“Compare the way in which the directors of ‘Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein’ (1994) and ‘Frankenstein’ (1931) use different techniques to build up atmosphere in their opening sequences Mary Shelley was only 18 when she wrote Frankenstein, a novel that has come to be one of the most famous horror stories of all time portrayed both on stage and screen. The story itself deals with an ambitious young scientist who creates life, but then rejects his procreation of a monster. James Whale, a Hollywood director with a history of theatre, was the first to adapt Shelley’s original text into a film in 1931, starring Borris Karloff as the monster.
Whale was directing at a time when the Hollywood industry was very young; the audience of its time had never seen anything like Frankenstein and were easily shocked. Whale’s image of Frankenstein’s monster has become one of the most well known in the western world. In 1994, British born director Kenneth Branagh directed and produced another version of the film, starring Robert De Niro as the monster. Branagh’s monster portrayed quite a different image to the square headed vision most were used to. In 1994 Hollywood was nothing out of the ordinary and it was necessary to think up new methods to scare and shock the ever-demanding audience.
This essay will focus on the first four minutes of each film, concentrating on the sound, colour, mise en scene, editing and camera angles. Whale’s Frankenstein begins with a close-up of a pair of hands hauling up a rope, the camera then pans across a group of crying mourners at a funeral service at a graveyard, along with several priests, a skeletal Grim Reaper and some monks. During this exposition there is no soundtrack, unlike in the beginning of Branagh’s, where a lot of non-diegetic sound is used.
Whale’s use of sound overall contrasts vastly with Branagh’s. During the short space of time studied, Branagh used four different pieces of non-diegetic music whereas Whale used none. Both had different aims, and used sound accordingly. Branagh wanted to build up a sense of tension, hence the changes in speed of the soundtrack and the contrapuntal sounds; whereas Whale wanted to create an eerie and realistic atmosphere, hence his choice to use no soundtrack. The pace of Branagh’s soundtrack changes according to the emotions shown on-screen.
For example an intense horn section in the peak of the storm is used to show the power of the actions being shown on screen, contrasting directly with a slower more classical piece to reflect the eeriness of the empty ice. Sometimes, Branagh used a musical caesura to show a high point of intense conversation or action, such as when two characters were talking about mutiny. Every sound that Whale used was exaggerated and each had a specific role within the film. The crying, funeral bells and dialogue are all prominent, and serve a direct and clear purpose.
The funeral bells playing repeatedly in the background remind the audience of the setting and circumstances, the chiming almost scarily rhythmical and regular. Whale’s use of sound, various thuds, bangs and assorted odd noises, add to the atmosphere, along with visuals like the grim reaper and long shadows to unnerve the audience. The two films begin in contrasting settings: Whale’s Frankenstein starts in a dark, moody and atmospheric graveyard. It is immediately obvious that it has been filmed in a studio due to the fact that the clouds in the dark sky do not move and there is no other natural movement.
On the other hand, Branagh begins with a beautiful view of the ice, stretching on for what seems to be miles, although the filming does take place in a studio, it is not as obvious. The mise en scene in Whale’s version strongly emphasizes religious imagery. For example in the graveyard there is a statue of Jesus and during the funeral procession there are several monks in full costume. The graveyard in Whales’ film contains particularly decorative headstones; some graves even have statues.