James Whale: Father of Fear

James Whale Bride of Frankenstein

The 1930s was the decade that horror truly came to Hollywood, with iconic monsters such as Dracula and the Wolf Man clawing their way out of the silent movie era and making their silver screen “talkie” debuts with Universal Pictures. One of the most successful and significantly important films in horror cinematic history, was released in 1931 and in its wake, cemented its director as one of the original maestros of horror—James Whale.

Born in 1889 in Worcestershire, England, James Whale studied art before enlisting in the army due to the outbreak of World War One. After being captured and held as a prisoner of war in Germany, Whale would experience his first taste of theater whilst partaking in amateur productions within the prisoners’ camp. Whale returned to Birmingham where he would begin his career on stage, taking on multiple roles within the theatrical space that would include actor, director, set designer as well as stage manager. In 1928, he was offered the opportunity to direct two performances of Journey’s End by playwright R.C Sherriff, which due to its success was then transferred to the Savoy Theatre in London’s West End with future Frankenstein star Colin Clive in the lead role. The production of Journey’s End was so prosperous, it eventually traveled across the Atlantic for a run on Broadway. 

The era of silent movies was coming to an end in Hollywood and movie producers were in search of filmmakers and directors who had vast experience with directing dialogue and sound. For this, they turned towards theater and the stage. Whale came to the attention of such producers and began his cinematic career at studios such as Paramount and Tiffany-Stahl before professionally flourishing at Universal Pictures where he signed a solid five-year contract in 1931. 

It’s Alive!

The head of production at Universal Pictures, Carl Laemle, Jr. would offer Whale a large selection of films for him to choose to direct. It was a movie adaptation of a 1927 Peggy Webling play, which was itself, an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 gothic masterpiece Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, that would become the catalyst for James Whale’s directorial expansion into horror cinema. It would also cement him as one of the most influential directors of all time. 

Whale’s Frankenstein is a pre-code horror film starring Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein, a scientist who along with his assistant Fritz builds a creature from the body parts of fresh corpses. Once the creature is animated, Frankenstein realizes the horror he has unleashed on the world, rejecting his creation and forcing the creature to navigate the outside world alone. The creature is tormented by those who do not understand him while he tries to reconcile with the rejection he faces from his creator. 

Frankenstein was the breakthrough role for star Boris Karloff who was personally cast by Whale and would then go on to become a horror icon in his own right. Highly influenced stylistically by the German expressionist films of the 1920s such as The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922), Whale experimented with light and shadows to create an impending physicality in both the set pieces and the creature itself. Despite being made prior to the enforcement of the Hays Code, Frankenstein was still subject to heavy censorship when initially released due to its depiction of a child’s death as well as the blasphemous language uttered by Colin Clive’s Henry on the successful animation of his creation. 

James Whale And His ‘Old Dark House’

After the commercial and critical success of Frankenstein, James Whale’s second endeavor into the horror genre was that of 1932’s The Old Dark House, a gloriously camp and gothic isolated house horror starring an ensemble cast consisting of Melvyn Douglas, Gloria Stuart, Charles Laughton, Lilian Bond, Eva Moore, future star of Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein Ernest Thesiger as well as Frankenstein’s main star Boris Karloff.

The Old Dark House is set on a stormy night, in which five travelers seek shelter from the adverse weather conditions in an old mansion owned by the kooky and eccentric Femm family, who harbors a dark and terrible secret. When it was released, The Old Dark House was largely met with negative reception, and became something of a “lost” film once Universal lost the rights to the story. Whale’s film was rediscovered and restored in 1968, after which the film reached cult status, influencing future camp gothic classics such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). 

With James Whale being an out gay man in an era where homosexuality was severely frowned upon, queerness is imbued within his films, and The Old Dark House is of no exception. Having also cast bisexual actor Ernest Thesiger, James Whale’s The Old Dark House contains a lot more explicit innuendos than films that would follow once the Hays Code would come into full effect. 

The Invisible Man

Plagued by constant changes in cast and crew, The Invisible Man was eventually released in 1933, with Whale at the directorial helm. The Invisible Man centers around Doctor Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) whose secret experiment leaves him invisible. Only bandages and sunglasses signal his presence. Utilizing his invisibility to carry out some vengeful pranks, his intentions soon turn murderous.

After leaving the project prior to filming at least three times due to a fear of being labeled as a horror director, Whale returned to the project and insisted on the casting of theatrical actor Claude Rains in the titular role. Filming concluded in August of 1933 with an additional two months worth of special effects work ending production before its release in the latter half of the same year. The film was a financial as well as a critical success and has become an instant classic with The Invisible Man being part of the Universal monster roster. 

Despite not being as overtly queer or camp in the same vein as The Old Dark House, retrospectively, The Invisible Man has been read as queer-coded, despite it being an adaptation of an H.G. Wells story. The film reflects a queer sentimentality as Dr. Griffin feels he must become invisible to truly be his authentic self. He even tells his fiancée: 

“The whole world’s my hiding place. I can stand out there amongst them in the day or night and laugh at them.” 

Enter The Hays Code

Following the release of The Invisible Man, the Hays Code started to be heavily enforced in Hollywood. The Hays Code was a set of industry guidelines that filmmakers had to follow, leading to a form of self-censorship in their movies. The Hays Code would deem what was perceived as acceptable and unacceptable content for motion pictures that were intended to be shown to a public audience. Due to these restrictions, any portrayal of queerness became heavily coded, portrayed extremely subtly, and only obvious to those who were part of the queer community. The code was initially introduced in 1930 but wasn’t strictly enforced until four years later in 1934. This led to Whale’s next Universal-produced horror film falling victim to the guidelines. However, this led the film to retrospectively become a heavily queer-coded classic.

It’s Alive (Again)

The Bride of Frankenstein was the sequel to the hugely successful Frankenstein, with the film originally set to begin production immediately following its predecessor’s release. However, production was halted due to script problems. Starring the amazing Elsa Lanchester as both the titular Bride as well as the part of Mary Shelley, Bride of Frankenstein depicts the second half of the classic gothic novel. Frankenstein’s creature persuades the doctor to create him a mate with the added pressure of fellow scientist Dr. Pretorius, who is also intent on creating life and growing an artificial brain. 

The Bride of Frankenstein is retrospectively hailed as a horror movie classic as well as one of the greatest sequels of all time. It’s also viewed as a heavily queer horror film. Colin Clive (also rumored to have been a closeted bisexual actor) returns as Dr. Henry Frankenstein who is lured away from his wedding night by Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Theisiger) where together they create a new life and effectively become new parents without the need of a person with a uterus. The last 15 minutes of Bride of Frankenstein, which were cut by the censorship board, reveal that the heart of the Bride is that of Henry’s fiancée, Elizabeth, thus supposedly signaling the death of his heterosexuality.

James Whale And His Queer Legacy

After turning down the directorial spot for Universal’s Dracula’s Daughter (1936), another classic queer horror, James Whale’s career began to spiral downwards. This was caused largely in part to what he suspected was him being an out gay man in an industry and society which not only frowned upon this, but would actively attempt to force Whale and his art back into the closet. His health in rapid decline, James Whale died in 1957 at the age of 67, yet to experience how much of an influence he would become in the cinematic universe of horror. 

Despite colleagues of Whale denying that he would purposefully code his films as queer, it is easy to see just how much of the man is reflected in his artform, his queerness included. James Whale created films that provided a safe and perceptive space for those on the periphery of society, the outsiders, the invisible, and us monstrous queers.  



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