Silence, Dread and Frankenstein

Allow me to present my qualifications.

Allow me to present my qualifications.

Any talk of whether or not Universal’s 1931 production of Frankenstein horrified audiences of the time is mostly speculation at this point—speculation surely tainted by Universal’s press department—but judging by what the censor boards did to it, someone, somewhere was fucking terrified. That somewhere was probably Kansas City, whose censor board cut the most, effectively halving the already brisk running time of 71 minutes.

As noted in David J. Skal’s The Monster Show, many of the most famous cuts to the film didn’t happen until Frankenstein’s 1937 re-release. In 1931, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America made suggestions to studios in the name of decency and studios often ignored those suggestions in the name of profit, putting most of the decision making power in the hands of local censor board (like those Kansas City butchers). However, starting around 1934, you couldn’t legally get a film into theaters unless it had been approved by the MPPDA’s Production Code Administration (not unless you had $25,000 to blow on a fine).

So, having had 6 years to think about how films like Frankenstein brought Europe to the brink of war and turned Dillinger into the world’s most notorious bank robber (citation needed on both of those), the PCA demanded some cuts be made.

The most famous of all cuts involves the scene of the monster accidentally drowning a little girl. Instead of the monster tossing her into the lake, the censored versions would show the monster growling and reaching for the girl. The next time we see her, her father is walking through the town with her dead body. That’s arguably much worse than the original scene.

But the thing that made Frankenstein so terrifying couldn’t be cut by censors. Other than the minute long introduction by Edward Van Sloan (added in part to reduce pressure from Catholic groups) there’s nothing that tells you it’s going to be okay. The sets are probably the most movie-like aspect of the whole production and most of those are designed to discomfort rather than to put you at ease. And then there is the silence.

While both Dracula and Frankenstein lack a traditional score, Frankenstein so effectively fills that space with the sound of shovels, death knells, death groans and lightning that it’s easy to forget that there’s no music (in Dracula’s defense, it’s only with the recent restoration of the film for bluray release that the noise floor has been reduced to the point where many of the sound effects become audible). In fact, being that many theaters were not yet wired for sound, Dracula was also released in a silent version, which is easy to imagine (and imagine it we must, as no prints of it still exist). Frankenstein, however, was not released in a silent version and would not carry the same weight with the mute button on.

Let’s look at the pivotal scene from the film: the creation of the monster. Here three spectators travel to an old tower on a dark and stormy night to watch a madman and a hunchback bring life to a giant corpse quilt. There are no bombastic horns to sell the drama, no percussion to hijack your heartbeat; just the crack of electricity and the blasphemous ravings of a mad man. Seconds later, when the face of the monster is introduced, there’s no tentative string section underlining the tension. Just the creak of a door, the shuffle of boots and a stitched together zoom. There’s nothing there to tell you how to feel or that it’s just a movie. These days, we’d scoff at that. Back then? I refer you to the 32 cuts requested by the Kansas City Censors (they would later change their name to the Kansas City Royals and take up baseball).

This is not to say that movies shouldn’t have music. Alfred Hitchcock had originally planned to edit the shower scene in Psycho without music, a move which may have very well relegated Psycho to cult film status—still good, but no classic. But really, one need not even look outside of the Frankenstein franchise to find a film that is immensely enhanced via music.

Bride of Frankenstein is a black comedy, a movie in every sense of the word. Director James Whale was reticent to go back to the laboratory for the sequel, having thought he said everything he wanted to say on the subject. But given the success of Frankenstein and other Whale-directed horrors The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man, Universal wanted him for the job. Whale used this leverage to turn Bride… into a grand spectacle, with lavish sets, a soaring score and a sprawling cast. That’s not to say that Bride… is any less of a film—in fact, it may actually be the better of the two—but all that detail somewhat undermines the horror (not that Bride… didn’t see it’s share of censorship. By 1935, Bride… was being censored right at the script stage).

Frankenstein and Bride… are two very different films (for a more modern equivalent, look at the difference in tone between Alien and Aliens). For most of it’s run time Frankenstein consists of dread and a sort of strung out insanity. It’s not quite realistic, but close enough to reality that one can almost imagine it taking place. Bride of Frankenstein is all spectacle and bombast—less concerned with horror and more concerned with the joy of darkness. The silence is replaced by shrieking.

Frankenstein is the captured magic of a band’s first album or demo, when they were hungry and running on instinct. They may get better technically and they may end up making even better art, but there’s no way to recapture that rawness or immediacy of the first attempt. Certainly, the Frankenstein films never again reached the heights of the first two entries, though they all have their charms. None of them, however, have the dread that was stitched together by a man who wanted to know what it was like to be God.

Credit where credit is due, a huge amount of what I know about the Universal Horror cycle comes from David J. Skal’s The Monster Show and the Brunas, Brunas and Weaver classic Universal Horrors.

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