In the Tall Grass, and NOS4A2 author Joe Hill once said, “Effective horror isn’t about sadism but about extreme empathy.”
The horror genre is often considered a sort of “bastard art” form (perhaps that’s a good thing) reserved only for those who want to see blood, guts, and extreme on-screen depictions of murder.
Before I went to film school, I told a coworker I was starting college and she asked me for what? “Film.” She proceeded to tell me that her nephew went to school for the same thing and made horror films. She then warned me not to make those types of films.
“People who made those types of films were a little sick in the head.”
So, yeah, horror doesn’t always get the best reputation for those who don’t read or watch it. Horror is so much more than jump scares, gory killings, and evil monsters. Joe Hill’s recent statement has really stuck with me.
In some of horror’s best offerings, the viewers are forced to identify with characters stuck in terrorizing situations — whether about the character’s immediate need for mortal survival or something more emotional and traumatic.
Empathy Has a Name and a Face
Frankenstein was released following the immediate success of Universal’s Bela Lugosi’s led Dracula movie.
Both films would set the template for all of Universal’s monster films to follow, but Frankenstein was a marketable different movie than Dracula.
Dracula was a terrifying force in 1931 (along with crazed Dwight Fye performance as Renfield) but Frankenstein brought a monster to life that was scary but also sympathetic.
It’s through Boris Karloff’s careful characterization crafted a monster that allowed for empathy leading to one of the greatest climax’s in horror history.
Perhaps the best illustration of this empathy in horror is the famous lake side between The Monster and the little girl named Maria.
Up to this point, we have seen the Monster in Dr. Frankenstein’s castle portrayed as a terrifying force, capable of killing men with nothing but brute strength. Karloff has great power in his physicality, which is on display in several aspects in the film. And Jack Pierce’s iconic makeup design still holds up over compared to all the parody and knockoffs seen through the decades.
Whale, who directs this feature with a macabre and a truly gothic expressionistic bent, wisely finds moments to give audiences reason to pause and ask themselves should the Monster be treated this way?
Frankenstein’s Monster is chained and whipped by Henry’s assistant, starting the framework of the monster sympathy. Suddenly, the Monster escapes in the hillside, which is the same day as Frankenstein’s wedding. This is when the Monster comes across a little girl who greets the creature with kindness and asks to play.
In that special moment, Whale has the audience in the palm of his hand.
He has already built the power of the Monster and now there is an innocent little girl sitting next to him. Does he attack her? No, he sits next to her as she teaches him to throw flowers in the lake and watch them float. They both share a moment of joy — the first time the Monster has experienced this feeling.
There is a childlike wonder in Karloff’s performance here. He doesn’t quite understand what’s going with the flowers but smiles and laughs regardless. We see the Monster’s true character (and one he would continue to involve into with Bride of Frankenstein).
The audience starts to flip and begin to love this creature. Then, he does the unthinkable. He picks up the little girl and throws her into the lake thinking it’s all part of the game. Maybe she would float too?
When she doesn’t resurface, there isn’t that glee anymore, the Monster starts to panic. He cries out as his new friend drowns. The only crime here is ignorance because he didn’t realize what would happen. He runs away from the scene out of fear.
Flipping the Script
That dichotomy of feelings and experience would become one of the greatest scenes in horror movie history (it might even be my favorite). Whale, in a brilliant master stroke makes us both afraid of what might happen, then fall in love with the monster… then the audience would react with the same shock and panic as the Monster.
This scene acts as the midpoint of the movie as everything is a direct consequence of this one action. The next time we see the little girl she is dead in her father’s arms–an absolute morbid image today as it was in 1931.
Henry Frankenstein realizes the horrors of his creation and helps lead a group to fight and kill the monster.
What follows is one of the greatest endings in the history of horror filmmaking.
Everything converges. The audience identifies with the father who wants to avenge his daughter’s death. You feel for Frankenstein because for all his supposed madness, he didn’t intend for his creation to kill others just as the Monster never wanted to harm the girl. The Monster was just looking for a friend.
James Whale forces the audience to identify with every side of the conflict and feel empathy for each one of the characters.
That’s the power of horror and the power of this film. James Whale runs the audience through the gauntlet of fear, sadness, and absolute terror as the (supposed) death of the Monster isn’t some triumphant moment; it’s a moment of tragedy.
We hear the Monster screaming inside a torched windmill the township lights on fire–not with the loud, deep bellows of a monster but the sounds of a child crying in fear.
Karloff’s voice reaches a high pitch as the building collapses around him. This scene has a similar weight as the 1933 King Kong movie carried as the big ape is gunned down off the Empire State Building.
This exemplifies the power of the horror genre.
The best horror can make an audience empathize with even the supposed monster you are supposed to be afraid of watching. Learning to empathize is one of the most powerful tools we have as human beings.
Director James Whale and actor Boris Karloff understand even at the genre’s earlier years that an audience is capable of having feelings for different characters, even when the genre dictates they shouldn’t.
It is an absolute moral confusion that infects the audience’s mind because Whale uses empathy as part of the horror. The climax of the film is terrifying not only because it is spectacle, but also because you feel for all the characters involved.
If the monster was only “a monster,” then this still would have been just another good monster film. However, because Whale extends that empathy to the Monster, that scene and that movie becomes so much more.
The 1931 Frankenstein is a near masterpiece of horror filmmaking because the range of emotion and feelings the audience experiences. That is close to a century ago and it still holds up. That is what classics are supposed to do.