When Universal released its original Frankenstein movie in 1931, it opened with a warning that the film might horrify the audience and strain its nerves. On the surface, this seems like a bit of showmanship — and smart marketing, not so different from the kind of viral “This movie made people faint!” publicity we still see in horror today. But the key feature in the prepared statement is the assumption that the audience is afraid of medical innovation — it argues that the mysteries of life and death are best left to the divine, and not in the hands of doctors or scientists. The reasons for medical skepticism have evolved immensely over the last near-century, but the anxiety that comes to life in Frankenstein is still significant today.
The movie’s pre-film warning clip stands hand-in-hand with the thesis of the Mary Shelley novel the movie adapts: Everyone must respect the sanctity of human life, which includes respecting the dead. It’s as much a religious warning as a scientific one; the great crime of the book’s protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, is in mocking God by trying to evolve medical techniques to create life and deny death. Horror stories have always reflected the anxieties of their time, and older ones often reveal how our fears have changed, or remained stagnant. The first Frankenstein film, and Hammer’s adaptation The Curse of Frankenstein, are a lightning rod of that kind of historical horror intrigue.
The earliest horror films were obsessed with the decomposition of the human body. The flu pandemic of the late 1910s hung heavily over the silent horror features of the 1920s, with pestilence as a dominant theme. F.W. Murnau’s 1922 classic Nosferatu particularly engaged with the spread of illness through Count Orlok (Max Schreck), who carried the bubonic plague wherever he went. Murnau’s 1926 film Faust contained a running thread involving the pandemic as well. Adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic tale The Masque of the Red Death became commonplace during the era due to its plague plot.
There was The Plague in Florence, made in 1919 during the middle of the pandemic, featuring a screenplay from the great director Fritz Lang. The Soviets also adapted Poe’s tale in 1923 with A Spectre Haunts Europe, directed by Vladimir Gardin. In these films, the public’s proximity to death was a key concern, and figures like Orlok represented a looming sickness. The flu pandemic killed millions, and its effect on horror films was profound.
With Frankenstein, horror stories’ anxiety about widespread sickness evolved, and autopsies became a key focal point for horror to exploit. In the shadow of the pandemic, the mingling of the living and the dead returned, but this time, with a focus on scientific intervention and investigation — and fears about both. The result chilled audiences and brought them in droves to see Frankenstein, a movie the New York Times praised as “far and away the most effective thing of its kind. Beside it Dracula is tame.”
In Universal’s 1931 Frankenstein, directed by James Whale (and heavily referenced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe Halloween special Werewolf by Night), Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) attempts to make a “perfect man” by reassembling corpses he’s acquired by robbing graves or harvesting them from the hangman’s noose. It’s implied that he learned these techniques from his former teacher, Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan), who has a human brain on display for his students — which Frankenstein’s henchman Fritz (Dwight Frye) steals to complete the planned perfect man.
Frankenstein’s resulting creation is a degradation of all things human. The creature (Boris Karloff) is introduced walking backward into frame, and his flat-topped head, tightly clamped mouth, and aggressive roar only barely gesture at humanity. He’s initially meant to be terrifying, but the audience is supposed to sympathize with him, because he never asked to be created through a perversion of science and natural law. In the end, he’s chased by angry torch-wielding villagers who do not understand or care about his plight. He is an innocent caught in the wreckage of another man’s hubris.
And his existence is Frankenstein’s fault, for playing God ineptly with no concern about the consequences. Throughout the ’30s, this pattern of medical malfeasance returned in numerous other films, including Whale’s 1933 Universal picture The Invisible Man. Poe returns to the screen with the 1932 film Murders in the Rue Morgue, inspired by his story featuring experiments involving the combination of ape and human blood. 1932 also saw the H.G. Wells adaptation Island of Lost Souls, with Charles Laughton playing a mad scientist creating human-animal hybrids. Rouben Mamoulian’s excellent 1931 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde features a reckless scientist trying to unleash his inner darkness.
The trope of medical science run amok became a bedrock idea for horror stories, giving birth to the rise of the mad-scientist archetype. While that trope died down amid World War II, it rose to prominence again when England’s Hammer Films brought Frankenstein back to life in 1957, now in pulsating color.
In Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein — the first in a seven-film series of Hammer films inspired by Shelley’s novel — Peter Cushing’s mad doctor is initially characterized as a morally righteous man, and he never wavers from that belief in himself, even after he has killed in pursuit of scientific gain. He and his fellow scientist, Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart), don’t have the word for it yet, but they are in the beginning stages of inventing anesthesia. They successfully experiment with inducing comas in animals and reviving them, and Krempe has the brilliant idea of using this new technique for the sake of surgery. He is correct in estimating that it will save thousands of lives.
But Baron Frankenstein has other ideas. He sees his newfound tools of resurrection as a way to grant himself godlike power, and he sets about creating a man. The plot is nearly identical to Universal’s original interpretation of Mary Shelley’s book, but instead of sticking to the monster’s perspective, Hammer prioritizes the scientist. Additionally, Hammer’s version is gorier and luxuriates in open wounds, bright red blood, and the decomposing brown and yellowish skin tones of the rotting creature (Christopher Lee). These textures introduced audiences to horror that depicts violence clearly, rather than suggesting it before cutting away.
Cushing was made for the Baron Frankenstein role, and he’s wonderfully evocative as a madman pushing himself beyond all moral decency. Like so many great actors, he always made a key skill out of the way he uses his eyes. He grows increasingly bug-eyed and cold as his obsession with creating a perfect man boils over. He’s easily believable as someone willing to commit violence for the sake of his own gain, and he has a constant forward momentum in achieving these goals, no matter the cost.
It’s ironic that Cushing was more commonly cast as the hero in Hammer productions after The Curse of Frankenstein, and Christopher Lee was slotted into the role of the primary heavy. The Curse of Frankenstein suggests that the opposite would have been true. Lee is painfully sympathetic as the creation, while Cushing is vile and opportunistic as the scientist. Lee’s star-making performance revolves around his confused, wounded posture, and an expression that suggests he can remember being a man, but feels trapped in the form of something else.
The Monster is inhuman, but not totally so. He was created by science, but there are fragments in his psyche of the man he used to be — memories, perhaps. He hesitates before killing, just as Karloff’s version of the character did. But unlike Karloff’s creature, Lee’s is brought back to life numerous times in the same film, and he’s a little more deranged and less in touch with his humanity with each intervention. He’s both innocent and not when he begins to kill villagers in a confused state of misunderstanding.
Frankenstein has lasted through generations and remained timely because it engages with the full breadth of medical horror. Both Colin Clive and Peter Cushing’s interpretation of the character insist on dabbling with forces they don’t fully understand, and in the process, they represent every fear about the power doctors have over the human body.
As patients, we put a divine trust in our own doctors when we have to undergo surgeries, or seek treatments for disease and wounds. These two characters break that trust by creating something that actively harms their community and other people’s lives. These films also present bodies at a remove from life: There’s a poetic contradiction in the way they use images of the dead, such as Karloff’s dangling, lifeless limbs on the slab, to intertwine the colliding states of life and death in one body. The monster is a walking autopsy, which makes him a frightening image of medical malfeasance.
In the Hammer films, it’s particularly notable how Cushing’s character is prioritized over Lee’s. Cushing’s interpretation of Frankenstein is ominous because he actively manipulates the unconscious fears most of us have about bodily mutilation, or entirely trusting our bodies in someone else’s hands. Cushing’s scientist has little care for the life and the personality attached to the body. For him, people are merely devices to disassemble and reassemble on his own terms. He breezes past any of the notions of humanity that are vital in the medical field, and looks at people’s physical forms in a mathematical, intellectual capacity. In his schemes, there’s no room for the soul.
Despite the graphic quality of Curse of Frankenstein, and the single-mindedness of Cushing’s character, these mad scientists of old operate in a philosophical gray area. Their innovation and pursuit of medical breakthroughs is worthwhile on the surface, because all new medical discoveries and treatments initially seem impossible until someone proves otherwise. Cushing’s character even argues for his work to be seen in this context, pleading with his potential executioners, “Look what I’ve done. Look what I’ve accomplished!”
Medical science has changed monumentally in the time since the Frankenstein films. While the topic of medical catastrophe is now more often associated with zombies, Frankenstein can teach us a lot. We have evolved with the times, but the discomfort and unease about doctors has hung around. People are naturally worried about what a medical examination might reveal, or whether any given doctor is doing their job well or has an agenda. Recent surveys suggest that people often avoid going to the doctor even when it is important. These reasons are varied, and they involve cost and convenience as well as generalized anxiety about sickness. But sometimes, as these horror films suggest, it’s a matter of trust. Vaccine hesitancy makes that clear enough.
While the medical field is almost entirely a moral and social good, there is historical precedent for all those fears, and not just from horror fiction. The nervous fantasies about mad scientists wreaking havoc still reflect real anxieties. For some groups of people, trust was broken long ago, as with the Tuskegee experiments on Black patients or the fraught history of medical gatekeeping and sabotage in the treatment of trans women in the United States.
Fears about abuse of medical powers are valid and reflect historical reality, and they should be respected, even though in extreme cases, they can lead to a wholesale paranoid distrust in the medical community. When the COVID-19 vaccine was created in what seemed like record time, there were questions surrounding the speed in which it was approved. It has since likely saved millions of lives. But a substantial percentage of America still refuses to get vaccinated, out of distrust for the medical industry. Frankenstein and its various screen adaptations represent the apex of this anxiety — the fear that scientists are cold and unfeeling, willing to cavalierly play with people’s lives.
The line between innovation and tragedy is a thin one, and it’s a long road. We have come to accept medical processes like blood withdrawal and testing, and we’ve given up on leeches as a treatment. Anesthesia is commonplace, and doctors no longer give patients opium or a bottle of whiskey before making an incision. But the human race does drag its feet and question the validity of medical innovation. We are a fact-driven species, but we’re driven by our fears as well.
We are sometimes not unlike the public in Frankenstein, who are worried the doctor is a boogeyman with a scalpel, about to commit atrocities on a tomb full of dead bodies. It’s worth questioning where that fear comes from. With the torches still lit, it is necessary to reassess the moral bedrock of those running, and those in pursuit. It’s what the Frankenstein films have always asked audiences to question, and it seems more relevant than ever.
The 1931 Frankenstein is streaming on Peacock and the Criterion Channel, and is free with ad support on Tubi. It’s available for rental or purchase at Amazon, Vudu, and other digital platforms. 1957’s Curse of Frankenstein is streaming on HBO Max and is also available on Amazon and Vudu.