant culminating in his 1938 film Wives under Suspicion) is buttressed by Garrett Fort and Francis E. Farragoh's ambivalent script which questions how the characters really feel about one another. Elizabeth has countless anxieties about her nuptial partner and even seems coy when Victor vies for her affections. On the wedding day, when news hits that the Monster is loose, Whale inserts a curious close-up of Frankenstein's hands locking Elizabeth in her bridal chamber, suggesting perhaps that the doctor is unconsciously making her more vulnerable since the would-be killer will soon enter her room through the window. Off to reunite with his nemesis in a vigilante search, Frankenstein looks firmly into Victor's eyes while surrendering Elizabeth into his care. The scene ends with Victor creeping towards Elizabeth's room.

As a homewrecker, Frankenstein's Monster merits the humanity and dignity of Boris Karloff's performance, despite the grease paint, wire clamps, wax eyelids, and a 48-pound steel spine designed by Jack Pierce. Karloff's empathy is unfortunately diminished by the subplot in which Frankenstein's hunchback assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye as comic relief) unwittingly acquires a "criminal" brain from his boss, thereby ruining the notion that the Monster's brutality is a learned response.

Whale's film leaves us with the unsettling conclusion that the real monsters are the diurnal world's dim-witted denizens, a fact made more apparent when Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr) predicts that the townspeople revelling over his son's wedding will soon be fighting again. Hours later, the news of little Maria's murder turns the jocular crowd into a bloodthirsty mob. The recently restored footage (missing since its screen debut) of the Monster throwing Maria (Marilyn Harris) into a lake transpires so quickly and nonchalantly that the pedophile scenarios left to our imaginations all these years are debunked. Now we have proof that the child murder was an innocent error. Not content simply to cast his Monster as a pariah, Whale promotes him to a Christ figure in the final scene when the creation throws his creator from the abandoned windmill into the vengeful crowd. An extreme long-shot of the burning mill resembles the cross on Calvary. Though he disapproved of the tacked-on happy ending when Frankenstein survives his fall, Whale still achieved that supreme inversion of "good" and "evil" that makes the best horror films survive.

—Joseph Lanza

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Frankenstein The clanking, bolted Boris Karloff, whose latest incarnation is the parodic Herman Munster, has become the popular image of the Frankenstein monster — in defiance of the illustration — accompanying the 1831 edition of Mary Shelley's novel, Frankenstein, which depicts the creature as a far more human and personable-looking being. The monstrous brood of her creation is a hideous progeny that has found its way into cinema, popular fiction, and critical theory by taking literally the injunction in her introduction to the 1831 edition to ‘go forth and prosper’. The proliferation of the monstrous body is the anxiety that afflicts the mad scientist hero, Victor Frankenstein. His experimentation allegorizes not only the way in which science is not always in control of its metaphors, but also how men can lose control of the monsters they themselves create.

In preparation for his monstrous experiment Victor scours charnel houses, places for vivisection, and graveyards, for parts from which to assemble his New Adam or Modern Prometheus, which is the novel's subtitle. Body snatching was rendered obsolete a year after the third revised edition of Frankenstein by the 1832 Anatomy Act, which made available for dissection the bodies of unclaimed paupers. For this reason, the blasphemy of Victor's nefarious activities has impacted less on the modern reader than on Shelley's contemporaries. The monstrosity of his creation is predicated upon the dilemma that, despite his having selected the most beautiful parts, only God can harmonize the whole. The product of Victor's labours is a creature that is eight foot tall with yellow skin and straight black lips, from which he recoils in horror. Victor's reaction, in regard to skin colour, is replete with racist overtones. His creation is a mirror-image of colonization since, in wanting to reshape the world anew, he plunders the old. His aversion to his ‘hideous progeny’ can also be seen as a post-natal rejection of a newly-born infant by its mother. Some feminist critics have interpreted Frankenstein as an allegory of childbirth which, in this case, is the product of solitary male propagation, being the proverbial scientist's brain child.

Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley's mother, wrote about the importance of a maternal and nurturing presence in the upbringing of a child. Despite having mastered language and the range of human emotions, abandonment and the withdrawal of affection has warped Frankenstein's creation into the actuality of a monstrous self. Taking revenge on Victor, the creature murders his young brother William and pins the blame on a young family servant, Justine, who is eventually wrongly executed for the crime. Later he kills Victor's best friend Henry Clerval and his fiancé Elizabeth Lavenza. At the end of the novel, we are left to assume that he takes his own life in the Arctic wastes following the final confrontation between creator and created — which is foreshadowed by John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667) from which the epigraph of the novel is taken. The trail of destruction and waste has been interpreted as a warning of the potential dangers of modern science. Had Victor not abandoned his original mentors, necromancers like Paracelsus, Cornelius Agrippa, and Albertus Magnus, he might have created a harmless homunculus instead of the creature, who exacts revenge upon him.

The monster has been seen by Marxist critics as representing the new social order of the industrial proletariat, the destruction of the body politic by the mob in the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, and a Malthusian dystopia born of a monstrous growth in population (see Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798). The fear of breeding a race of monsters leads Victor to destroy the female mate he has created for his creature by dismembering ‘the thing’ he had put together. The perception of both creature and mate as subalterns, who are subhuman, is integral to the process of colonization and the concept of ‘thingification’ whereby the colonizer assumes a position of power and superiority over the colonized. Once it was known that the author was a woman, the novel become a trope for the monstrosities produced by the female imagination as a source of patriarchal anxiety. For this reason, Mary Shelley may have felt it to be incumbent upon herself to explain in her later introduction, ‘How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?’ (1831).

The impetus for completing the novel is thought by critics such as Marilyn Butler to have arisen from the interest of Mary and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley in current debates between the schools of vitalism and materialism as to the creation of life, experiments in galvanism on executed criminals, and a general vogue for automata. The genesis of the novel, which was first published in 1818, is explained in the preface to the revised 1831 edition, where Mary Shelley describes her participation in the ghost-story competition at the Villa Diodati in 1816. After a nocturnal conversation about Erasmus Darwin's apparent animation of a piece of vermicelli, she has a terrifying waking dream that gives her the idea for the creature.

The real nightmare described in the book, however, is the predicament of a being trapped in a monstrous body, who is sickened by his own image and shunned by human society. The text encourages the modern reader to reconsider the responsibilities of science, particularly in relation to such controversial areas as genetic engineering, cloning, and reproductive technologies. Victor's teratological experiment may even be read as a parable for the dangers of male science, which have escalated subsequently into the nuclear arms race. By questioning our received notions of aesthetics, particularly the way in which the creature is rejected by society on account of his appearance, the novel invites us to consider afresh the relationship we have with our own body and its interaction with the outside world.

Marie Mulvey-Roberts

See also monsters.

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The name of the creator of the archetypal zombielike artificial man, as well as the moniker given his creation. Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851), a classic of English occult fiction, was first published in London in 1818 in three volumes. It tells the story of how Dr. Victor Frankenstein creates an artificial man out of fragments of bodies from churchyards and dissecting roomsa human form without a soul. The monster longs for love and sympathy but inspires only horror and loathing and becomes a powerful force for evil. It seeks revenge against its creator, murdering his friend, brother, and bride and ultimately bringing death to Frankenstein himself.

The book owes much to discussions of the time regarding the scientific work of Erasmus Darwin and to theories of spontaneous generation and the power of electricity, and is thus also an early science-fiction story. In her introduction Mary Shelley writes of the possibility that a corpse might be reanimated.

The book also contains powerful writing with an overall theme of the moral limits of science and technology. The subtitle refers to the question of whether science has the right to usurp the divine function of creation. (Prometheus was a mythological Greek who stole fire from heaven and thereafter suffered a horrible punishment from the god Zeus.) The book was also popular as a modern myth of the dangers of the industrial era and the many unplanned horrors created by human inventions manufactured to be a boon to the race.

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote a first draft of the story of Fran-kenstein in the company of Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori, and Claire Clairmont when the group spent a week taking opium while vacationing at the Villa Diodati, Geneva, in the summer of 1816. Polidori's The Vampyre, came from a suggestion by Byron that weekend and generated interest in another monster theme, culminating in such later thrillers as Bram Stoker 's Dracula (1897).


Baldrick, Chris. In Frankenstein's Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Florescu, Radu. In Search of Frankenstein. New York: New York Graphic Society, 1975.

Forry, Steven Earl. Hideous Progenies: Dramatizations of Fran-kenstein from Mary Shelley to the Present. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.

Glut, Donald F. The Frankenstein Catalog. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1984.

Troop, Martin. Mary Shelley's Monster. Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

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Frankenstein a character in the novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Shelley. Baron Frankenstein is a scientist who creates and brings to life a manlike monster which eventually turns on him and destroys him; Frankenstein is not the name of the monster itself, as is often assumed, and sometimes suggested in allusive use.

In the 1990s, the name has been used by opponents of the development of genetically-modified crops in the expressions Frankenstein food or Frankenfood.

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Frank·en·stein / ˈfrangkənˌstīn/ a character in the novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Shelley. Baron Frankenstein is a scientist who creates and brings to life a manlike monster that eventually turns on him and destroys him; Frankenstein is not the name of the monster itself, as is often assumed. ∎  (also Frankenstein's monster) [as n.] a thing that becomes terrifying or destructive to its maker.

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"Frankenstein." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Frankenstein •canine • asinine • leonine • saturnine •Antonine • pavonine • rapine •alpine, cisalpine •pitchpine • orpine •lupine, supine •porcupine • vulpine • salamandrine •alexandrine • sapphirine • taurine •endocrine • aventurine • vulturine •colubrine • lacustrine • estuarine •viperine • passerine • catarrhine •intrauterine, uterine •adulterine • riverine • ensign •internecine, V-sign •piscine • porcine • cosine • thylacine •countersign •hircine, ursine •shoeshine • moonshine • sunshine •earthshine •adamantine, Byzantine, elephantine •Tridentine • Levantine • Bechstein •Epstein • amethystine • Rubinstein •Frankenstein • Palestine • Philistine •turpentine • Einstein • Eisenstein •cispontine, transpontine •serotine • infantine • Wittgenstein •Argentine • Palatine •Ballantyne, valentine •eglantine • Hammerstein •clementine • vespertine • serpentine •Florentine •Lichtenstein, Liechtenstein •Constantine • nemertine • Bernstein •hyacinthine, labyrinthine •Jugurthine • grapevine • bovine •Glühwein • cervine • equine

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