Monday Movie: Frankenstein, by David Bax
Frankenstein’s monster, at least as imagined by Boris Karloff and James Whale, is not really a classic movie monster or villain. Yet he performs at least one act that is horrifyingly monstrous, and all the more so for his innocence. There are moments from horror movies that stick with me, not necessarily because they scared me—that’s usually fleeting—but because they unnerved me. A tree with hungry, groping limbs swallowing a living boy whole in Poltergeist. A mother discovering her teenage daughter’s corpse, face rotting in eternal terror, in a closet in The Ring.
And in Frankenstein, the lumbering creature accidentally drowns a little girl in a moment of playful abandon. It’s disturbing to imagine yourself in the place of the girl or in the place of her family. But it’s also crushing to put yourself in the monster’s shoes; it’s his distraught confusion that still writhes in my gut after all these years. It’s such a powerful scene that, in 1973, Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice made an entire movie about a child’s reaction to it, the beautiful The Spirit in the Beehive.
Whale was an incredibly talented director. Karloff’s performance raises the film to the level of great tragedy. And there’s a whole movie to be amazed by (well, there’s 71 minutes of it, which constituted a whole movie back in 1931). But when I think of Frankenstein and I close my eyes, I will always just see that dead little girl and that hurt, bewildered, overgrown child.