With great skill and humour, Whale treated the film stock as if it were his canvas; his own laboratory. The monster’s make-up by Jack Pierce is iconic in its simplicity, sketching stitches and brushing bolts to craft a beautiful monstrosity played by the then-unknown Boris Karloff. The sets are meticulously detailed with matchstick forests, laboratories of smoke and mirrors, castles and graveyards filled with twisted architecture; all warmed by harsh shadows and painted backdrops that appear like moving expressionist paintings.
Once the actors enter into these theatrical dressings, the film plays like an elaborate stage production. The performances are larger than life. Colin Clive plays the mad scientist Dr. Frankenstein with a lustful vigour that all but destroys him and the ones he loves. Driven by his sick experiments and too quick to dismiss his fiancée and family, he made a monster. Our desire to watch that monster being created pushed that curiosity. Yet Frankenstein’s monster is at the heart of Whale’s film. Karloff’s portrayal is equal parts endearing and dangerous: he wants to exist. When ostracized by the entire township because he lives and breathes, the monster insists in his existence. We’re given a soft mammoth of a man who grows and wants to love yet becomes an uncontrollable weapon at the drop of a hat.
Dr. Frankenstein and his creature are both monsters. But only one is given redeeming qualities. Karloff can be vicious but he walks with the naivety of a misunderstood child. Bride Of Frankenstein (also directed by Whale) has the monster searching for a mate through the film’s duration. He learns of friendship and picks up simple speech through a blind man who accepts him before being ripped away. The result of his threats and Dr. Frankenstein’s labours to create a bride are heartbreaking. When his bride-to-be is unveiled before his eyes, Karloff lights up and she gives him one glance before screaming in horror. Tragic.
While modern renditions of the character have skewed from Karloff’s portrayal, just as he did from Mary Shelley’s source material, there’s a definite reason that this creature has survived. His monstrous frame contains all the frailties of being human. Even when Frankenstein’s monster is berated, outcast, torched, broken, shot and stabbed, our sympathies rest with him more than ever. James Whale’s films are genuine works of art with a heart that keeps on beating.