Holy imagery, Batman. And we mean that literally.
There's a cross here, a cross there, and a Christ image over yonder—the movie Frankenstein opens in a graveyard, and there's Christian symbols all over. In fact, Frankenstein and Fritz can barely shovel a spadeful of dirt without hitting one.
The Christian images are a way to contrast with the devilishness of Frankenstein; he's defying God (not to mention common decency) by digging up dead bodies under a cross. The Christian symbols show that Frankenstein is a blasphemous—and egomaniacal—jerk.
This is underlined by the way Frankenstein warps Christian theology in order to make it fit with his whole mad-scientist steez:
"He's just resting, waiting for a new life to come!"
This is what Frankenstein says of a dead body while clutching the coffin. He's planning to put himself in the place of God; he's planning raising someone from the dead. But here's where the Christian imagery and allusions in Frankenstein start to get uber interesting.
Because you know the most famous Biblical incidence of being raised from the dead, right? Yup: that'd be Jesus C. himself.
Wait, though: if Frankenstein is playing God by raising the dead, than the Jesus figure would be…
The monster. In this movie, the monster is a Christ figure.
And there's more evidence of this than just the fact that he gets resurrected. In the iconic scene where the monster reaches towards the light, he seems to be praying. And then, of course, at the end of the film, the monster is killed—he's an innocent and an outcast, but he's killed for Henry's sin of defying God.
However, seeing the big, ugly, murdering monster as Christ is close to blasphemous in itself, and James Whale doesn't push the comparison too far. That would have been a career-killing move in 1931. But the parallel is as prevalent in background of the movie, much like all those crosses around Frankenstein and Fritz as they dig.
It's all eyes! It's all eyes!
Okay, that's not exactly what Frankenstein shouts, but it seems like it should be when you look at the opening credits. The screen shows a blurry face, and then lots of open eyes spiraling around it. Check it out.
But what on earth does this have to do with Frankenstein? Frankenstein is about a monster, not about an attack by disembodied floating eyes (though that would be creepy too, we admit). Maybe James Whale just thought floating eyes were cool?
Nah, that would be too easy. The eyes can also be read as a symbol—that's why we're mentioning them in our Symbols Analysis, right?
Frankenstein is all excited about the possibilities of looking and observing. He asks Waldman:
Have you never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars? Or to know what causes the trees to bud? And what changes the darkness into light?
Frankenstein wants to see everything, and he wants to know everything. He wants to be God, and specifically he wants to be God as all-knowing, and all-seeing.
So the eyes there can be seen as a symbol of Frankenstein's vision and of his ambition to expand that vision. Or the eyes could be seen as a kind of representation of God—those floating eyes are watching Frankenstein (and judging him hardcore), even as he thinks he's the one doing all the watching and seeing.
There's one last possible interpretation of the eyes. They float around there at the beginning of the film, so they could be a reflection of you. You, out there, are watching Frankenstein with your creepy, floating eyes.
The eyes then could also symbolize the viewers—all you witnesses sitting there, watching and judging everything, just like Frankenstein wants to watch and judge everything. After all, in a movie about a man whose greatest aspiration is to be all seeing, he's still not as all-seeing as the audience observing him.
Hmm. Maybe ol' Henry should have just binged on Netflix rather than digging up all those corpses.
Are You Afraid of the Dark. Night of the Living Dead. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. Nightmare on Elm Street.
Everywhere you look, it would seem that monsters (and monstrous humans) live for the nightlife and the darkest hours before the dawn. It makes sense, right? Monsters are evil, and nighttime is full of shadows and terrors.
But in this movie, the monster likes light. He'd go sunbathing if he could. It would probably heat up those bolts uncomfortably, but our monster is used to a little pain.
Director James Whale makes a lot of use of dramatic light and dark in his black and white film. Check out, for example, at the scene where the monster comes to life.
Here's a recap in case you didn't want to watch this scene again (you totally should, though: it's iconic).
The monster is on a table which is lifted towards a hole in the roof; you see a screen of blackness, illuminated by flashes of painfully bright light. Science is pushing back the borders of the unknown—or shining into places it would be better not to look.
The most symbolic use of light and dark, though, is when the monster is brought into the light for the first time. (Take a look.)
Having so far kept his creature in darkness, Frankenstein, winches open his ceiling, letting light flood down. The monster lifts his arms up, like he's trying to fly like Supermonster…or like he's trying to grab the light. Then Frankenstein turns off the light again, and the monster looks pathetically sad and at a loss. Poor monster—he keeps flexing his hands like he's trying to hold the light even after its gone.
And the light here does symbolize understanding, knowledge, love—all the human things the monster seems to want, but isn't able to get. Instead, he's relegated to darkness…along with all the other spooky creatures that go bump in the night.
One of the central moral lessons of Frankenstein is that you shouldn't dress up in your bridal gown with a massively long train and turn your back to the window when there's a monster about. Also, don't let your dummy fiancée lock you in the room.
In the film, the monster doesn't do anything to Elizabeth; he just chases her around till she faints, and then the rescuers get in the door and he runs off. But the symbolism here—an invader in the bridal chamber—is clearly meant to point to sex.
Remember that Henry keeps putting the marriage off (and putting it off), but the monster has no such uncertainties. He comes right in. The monster then can be seen as all the buried sexual instincts that Henry has pushed to one side—instincts which come back, despite his best efforts, and wreak havoc.
There's also the symbolic suggestion that Henry and the monster are the same person. Remember, Henry locks Elizabeth in the room; he ends up helping the monster. Man and monster collaborate to trap and assault her. Henry is supposed to be a pure souled romantic hero at this point in the narrative. But the return of the monster indicates that, perhaps, he's still kind of a stinker.
The monster is freaky-looking all over, but some of his freakiest-looking bits are his heavily lidded eyes.
Most of the monster's appearance was designed by make-up artist Jack Pierce (see Method of Production). But the heavy lids were provided by none other than the guy portraying the monster, Boris Karloff himself. Karloff says:
We found the eyes were too bright, seemed too understanding, when dumb bewilderment was so essential. So I waxed my eyes to make them heavy, half-seeing. (Source)
The heavy eyes, then, are supposed to symbolize, or show, that the monster is bewildered, and doesn't understand what's going on. That's a big part of what makes the monster sympathetic; he's not responsible for what he does.
Who knew wax on the eyes could say so much? (For that matter, who ever thought of putting wax on their eyelids? Ick. Way to sacrifice for the film, Boris.)
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.
Sometime before the film, Henry Frankenstein was a normal dude, doing normal dude things like getting engaged.
By the time the movie starts, though, he's wandering around in graveyards looking for dead bodies.
Uh, no refusal here. He's already embarked on his adventure, brain-robbing and all.
Henry's mentor Dr. Waldman knocks on his door and asks him what on earth he's doing. Henry says, essentially, "I'm reanimating corpses." The mentor tells him that whoa, that's a bad idea, but Frankenstein ignores him.
Moral: don't ignore the mentor.
Frankenstein throws the switch and shouts, "It's alive!" Then he's got a monster in his house. There's no going back once you've crossed that threshold.
Depending on who's side you're on, the enemies and allies look very different. If you're taking Frankenstein's side, the enemy is the monster and his allies are his buddies Waldman and Igor—er, we mean Fritz. If you're taking the monster's side, then pretty much everyone is an enemy.
And the tests are all variations on "how can we torture this poor monster." Show him light and then shut the light off? Check? Menace him with fire? Check.
After it becomes clear that raising a monster is hard work, Frankenstein dopes his monster and leaves him for Waldman to dissect. While still alive. The monster wakes up, none too happy, and strangles Waldman to death.
And you know what? We didn't shed a single tear.
The monster splits and runs off into the woods. He meets a little girl but accidentally kills her—kiddos don't float when they're thrown in a lake.
Back in Frankensteinland, a wedding is taking place. Unfortunately, the papa of the dead little girl shows up and Frankenstein goes monster hunting. The monster drags his maker up into a windmill, and Mr. Frankenstein takes a tumble from a great height.
But the monster is burned to a monster-y crisp in a fire. Goodbye, monster. See you in Bride of Frankenstein.
Poor Mr. Frankenstein has to recover from his nasty spill…and from the psychological wounds of knowing that he created life but killed a few people in the process.
Frankenstein rests up and prepares for a life of married bliss. He doesn't really deserve to get such a happy ending, but that's how hero's journeys end, so there's nothing you can do about it.
You half expect everyone on film in Frankenstein to turn towards the camera as one and shout, "Ack! Where are we?"
The film's setting is a big confused mish mosh. What time period are they in, anyway? Henry's using electricity and the university with the brain specimens seems like it's set in the late 1800s or early 1900s —around the time when the film was actually created.
But then, there's the scene with the gruesome public hanging, which seems like it would have to be set much earlier in time. Similarly, the peasants seem to be living in the middle ages; there are no phones or railways. No one has guns, even. If you were chasing a monster, you'd pick up a gun if you had one, right?
The physical location is uncertain too. All the characters speak English, obviously. But someone has a title of "Burgomaster," which seems like it should put things in Germany, or somewhere else on continental Europe.
Frankenstein is really set nowhere; it's a Gothic fantasy that takes place in a place adjacent to the real world. It's set in a time when technology can create terrifying things, but somehow doesn't provide the tools you'd use to protect yourself from the monster. It's a place with as many dramatic craggy landscapes as you need, but without any solid place names to tell you you're home. Frankenstein seems to take place in an uncomfortable dream.
Like the monster, the setting's sewn together from bits and pieces that don't quite fit, but still rise up and moan.
Detached, floating freaky eyes: that's what you see when you start watching Frankenstein. The title sequence is 100% freaky music and freaky floating eyes—in fact, it may be the creepiest scene in the entire film.
What do those freaky floating eyes have to do with Frankenstein? We talk about that a bit in Symbols: Freaky Floating Eyes, but besides their symbolic meaning, you could see the eyes (pun!) as showing you how the film's narrative works.
Because, in Frankenstein, you get to see everything…just like those freaky floating eyes.
There's no one narrative perspective in Frankenstein; you're not limited to a single person's viewpoint. Instead, the film takes a third person universal perspective—which means you can see everything you need to see, no matter where it is or who's there. Like Frankenstein, you can say:
"Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!"
(Except that would make you sound like a mad scientist, so don't do that.)
Instead, think about how the film shows you so much from so many different perspectives. You're with Fritz as he sneaks into the university to steal the brains; you're with Elizabeth and Victor as they muse about whether they should go to Henry's laboratory; you're with the monster when he meets poor little Maria; you're with Henry when he meets the poor, big monster.
You're everywhere, with everyone—nothing is hidden from you. As with Henry, the mystery of the universe unfolds before you.
But even you're helpless (even though you're all-seeing)—you still can't get that monster to say anything but "Argh," or prevent it from killing little girls.
If you Google "Merriam Webster classic horror definition," a giant guy with bolts in his neck will sneak up behind you and strangle you…because Frankenstein defines classic horror.
But what does "classic horror" mean? Well, of course, it means monsters—the Wolf Man, Dracula, the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
But horror also means the sneaking suspicion that maybe, those monsters, over there, aren't so different from these poor humans over here. These days, you see that with zombies, who are always turning other poor, normal souls into ravenous flesh-eaters. Everybody, in fact, is a potential ravenous flesh-eater. It's the zombie way.
You can see the outlines of that way back in Frankenstein. The monster, after all, is made out of dead bodies, just like today's zombies. And our monster is human in other ways, too. He gets bullied by Fritz, he wants to play with Maria. He's confused and scared—emotions even non-monsters can recognize.
Horror is about scaring you, no doubt. But it's also about scaring you by showing you that you're scary too. In Frankenstein, you fear the monster and you identify with that same poor monster. We don't know whether to fear the unknown or to fear the innocent-seeming villagers.
And there's nothing more horrific than that uncertainty.
It's a simple title, right? The film's called Frankenstein, and it's about Frankenstein. Done.
But hold onto your brain for a second, Fritz. The film is called Frankenstein. But which Frankenstein is the title referring to?
Most directly, the title refers to good old Henry Frankenstein, the dude who makes the monster. The film is about the mad scientist who screws up…and about how he should stop screwing up and stealing brains, and should marry and settle down.
Frankenstein: the story of a romantic hero who needs to do more romancing and less grave robbing.
But Frankenstein could also refer to the monster. Yes, the monster's name is just "monster" (or "Mr. Monster" if you're feeling formal). But in popular culture that monster is often called "Frankenstein." In fact, in the play that Frankenstein is based on, characters sometimes referred to the monster as "Frankenstein."
Frankenstein: the story of a big monster who just wants to be loved (and maybe get a chance to destroy some things).
Finally, Frankenstein is Frankenstein. The film is based on Mary Shelley's famous book of the same name.
Frankenstein, therefore, doesn't just refer to the mad scientist dude or the monster dude; it refers to the whole story about those dudes, and how they make each other miserable. It lets you know that in this movie, you'll see mad scientists, monsters, mayhem, and scary things.
The title of Frankenstein says get ready to scream.
When are you going to have kids, Henry Frankenstein? Your dad wants to know.
That's the end of Frankenstein. The old pompous Baron cheerfully contemplates the marriage of Henry and Elizabeth and tells the servants,
"As I said before, I say again, here's to a son to the House of Frankenstein."
At first it seems like an odd place to end the film; who cares about sons? The whole film's about monsters and horror and brains. Where does this sudden interest in heirs come from?
But think about it for a second. Henry already created a son in the House of Frankenstein. He made his own child out of stitched together parts of dead people. Which isn't the usual way you're supposed to do it, obviously.
In hoping for a regular son produced the old-fashioned way, via babymaking, the Baron is saying, "Hey, everything's all right now. Nature is reasserting itself, and my son, Henry, is going to be a regular guy in a regular way, marrying and making children, rather than trying to run away from his manly duties by fiddling with electricity and trying to make a son all on his own out of dead bits."
The Baron's concluding hope for a son is also kind of ominous and weird, though. It emphasizes, again, that there already was a son in the House of Frankenstein. Henry's drive to create life for his own glory went very badly. Will the Baron's eagerness to create life for his glory go better?
You could see the end of Frankenstein as a kind of nudge-nudge warning. The cheerfully empty-headed nobility will continue to produce sons, and those sons will continue to terrorize the countryside, blandly destroying your lives on a whim. The rich and bored will unleash their hobbies on you, and make your life miserable.
Watch out, peasants, the Baron is saying. Frankenstein is going to make more monsters.
Frankenstein opens with a warning that the film is super-shocking, run, hide your children, be very afraid. Actor Edward Van Sloan says, in an opening preamble:
It may shock you. It might even horrify you. So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a chain, now is your chance…
So should you be afraid and hide your children? Well, the truth is that by modern standards, Frankenstein isn't all that shocking. There are a couple of murders, including one of a child, but none of them are gory and graphic; you can see worse on television or YouTube without even trying.
And of course there's virtually no sex beyond a chaste kiss or two. The film is innocent that it thinks you make new life by electrifying dead body parts.
But while the film isn't very shocking today, it definitely was at the time. As a result, some versions were censored. In particular, a number of state censor boards cut the part where the monster throws Maria in the lake to drown. They also cut out the part where Frankenstein says:
Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!
Humans weren't supposed to claim to be God in the 1930's, even if they later get punished for it.
When the film was rereleased after 1934, the Hayes censorship production code had come into full effect, and all versions of the film had these bits excised. As the film has come to be seen as a classic, though, those clips have been put back in, and any version you see now should be fully, completely, totally as shocking as it should be.
(Which, as we've said, isn't actually all that shocking. But still.)