Henry Frankenstein played by Colin Clive and his assistant Fritz portrayed by Dwight Frye stalk the graveyards at night. They dig up the fresh corpses of the recently deceased in order to fulfill a mad scientist’s dream. They seek to give life to a dead, stitch-quilted chimera of a man. In their quest to play God they create something “…The Modern Prometheus” author, Mary Shelley describes as “supremely frightful.” After all “any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the creator of the world” would be a terrifying marvel.
In this 1931 Universal Pictures adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel director James Whale greatly revised the story and concept of the film so the final product strongly deviates from the source material and has its own identity. Many of the iconic features of this stable horror archetype have nothing to do with the novel. We marvel at Jack Pierce ’s now iconic flat head makeup design for the Monster. Horror fans can also thank the electrician turned set designer Kenneth Strickfaden for the electrical effects we shall forever associate with the Monster’s “creation.” The well-read, intelligent creature who is driven to murder due to his master’s neglect and abandonment was reimagined into an innocent, near-mute monster. Boris Karloff’s version of the Monster doesn’t kill because he has the brain of a murderer but due to his childlike ignorance. The Monster does not understand the consequences of his actions.
“It’s alive! It’s alive! In the name of God, it’s alive! Now I know what it feels like to be God!” – Henry Frankenstein
The Monster is a creature that cannot be hated and is deserving of sympathy while the reckless Frankenstein truly deserves the wrath of the mob. Henry Frankenstein irresponsibly creates life with no regard for the ethical dilemma his attempt at playing God poses. In his quest for glory, he creates a perversion of nature. In the “creation scene” Henry brings his creation to life in view of an audience. His fiance Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), best friend Victor (John Boles), and his former mentor Dr. Waldman (Edward van Sloan) all watch in awe as the mad Doctor breaths life into his creature and are horrified by his mangled face and intimidated by his grand stature.
The creature is “born” innocent yet is painted as the living embodiment of sin. In the film, Frankenstein marvels at his creation and it doesn’t seem as though he wishes to destroy it. It is his friends and colleagues who label the creature as a monster and argue in favor of its destruction. They violently lock the creature away and to make matters worse Frankenstein’s assistant Fritz regularly greets the Monster abusively and torments him with fire (which he is terrified of). While Frankenstein never condones Fritz’s behavior he also doesn’t put a major effort in preventing this abuse from happening. This neglect is just as bad as watching your own child get harassed and beaten unfairly and instead of acting like a parent becoming a bystander.
To no one’s surprise, the Monster later kills Fritz in self-defense. While Dr. Waldman views this act as the murderous brain of the creature acting on its nature, Frankenstein can clearly see that the creature was defending itself. Even after Dr. Waldman convinces him to destroy his creation he is visibly conflicted and to absolve himself of this responsibility he pushes the task off onto Dr. Waldman who is later killed by the creature. Frankenstein never actual checks to make sure that the Monster is destroyed because its something he doesn’t want to think about. The decision to kill his creation was one he was reluctant to make and arguably one he never truly committed to.
While on the run the Monster meets a small child who is playing by the water. The girl shows him how the flowers float much to their amusement. During the 1930’s this scene was highly controversial. He throws the girl into the water thinking she’d float too and accidentally drowns her in the process. Later we see her distraught father carry her small lifeless body through the village. This cold morbidity is juxtaposed to the cheerful villagers and then there is a sudden shift. It’s not only the father whose world has been inverted. The town grieves with him and is grows angry with him. They blindly turn their rage to the creature without knowing that it is the House of Frankenstein who they should be punishing. While the villagers rush to find and destroy the Monster it seems like Frankenstein is only interested in Destroying the evidence.
In the end, Frankenstein is a story about the single-minded pursuit of science, the disregard for morality and the dangers of playing God. More importantly, Frankenstein is a cautionary tale about the consequences of neglecting one’s responsibilities. In this scientist’s quest for glory, he accomplishes an amazing feat but fails to consider the ramifications. Not only does he fail to consider the negative outcomes he also refuses to acknowledge them. Henrey Frankenstein is never held accountable for his actions. Although Henry never kills anyone directly he doesn’t provide the villagers the opportunity to learn the truth about the Monster’s origin. While he was quick to bost about creating a life he remains surprisingly quiet when the life he created begins to destroy others. With this in mind, we must ask ourselves “who truly deserves the title of Monster?”