The Gift of Life
Finest Christmas gift this year was the Universal Monsters Blu-Ray, which got slapped into the Maidstone player as soon as decency allowed. While Fiona was out and her brother was dozing, I previewed THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, a snoozy film but a very fine transfer, with super-saturated Technicolor seeping from every frame.
Then, in the evening, FRANKENSTEIN! Roddy enjoys this one very much, and Fiona and I are big Whale fans. I’ve owned it on VHS, DVD, and now Blu. I’m not sure I’d watched it in the last ten years, though, so it all seemed quite fresh, helped by the munificent new detail…
Had we seen that the bouncy skeleton at the medical school has something clenched between his teeth? I don’t think so, and I’m still not sure what it is he’s got there: Fiona proposes a rubber surgical glove, I thought it might be a rolled-up piece of paper. You would need a screen as wide as Victor Buono’s ass to be sure, and we only have the James Coco model.
We saw the little dust-clouds stirred up by Karloff’s feet as he tries to escape. We laughed hysterically at Dwight Frye’s mood swings, his tiny walking stick which makes movement more difficult, and the way he pauses to pull up one sock before hurrying to assist at the monster’s birth. We gazed in wonderment at the sheer majestic scale of John Boles’ big dull head. We marveled at the fact that Edward Van Sloan, a Dutchman from Minnesota, choose to play a German doctor with a prissy Scottish accent.
Maybe it was the new clarity of the image, or the fact that I’d forgotten the original experience of viewing the film, or my arguable greater maturity, but the emotional arc of the movie, which is all Karloff’s, though smuggled in as a subtext beneath the romantic sufferings of Colin Clive and Mae Clarke (eyes scanning fearfully in search of approaching grapefruits) , hit home with greater clarity. I had remembered the sublime reaching for the light, and the scene by the lake with the little girl, but in isolation. I also remembered that Karloff spends a lot of the time snarling in an almost feline manner. But putting the famous moments in order and experiencing them again meant seeing how the monster moves from innocence through fear to anger. And realizing that the moment when the little girl offers him a flower inspires his first ever smile brings a lump to his throat.
Clive and Karloff stare at each other through the windmill’s central cog, and it resembles a giant wooden zoetrope: their POV’s blur into each other as the rotating timber flashes by — monster and maker become one, and mad science and cinema are conflated.
There’s also the horrible nastiness of the monster’s fate, burned to death in that windmill (he’s created in a mill too), when fire is his greatest fear. I’m glad Whale was to revive him, only slightly singed, to meet a death of his own choosing, blown to atoms. Of course Karloff played the part again, and the monster continued to lumber about after Boris kicked off his tar-spreader’s boots, but Whale’s diptych is a self-contained thing of beauty, and the characters are all finished with when he’s finished with them.