The first significant close-up in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) is that of the Monster’s hand. For all the energy, the sparking fireworks and thunderous cacophony of the spectacular creation scene, the one sign that life has been kindled in the artificial man is the slow movement of the gruesome hand, with its darkened fingertips and an ugly scar carving the wrist. It’s alive.
The classic “bolt head” Frankenstein is an icon of the 20th Century. Today, the image so permeates popular culture that it is almost impossible to imagine its power when it was first flashed on cinema screens 76 years ago. One scene, in its terrible beauty, still evokes how disconcerting, how utterly alien the first sight of this incredible face must have been, and that is in The Reveal.
The Monster is announced with a groan and the sound of shuffling feet. Waiting in the lab, quiet now, its equipment stowed under dust covers, doctors Frankenstein and Waldman hurriedly turn down the lights. Down, not up. The Creature will be brought out in luminous penumbra.
The door opens and the Monster stands, confused, with it’s back to us.
Next, in close-up, the inexplicably square head slowly rotates. We glimpse, progressively, an overhanging brow, a tall forehead. Stitches, skull clamps and neck plugs. Turning, the face’s cubistic angles catches the low light, now faces us, and The Monster is revealed.
Then, in complete, breathless silence, a sort of staccato zoom-in: Two successively closer shots with the camera curiously unmoored, trembling slighty, as if hand-held. We are given a Good Look and The Monster stares back at us, too close, with his dull dead man’s eyes.
Boris Karloff’s brilliant pantomime would make his Monster unforgettable, but never again would the character appear so mysterious, so utterly primal as here, in its introduction, when that impossible face came into the light and was seared into the collective consciousness.
Directed by James Whale. Makeup by Jack Pierce. Cinematography by Arthur Edeson.
Part Two: The Short, Apocalyptic Life of The Bride of Frankenstein, is here.