Horror is undeniably flashy, and often theatrical: screaming, crying, shouting, and grandiose acts of mayhem and evil are all staples of the horror film, accompanied by an often striking and expressionistic visual style. The genre lends itself to such portrayal, and of course the work done by silent-era German filmmakers such as Robert Wiene (in 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and F.W. Murnau (in 1922’s Nosferatu) made a lasting impact on the medium. Yet it was the cycle of monster films made by Universal Studios in the 1930s that fully established the classical style of cinematic horror for American audiences, and one of its architects—arguably the chief one—was director James Whale. An Englishman who had held just about every position in the theatre before moving to Hollywood, Whale added a distinctive theatrical bombast and eccentricity to the German Expressionist and Gothic styles of horror cinema. His horror features for Universal—1931’s Frankenstein, 1932’s The Old Dark House, 1933’s The Invisible Man and 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein—not only set a template for years of horror movies to come, but enriched them with characters and performances that give subtextual as well as visual depth.
Born in Worcestershire in 1889, the sixth of seven children, Whale found himself needing to take a series of odd jobs in order to help support his family. Sequestering away some extra money, he was able to attend night classes at the Dudley School of Arts and Crafts, beginning his practice of the arts just before World War I began. When he became a POW in 1917 on the Western Front, Whale involved himself in the amateur theatrical productions in the prison camp, acting as a performer, writer, producer and set designer. When the war ended and Whale returned to England, he found himself reprising many of those jobs in the legitimate theatre, eventually working his way toward becoming a director. His successful production of “Journey’s End,” a play about a WWI infantry unit, attracted the attention of Hollywood. After some involvement with other studios, Carl Laemmle at Universal signed Whale to a contract in 1931 shortly after the studio had struck box office gold that February with Tod Browning’s Dracula, a film adapted from both literary and theatrical sources. When given the choice to make his first film for the studio, Whale selected what would be their follow up to Dracula: Frankenstein.
Whale’s 1931 film of Frankenstein is not only based off of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, but also Peggy Webling’s 1927 stage adaptation of Shelley, giving the film a similar theatrical feeling to Dracula. The translation from page to stage to screen yields similar quirks: character’s names are switched, some events become condensed or revised, the locations are pared to a minimum, and so on. Yet unlike Browning’s methodically paced movie, and despite the lack of underscore or any other pacing crutch, Whale’s film moves dynamically. In conjunction with cinematographer Arthur Edeson, the camera glides through Charles D. Hall’s Gothic-cum-Expressionist sets, breaking fourth walls as smoothly as one might on the stage. Whale made the brilliant choice of hiring Kenneth Strickfaden to provide Doctor Frankenstein’s lab with futuristic equipment that flashes and sparks and otherwise dazzles. It all makes for a theatrical effect that would define the cinematic “mad scientist” for decades to come. Even Boris Karloff’s performance as the Monster is in the pantomime and commedia dell’arte traditions, while Fredrick Kerr’s bumbling Baron Frankenstein is the first of several deliberately camp characters Whale would introduce into his horror films.
If Frankenstein is a film infused with theatrical elements, Whale’s follow up for Universal, The Old Dark House, feels like a stage play directly translated to the screen. Ironically, it’s based not on a play but on a 1927 novel called “Benighted” by J.B. Priestly. Whale and his writers Benn Levy and R.C. Sherriff take the novel and make it into a ten-character single location mystery. That location, the titular old dark house, is inspired by Paul Leni’s 1927 silent The Cat and the Canary, a mystery story involving a spooky mansion filled with secrets. Whale solidified the archetype, bringing together a disparate group of characters to the location on a dark and stormy night, having the Everymen and women stumble onto a family of eccentrics hiding some dark secrets. In so doing, Whale created a new theatrical staple as well as a cinematic one: the long-running play “The Mousetrap” by Agatha Christie (as well as some of Christie’s other works) takes its cue from the setup, as does “The Addams Family” television series and movies like Clue (1985). Once again working with Edeson and Hall, Whale’s visual style combines Gothic and Expressionist architecture and lighting with billowing curtains, huge fireplaces and ghastly makeups (courtesy of Universal makeup guru Jack Pierce). The director focuses so keenly on the banter and over-the-top qualities of the characters that it disguises the fact that not all that much happens in the film, a deft and very theatrical sleight-of-hand.
By contrast, quite a bit occurs in Whale’s final two masterpieces of horror for the studio, The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein. Filming H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel about a scientist who makes himself invisible was always going to be a massive task using techniques available in 1933, but Whale, in conjunction with Universal effects wizard John P. Fulton, applies his theatrical skills to make it work nearly seamlessly. The mad scientist appears to be “eaten away,” as one character puts it, thanks to a combination of a matte process (combining several shots of the same scene), wire work, and even puppetry. Devoid of facial expressions, Claude Rains’ performance as the invisible man is bombastic via his signature voice and body language. Whale casts theatre actress Una O’Connor in the film as an innkeeper whose performance is even more over the top than Rains’, her shrieks both outrageously comic and unsettlingly wild.
O’Connor returns in Bride of Frankenstein along with Ernest Thesiger (who had previously appeared in The Old Dark House), just two notable members of Whale’s growing repertory company. Bride is the apotheosis of Whale’s work within the horror genre, an arch meta-commentary on monster stories, while still subtextually rich and heartfelt. Practically begged by Universal to return for a Frankenstein sequel, Whale uses his supreme creative control to run wild with the film, aggressively pushing its look while adding a great deal of subversive material. The creation of the Bride sequence sees Whale, cinematographer John J. Mescall, and editor Ted J. Kent putting together a series of bold, Expressionistic, chiaroscuro shots, extreme close-ups of faces and objects providing a brand new visual punch in addition to the return of Strickfaden’s gadgetry. An openly gay man, Whale seems to delight in Thesiger’s performance, perhaps using his character to introduce a queer subtext to the film (something the 1998 Whale biopic Gods and Monsters explicitly encourages). Elsa Lanchester’s performance as the title character is iconic, a feat accomplished in barely five minutes on screen, and one which once again relies heavily on body language and pantomime. In both Frankenstein films, the surrounding cloudy sky in night exterior scenes is presented via a painted backdrop. Its artifice is rather noticeable, yet doesn’t detract from the film, further enhancing its fantasy world in the same fashion as a set for a play on Broadway or the West End might.
Whale’s work within the horror genre was relatively brief, yet left a legacy that lasts to this day. His fusing of theatrical styles and elements with literary traditions and prior cinematic achievements showed the malleability and range of the genre, proving its ability to act as a playground for visual experimentation and rich themes that could not be as easily approached in other film genres. He acknowledged the camp silliness of the material without ever looking down on it, his macabre sense of humor and irreverence buying moments of genuine fear as well as warmth. Whale’s horror films are chief among the reasons why the Universal Monsters are still remembered and revered to this day, allowing his work and his creations to be an ultimate gift for the artist: where the theatre is by nature ephemeral and transitory, film is forever. Through his own kind of alchemy, Whale achieved immortality—as Doctor Frankenstein might say, he’s still alive.