This is a part of our ongoing Halloween series taking a look at the most influential horror directors from around the globe. Previously: David Cronenberg, Alfred Hitchcock and John Carpenter.
Frankenstein wasn’t the first horror movie; it wasn’t even the first Frankenstein movie (Thomas Edison beat Universal’s stab by 21 years), but director James Whale seemed to know exactly what elements must be used to harness the tricky lightning of the horror genre into mainstream success. The former set decorator from England made four horror films in rapid succession, Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), before moving on to tackle drama, musical and adventure films.
While not regularly considered in conversations about horrormeisters like Wes Craven or John Carpenter, we’d argue that he most definitely should be.
The Importance of Casting
It’s easy to recognize the brilliance in Karloff’s iconic portrayal of the Frankenstein Monster, but consider Whale’s other shockers. In The Old Dark House Karloff returns as a hulking, hairy mute butler (inspiring Charles Addams to create The Addam’s Family’s Lurch) and gives Brember Wills (best remembered for his later role in Bride of Frankenstein as the blind hermit) a juicy part as a giggling pyromaniac. The single greatest thing in The Invisible Man is the performance from Claude Rains, at times delirious, campy, hilarious and chilling. Whale brought back one of the stars of The Old Dark House in The Bride of Frankenstein: Ernst Thesiger, portraying the heaviest of heavies, Dr. Pretorious, a preening, arrogant, blasphemous scientist and the second best pure villain that the Universal Horrors ever produced (after Dracula, of course). If Pretorious wasn’t monstrous enough, he cast Elsa Lanchester as the Monster’s Bride. Lanchester is oddly mannered, almost animalistic, but stunningly beautiful, and her visage is the one most easily associated with female monsters.
When it comes to casting, Whale knew what he was doing. Even if the choices weren’t exclusively his (many of them were -- Thesiger, in particular, was a close friend of the director’s), he was able to draw out amazing performances. Coupled with some of the best design work in cinema history, Whale’s monsters are all-time greats. He realized early on that in horror the other actors were there for support. Colin Clive may have considerably more screen time than Boris Karloff in Frankenstein, but Karloff’s role is the lynchpin of the whole enterprise. These movies rise and fall on their monsters.
Tone Is King
Originally, I was going to point out the importance of humor, a vital ingredient to Whale’s shockers, but the more I considered it, the more it seemed obvious that what I was mistaking for humor was an overall mastery of tone at work in Whale’s films. There are always tension-breaking moments of comedy in Whale’s films -- this is a tradition that carries over from the earliest days of the theater -- but where Whale succeeds is in keeping his tension intact through the camp.
It’s funny to see the Frankenstein Monster happily puff on a cigar for the first time, while proclaiming “Good! Good!” but nothing about the character himself is lost. He’s still volatile and frightening and still able to draw sympathy from the audience with his infantile world view. Whale doesn’t cheapen the moment; he was doing creepy-funny before creepy-funny was cool. Now guys like Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, Eli Roth, James Gunn and Drew Goddard pepper their horror films with moments of whacko humor. Check out the reveal of the invalid androgynous bearded man (played by an old woman) who’s the patriarch of the family in The Old Dark House. It’s hilarious because it’s surprising and audacious, but creepy because it’s still so unnatural. That voice shouldn’t be coming from that body.
The Invisible Man is never not dangerous, no matter how over-the-top Una O’Connor is in her role as the hysterical innkeeper. The running gag of Dr. Pretorius declaring everything under the sun as his “only vice” gets funnier as the movie progresses, while the movie itself gets gradually darker. Nothing ever feels out of place. It takes a delicate hand to keep the lighter moments from running away with a film, and Whale knew exactly how and when to let those moments play in the midst of his dark proceedings.
Sympathy for the Devil
Much has been written about how sympathetic the Frankenstein Monster is, but to look at all of Whale’s monsters, you begin to realize that they’re all fully formed characters. The Invisible Man may be a homicidal nutjob, but his motivation comes from prickly feelings of low self-worth (which becomes raging egomania with just a hint of power) and paranoia. By infusing his monsters with actual personality quirks and emotional motivations, he’s created villains we can all relate to.
They aren’t just killers - they’re actual people, and people, no matter how villainous, still run through the same full range of emotions that are part of the human condition. The Monster in Frankenstein wants someone to love him. The Femms in The Old Dark House just want to protect their family from uninvited guests. Even the Bride, in her few minutes of screen time, shows bewilderment and terror at the walking corpse called the Frankenstein Monster. We can definitely relate.
The best crafted villains on film, horror or not, are the ones that are fully faceted characters, not just scary killing machines. The most recent popular example is probably the Saw series, whose mastermind killer has a backstory involving inoperable cancer and a genuine desire to see the world become a better place. Jigsaw is only one of the newest “monsters” to carry the Whale tradition, but crafty filmmakers know this is a surefire way to make your bad guy stand out.