That's not to criticize the film too severely - it's quite entertaining, full of rich imagery and compelling ideas, and filled with little moments of black humor and detailed asides which James Whale would fully unleash in the richly comic sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein (which is a bona fide masterpiece). It's a classic that must be seen, even if the story is a little unwieldy at times (the narrative doesn't really develop, as we rush from the monster's escape right into the climax). And, like Dracula, it offers a thrill of recognition at moments of extreme influence: in this case, the mad scientist bringing his creation to life ("It's alive! It's alive!") in his gloomy castle on a dark and stormy night.
That said, I find Shelley's original depiction of this profane "birth" - quiet, unexpected, dreadful - infinitely more chilling:
It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.What passage, what story better evokes the horror of the creator, beholding a previously-controlled creation now severed from himself? The horrible realization of culpability in this eternal mystery (which remains, steadfastly, a mystery, whosoever is responsible)? Is this how God felt when he breathed life into Adam? Frankenstein's monster is the ultimate "other": he is an alien being, regarded with dread as a holder of all mankind's dark qualities, the very elements which we fear within ourselves. This explains the paradoxical sympathy may readers and viewers have with the creature. He is at once less human and more human than the fully conscious, rational, "natural" people around him. They think, he feels, and in doing so he reminds us of our own innate helplessness and the raw, confused turmoil of our natural state (such resonance also calls to mind the question I posed a few weeks back, Why are kids' movies sadder?).
But I've saved the best for last. One reason we find ourselves so unexpectedly aligned with the monster, so attuned to his pain and confusion (so much more so then the misplaced comforts and conventional concerns of the "real" people) lies with the film's foremost claim to greatness: "?".
Or so he is listed in the opening credits. In fact, "?" was Boris Karloff. On his first appearance, standing erect in the doorway, glowering in dim perception without understanding, the intensity of his presence motivating Whale's camera to a series of unprecedented cut-ins, Karloff makes such impression that I might have gasped.
This is a great performance, not merely an influential or iconic one, but a truly masterful embodiment of character. It's on a higher plane of reality than all the other performances in the movie (ironic when you think about it), and it's almost impossible while watching to think that Karloff is "acting"; instead he seems to be the creature, inhabiting his skin with a complete lack of pretension. Yes, the makeup (still impressive) helps, but Karloff's pure conviction is contagious. It elevates the film - at least the moments he's in - to the level of greatness. As the beast lumbers towards the fatal lapping waters of the placid lake, hand-in-hand with a doomed little girl, it's hard not to wonder whose innocence is the more terrible. Probably his, since hers will soon be extinguished, while he will soon bear the shock of yet another rude awakening, one of so many in his short, agonized life.