Frankenstein (dir. J Searle Dawley): horror films are born in short film lesson on the evils of humans playing God

J Searle Dawley, “Frankenstein” (1910)

Made by Edison Studios in 1910, this is the first adaptation of the famous Gothic horror novel by Mary Shelley onto film. If only later film-makers could have taken note of this film which boils the story down to a love triangle of Victor Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips), his bride Elizabeth (Mary Fuller) and the monster (Charles Ogle) with an apparently simple plot of love vanquishing evil. The pace is brusque and leaves no time for viewers to interpret what they see. Told with the help of title cards that inform viewers of what is about to happen, the story jumps along in connected episodes: what happens between episodes we are left to imagine. Victor goes off to university where he carries out an experiment to create a perfect human being. Instead a most foul beast arises from a skip boiling over with sulphurous fumes and evil-smelling liquids. The monster faithfully follows Victor home and sees him with his fiancĂ©e Elizabeth. Filled with jealousy, the monster plans to cause some mischief. Sure enough, on their wedding night, Victor and Elizabeth are accosted by the monster. Will the monster succeed in wrenching Victor away from his bride? Will Elizabeth spend the rest of her life mourning the loss of Victor? Will Victor and the monster sink into each other’s arms and turn up at a Gay Pride march celebrating their marriage?

The interesting aspect of the film is its psychological bent: the monster is clearly shown to be an extension of the evil in Frankenstein in the film’s climax. The full-length mirror on a wall becomes a significant character in its own right, reflecting the darkness Frankenstein sees in his own character that has led him to create the monster instead of a perfect human being. The lesson is that humans should not usurp what is God’s role alone to do: create new life from scratch. The monster acknowledges better than Victor does what a horror he is (and by extension what evil exists within Victor) and that he cannot compete with Elizabeth’s pure love for Victor.

The action takes place before a stationary camera so the whole film comes across as a stage play. Editing and the use of close-ups were to come to film-makers much later. Emotion is portrayed by exaggerated facial expressions and movements. In this respect, Ogle does a good job playing an evil monster (the title cards call him evil as though he were conceived and born in sin and cannot hope for redemption) with his wild hair and face, angular arms and legs, and loping movements. The other two major actors over-act their roles but this is to be expected in early silent films where zooming into actors’ faces to capture their expressions was not yet practised.

Remarkably the monster’s creation is shown by the use of a film of a burning stick figure running backwards. Other special effects that include the monster’s sudden and literal disappearance into thin air may appear quite crude to modern audiences but the significant thing is that at such an early stage in the development of film, special effects were being used to good effect to advance a story narrative.

In such a short film – the version I saw played over 12 to 13 minutes but the full original version ran to 16 minutes – plenty of horror can be found and viewers will be held spellbound by the action in spite of the rough quality of the film-stock, the over-acting and the amateurish look of the sets used. With this short film, the horror film genre was born. This particular short is an excellent reminder that the best horror films include plenty of psychological inquiry into the dark recesses of human nature.


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