Frankenstein opens with a theft. The scientist and his assistant wait at the edges of a funeral. Like vultures, they want the body. As soon as the priest has gone, and the mourners have drifted away, and the gravedigger has finished his lonely work burying the casket, Frankenstein jumps the fence and undoes the work he watched them complete. He desecrates hallowed ground, tearing a body away from its final resting place. He claims the body’s only sleeping. He’ll give it breath and life again.
In the Greek myth, Prometheus steals fire from his fellow gods to give to humankind: a divine gift, a physical manifestation of the spark of life he had previously given to human beings when he’d formed them out of clay. The gods had blessed the gift of life that resulted in the creation of humankind, but the theft of fire proved a transgression that they could not bear, and they punished Prometheus for it.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein takes the seed of the Prometheus myth and transposes it into the Romantic period,1 with a student of the sciences transfixed by the idea of finding the source of life until he manages to create life of his own, which then destroys him. The film adaptations present Shelley’s story with flickering light and shadows. Each version takes the torch held up by its predecessors; each one presents transgression as the doppelgänger of transcendence.
Transgression and transcendence are as closely linked to each other as the dark and light sides of the moon. Both involve actions of crossing over. To transgress is to cross a boundary; to transcend is to overcome a limitation. Boundary and limitation each provide borders for what it means to be human: this is what we should not do, and this is what we cannot do. Violating a boundary—choosing to do what others have decided is unacceptable—is seen as a sin. Overcoming a limitation—finding a way around a barrier imposed on all humanity, such as prolonging life or curing disease—is seen as an inherently good thing. Transgression reaches across and down, while transcendence reaches up. Frankenstein rests in the meeting place where the borders between transgression and transcendence touch.
Transcendental movies—codified by Paul Schrader in his book Transcendental Style in Film—are typically spare, with minimalist camera work and a steady, slow pace. They reach “towards the ineffable and invisible” by way of their locked-off camera angles and long shots, which serve to distance the viewer from the scenes on screen. The viewer is made aware of their separation from the action on-screen, and at the same time is invited to strain toward the film in an attempt to connect with it.
In his book, Schrader talks about artists sharing “Victor Frankenstein’s mad dream” to create the most realistic simulacra of life within their own mediums; photography and the cinema become the gold standard for replicating life, whether in still or moving imagery. Transcendental style in film both attempts to express the ineffable on screen and instills a sense of spiritual transcendence on those engaging with the imagery on that same screen. Films, in effect, steal fire from real life, bestowing an imitation of life on inanimate celluloid, and in return we long for that imitation.
The 1931 iteration of Frankenstein is not a canonical transcendental film. It’s too swiftly paced to be counted among them, to say nothing of its genre. B-movies, especially horror and speculative fiction, are often dismissed as nothing deeper than dumb spectacle, shallow attempts to turn a profit, despite their frequent use of spiritual and paranormal subject matter. Even Frankenstein was intended to help rescue its financially struggling studio; it’s unlikely that the film’s producers wanted to draw audiences in to contemplate their own mortality when the simple promise of a good fright would do. Still, the film uses some of the same techniques that define transcendental films, to similar effect.
Transcendental films hold their audiences at arms’ length on purpose. Frankenstein establishes this separation unconventionally by opening with a shot of a man emerging from behind a curtain on a stage. He turns to the camera and directly addresses the audience, committing the cardinal sin of film by breaking the fourth wall: a transgression before the film proper even begins. He warns the audience that what they are about to watch is a horror movie, simultaneously priming them to react in fear, and reminding them that what they are about to see is, in truth, just a movie. The shot simultaneously holds the audience at a remove from the screen—what you are about to see is not real—and leaves us wondering, what could be so shocking about this story? Curiosity piqued, we lean forward, hoping that in return the film will give us the sublime experience of a good scare.
Prologue aside, the film presents itself with purposeful camera angles, slow and squarely framed. The images are given the time and space they need to breathe, but the camerawork is anything but locked off. The camera’s unblinking eye tracks action in long dolly shots, sliding back and forth across the sound stages where the film was made, passing through walls as the characters cross over from room to room. When the camera moves, it does so with purpose, following the motion of the actors writ small against the massive props and settings of the sound stage.
And the camera moves in surprising ways. It doesn’t just watch; it tilts and dollies, flowing with the action on-screen, drawing the viewer in with the camera’s subjects as an active participant, parties to the transgression taking place. When the Monster (Boris Karloff) goes crashing through the woods, a handheld camera crashes along behind him, peering over his shoulder as he runs into the sunlight. When characters walk from one room to another, the camera dollies alongside them, passing through walls and from room to room with the action. When characters contemplate death, the camera lies still as though dead itself.
Frankenstein is consumed with the idea of crossing over, both physically and ontologically. The Monster crosses from death to life, of course, but his creator was the first to cross a boundary, migrating from respectable medical science to illicit experiments in a makeshift lab. Henry Frankenstein2 (Colin Clive) cuts himself off from his father, his fiancée, and from the rest of civilized society, making a home for himself in an abandoned watchtower away from prying eyes. To get to the wilds, he needed to leave the confines of his own city’s walls: a crossing from the socially acceptable over to a world with no boundaries at all. On the screen, Henry physically crosses the line all the time: he climbs a fence into a graveyard; he breaks open a coffin; he sews together a being from corpses.
Even the simple act of walking from one room to another is rendered transgressive by the set design and camera work. When Henry enters his lab, the camera tracks him from hallway to inner room by dollying past the thick stone wall that divides the two. Henry strides across his laboratory, the room bisected by hanging chains, and as he walks across the room he also passes through the lines the chains make across the screen: iron taboos suddenly made permeable by his illicit work. Henry has gone to a lot of trouble to separate himself from the outside world; he believes it is because no one will understand the genius of his experiments, but the thick walls Henry surrounds himself with are more than just protection from the storm outside. Those walls are also a boundary between the sum of human knowledge (outside) and dark secrets that man was not meant to know (within). Inside those confines, he’ll crack open the secret to creating life; he’s Prometheus on the mountaintop, not yet ready to descend with his own fire.
For all his attempts to partition his work from civilized society, Henry cannot hide his transgressions from those who love him. His fiancée Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) worries about his mental health; his father worries that he is cheating on Elizabeth.3 Henry wants to transcend the sum of human knowledge by bestowing life upon a corpse, but he knows that he will be cast out of society—or worse—if anyone finds out what he’s trying to do before he’s done it. The barriers he sets up between his experiments and the outside world—the stone walls; the remote location in an unforgiving environment—are intended as a safeguard between his experiment and the judgment of humankind.
But not even stone walls can keep Henry’s beloved away; the two are tied by the bonds of love. For all Henry’s attempts to transcend his humanity, he cannot cut the figurative rope between himself and his fiancée. It is a lifeline keeping him tethered to humanity through her love, though he doesn’t appreciate her. He tries turning her away in the middle of a thunderstorm when she comes to visit him at his secret lab. He tells her she’ll “ruin everything,” even though she trusts him completely. Their bond threatens to drag her down into the depths in which he walks, even as her insistence at remaining by his side keeps him from disappearing completely within his work. Henry’s transgression becomes, by extension, Elizabeth’s, and then the rest of his family’s, threatening in time to consume the entire village in which they live.
Henry and his monster are two sides of the same moon: light and dark, creator and created, human and inhuman; a man who wants more than anything to create life, and a man alive who was never really born at all. Henry’s attempt to transcend his own limitations, already transgressive, spirals out of control once he manages to pierce the veil between life and death. He wants to become more than human, and succeeds only in making a Monster instead. In turn, the Monster longs after his own form of transcendence, desiring to become human. He, too, is thwarted, left bereft in the shadows after he’s rejected by his creator.
The Monster casts a massive shadow himself, existing in a hulking square form. He lumbers, shuffling feet too big for his oversized frame, moving as though unused to piloting a body of his bulk. His eyes remain hooded, even after he’s been bestowed a spark of life, and the intelligence that shines behind his eyelids appears every scrap as illicit as the intelligence with which Henry animated it. Boris Karloff’s physicality as the Monster is unparalleled: his movements are simultaneously theatrical and delicate. He lurches on his feet, unable to control his own momentum; he pauses a moment too long when towering over his creator, as though he has to remember how to direct his own body, made up as it is from a patchwork of quilted, unfamiliar parts. His hands and his mouth alone remain subtle, gentle enough to smile at a child or to grasp a flower, and cruel enough to arch into talons and bared teeth.
By contrast, Henry is small, a slim pale man in a white coat with wild dark eyes. He’s swallowed up by the stones and machinery in his lab; he looks frail in comparison to the creature he pulls together. As a baron’s son, Henry has a rightful place in society, but he doesn’t want it. He trades his father’s house for an abandoned watchtower, the companionship of his fiancée for that of a graverobber, his promising career for a literal dead end. Once the idea to make life for himself has taken hold, it consumes him; once he starts crossing the line, he can’t stop.
Like creator, like created: the Monster breaks boundaries and crosses lines whenever the opportunity presents itself. The first time the Monster asserts its free will, it kills Henry’s assistant, who had been tormenting him with fire. Then it kills Henry’s mentor, who had been tasked with ending the Monster’s own life; both actions are taken as self-preservation. Henry instilled life into a corpse; the resulting monster proceeds to make corpses of everyone who helped Henry achieve his goal. The Monster then flinches away from the basement cell in which he’s been kept since his creation. He breaks down the watchtower’s front door—another boundary shattered. He’ll continue to smash doors and climb through windows as he makes his way across the countryside.
Though small in stature, Henry places himself above Elizabeth and his mentor and their concerned friend when they visit him in his lab. They are seated; he stands over them, placing himself in a position of power. When he leans over his mentor to tell him about his methods, he hunches his shoulders like a vulture. He’s standing tall, but his gaze is lowered to meet his audience’s faces—he wants to be lifted up above the rest of humanity, but he can’t help but stoop in the wrong direction. When his visitors come to inspect the body, Henry places himself between them and the operating table, the self-appointed arbiter between death and life.
Henry’s attempt to ascend to the heights of godhood comes with the peak of a lightning storm. He scurries about his lab amongst grinding gears and buzzing circuits, filled with the howling of the wind. The corpse rises on its table towards a gap in the ceiling, the better to catch the lightning. The motion foretells a shot in Andrei Tarkovsky’s transcendental-style film Mirror, in which a woman levitates above her bed, and which Paul Schrader himself would quote in his own film First Reformed. The camera tilts upward to watch the surgical table’s ascent, leaving the viewer close to the floor with the spectators on-screen. The motion drinks in the scale of the set, the height of the corpse’s ascent, and it reminds the viewer just how small they are in comparison to the power Henry harnesses. Frankenstein’s lab scene is too full of sound and fury to invoke any sense of contemplation, but it does assert a sense of mystery, and it does demand awe.
Henry stands watching the surgical table above him, counting the seconds after each lightning strike; his spectators flinch away from the flashes, but he doesn’t blink. He’s committed to his actions with the conviction of a man possessed. When the corpse on the table descends back down to the floor, Henry can’t take his eyes off it. The Monster’s hand trembles, abuzz with the life the lightning bestowed upon it, and Henry’s sanity cracks open. “It’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive,” he repeats, in the film’s most iconic line.
He doesn’t stop there; he’s intoxicated with his success. He turns his gaze from the Monster’s hand back up to the ceiling, and Colin Clive animates the character with joy in his crazed eyes as his speech burbles out of him. “It’s alive, in the name of God—now I know what it feels like to be God!” In his attempts to transcend, the doctor blasphemes. After he claims God’s power, Henry’s face twists from its manic grin to an anguished mask. He’s still looking up at the ceiling, but his feet remain on the floor; he’s gained no additional stature from his achievement, and he’s left at the bottom of his tower, still a mortal man, so small in the face of the storm. He’ll go through hell to pay for his actions; he’ll have to climb a mountain to confront his creation, and he’ll be thrown from a burning tower by it before the Monster is defeated. Henry is Prometheus here too, cast out by his own ill-conceived gift to humanity.
Before the Monster escapes, before it kills and kills again, Henry tries to live with what he’s done. He keeps the creature locked away in a dark room in his lab, attempting to teach it speech and reasoning, trying to keep it under his control. The Monster shuffles from room to room, silent as the graves from which his pieces were taken. Henry has created life, but he doesn’t trust it to live for itself.
The Monster longs to be allowed to live, even though it cannot express its desire. When Henry opens a window—the same ceiling window through which the Monster was created—the Monster rises from its seat, captivated by the light rays that fall into the lab. The Monster stretches its hands upward. It’s just a baby; it doesn’t understand the world into which it’s been brought, nor the life of fear and anger to which Henry has unknowingly condemned it. Boris Karloff tilts his head up toward the sky, the shadows on his sunken cheeks fall away, and the fingers on his scarred hands spread delicately, pale skin shining against the gloom of the stone walls behind him. The camera (which has positioned itself in all other shots below the Monster’s face, so as to emphasize its bulk) rests at the Monster’s eye level. For a brief, sublime moment the Monster is permitted to be a being with human needs and wants. It transcends its circumstances where its creator could only transgress. It jumps off the screen; its image is seared into my brain. It’s alive.
- The book’s subtitle is: or, the Modern Prometheus.
- The film changes Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s character’s name from Victor.
- Frankenstein was made before the Hays Code was fully implemented, and as such it’s frank about its subject matter to the point of being potentially jarring to contemporary viewers. Baron Frankenstein talks openly about his suspicions that his son is unfaithful to his intended. For his own part, Henry commits blasphemy. Later, a child dies on-screen.