James Whale

God of Monsters

Retrospectively seen to be saturated with queer subtext, James Whale’s films celebrate ‘the outsider’ figure that would characterise the horror movie genre for decades to come. Ygraine Hackett-Cantabrana explores the man and his monsters…

English film and theatre director and actor, James Whale is a megalith of early horror cinema. Whale – an out gay man – would, during his 1930s heydey, direct some of the greatest gothic horror films that Universal Pictures would ever produce. At a time when homosexuality was extremely frowned upon and Hollywood was being restricted by the Hays Code, James Whale’s films are retrospectively seen to be saturated with queer subtext and celebrate ‘the outsider’ figure that would characterise the horror movie genre for decades to come. 

Born in July of 1889 in Worcestershire, James Whale began his creative endeavours studying art before enlisting in the army at the outbreak of World War One and eventually being captured as a prisoner of war by the German forces. Whilst captive, he discovered his interest in drama through taking part in amateur theatrical productions that took place in the camp at which he was held. Once released, Whale returned to Birmingham where he began a professional career on stage, where he worked as an actor, director, set designer and stage manager.

In 1928, Whale was offered the possibility of directing two private performances of the R.C. Sherriff play Journey’s End which would eventually transfer to the London West End’s Savoy Theatre with Colin Clive (Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein) in the lead role. Due to the success of the play in London, Whale brought the production over to New York on Broadway. This brought James Whale to the attention of various movie producers that, due to the era of silent movies waning, were on the lookout for directors who had experience in directing dialogue for the new talking pictures that had been introduced.

Boris Karloff in Frankenstein

After directing pictures for both Paramount and Tiffany-Stahl studios, it was Universal Pictures where James Whale would truly begin to flourish with his directorial flare. Signing a five-year contract deal in 1931, James Whale would then choose a piece of property out of a selection that Universal chief Carl Laemmle Jr would offer him. This property would be one that would define Whale’s career and go on to cement him as one of the greatest horror movie directors of all time – Frankenstein.

Frankenstein (1931) was a pre-code horror film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel by the same name, directed by James Whale. With Colin Clive in the lead as Henry Frankenstein and Mae Clarke as his fianceé, Elizabeth, Frankenstein would be the movie that would be a career breakthrough for the as yet unknown actor Boris Karloff starring as Frankenstein’s monster. The film would feature James Whale’s prominent style, which was highly influenced by the German expressionist films of the 1920s, through his use of light and shadows. Although Frankenstein was pre-code, it was still subject to numerous censorship problems due to dialogue containing blasphemy and also the inclusion of the death of a child. Despite these restrictions, Frankenstein went on to become a commercial success and opened the door for Whale to become the master of gothic cinema in the 1930s.

Around the same time as director James Whale began his flourishing career at Universal, The Hays Code was beginning to be introduced into Hollywood and the American cinematic industry.  The Hays Code, also known as the Motion Picture Production Code, was a set of industry guidelines for filmmakers to practice self-censorship when producing cinematic pieces. The code was a consequence of 1920s Hollywood being plagued by controversy including the implication of silent film star Fatty Arbuckle in the rape and murder of actress, Virginia Rappe. The Hays Code (named after Will H. Hays, a Presbyterian elder who was president of Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America) was applied to American movies that were to be released from any major studio from 1934 to 1968. Although the code was introduced in 1930, it wasn’t strongly enforced until the year 1934. It deemed what was acceptable and unacceptable content for films made for a public audience.

Elsa Lanchester in the Bride of Frankenstein

The code was divided into two sections: ‘General Principles’ and ‘Particular Applications’. ‘General Principles’ dictated that the moral standards of an audience could not be lowered by viewing the motion picture, and that it could not have any form of influence on women, children, the lower-class and those of ‘susceptible minds’. The film also had to depict ‘correct standards of life’. It was also forbidden to ridicule a law or allow a sympathetic view towards any sort of lawbreaker.

‘Particular Applications’ was an exact list of items that could not be depicted within a movie such as nudity, lustful kissing, miscegenation, and sexual perversion. Although the ban on homosexuality was never explicitly mentioned in the Hays Code, it was understood to be included under the description of sexual perversion.

Due to the strict enforcement of this set of strict motion picture guidelines, things like queerness was forced to become subtly coded and only obvious to those that were part of a community that Hollywood standards were fighting so hard to make invisible. From this deep coding of queer characters was born the idea of the monstrous queer, the outsider with which so many horror fans associate and relate to. It is also a trait with which James Whale’s horror films are imbued, an indirect level of queerness that has the ability to strike a chord with so many queer horror fans. James Whale was an out gay man in Hollywood, something that was very unheard of and desperately frowned upon at the time, and so to subvert the authorities of the Hays Code, Whales movies became subtly laced with queer subtext. Borsi Karloff in The Old Dark House

The Old Dark House directed by Whale for Universal in 1932 tells the story of five people seeking shelter from a storm in an old decrepit mansion belonging to the eccentric Femm family and their housekeeper Morgan, played by the great Boris Karloff. Whale also cast out bisexual actor Ernest Thesiger as the camp and dramatic Horace Femm. The movie serves as strong inspiration to queer classic musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975) and even hints at a same-sex relationship between the criminal pyromaniac Femm brother, Saul, who has been locked up in the gothic mansion by his family to prevent him from burning the place down, and their manservant Morgan. 

After directing the mystery film The Kiss Before The Mirror (1933) Whales made a triumphant return to the horror genre in the comedy infused The Invisible Man in 1933. Combining Whale’s distinctive style and state of the art visual effects, the film broke box office records in America and further afield. Retrospectively The Invisible Man has been read as also containing gay subtext, despite the fact its script was adapted from – and approved by – H.G. Wells. The film, starring Claude Rains in the titular role, is saturated with campy undertones and can be seen to be a reflection of the experience of being part of the LGBT+ community in Hollywood, whether an out member or one who is closeted. The character of Dr. Jack Griffin is one who, to be himself, must become invisible to society and hide in plain sight, and as he re-assures his ex-girlfriend comments ‘The whole world’s my hiding place. I can stand out there amongst them in the day or night and laugh at them.’

Claude Rains in The Invisible Man

Following the success of both his pre-code 1931 hit Frankenstein and The Invisible Man in 1933, James Whale directed the sequel The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) starring Elsa Lanchester as the titular character. Boris Karloff returned to his role as The Monster, and Colin Clive (also to be rumoured as bisexual) reprised his role as Henry Frankenstein. Again, Whales cast Ernest Thesiger as Doctor Pretorius, a fellow scientist who interrupts Doctor Frankenstein’s wedding day to lure him back to the lab to create another life. Frankenstein and Pretorius’ desire to be able to create a life without the need of a woman and become same-sex parents to their creation points towards this Universal classic being heavily queer coded. Due to the Hays Code, an entire fifteen minutes from the end of the motion picture was cut. In the original, Henry Frankenstein uses the heart of his wife, Elizabeth, for The Bride, possibly signalling the death of his heterosexuality. 

Despite the fact that James Whale was offered to direct the 1936 Universal horror Dracula’s Daughter (Lambert Hillyer) (another overtly queer coded feature based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872)), Whale declined with the fear that he had become typecast as a horror director. Unfortunately with this decision, Whale’s career began to take a steep incline, something he suspected in part due to his out homosexuality and with his failing health ultimately leading to his suicide in 1957 at the age of 67. James Whale left behind a legacy, however, that lives on in the influential monsters of his films that have continued thriving and becoming prominent aspects of popular culture, right up to the present day. As well as the infamous aesthetics of his movies, he also created a comforting and accepting space for those who find themselves on the periphery of society, the outsiders and the outcasts. 

Picture of Ygraine Hackett-Cantabrana

Ygraine Hackett-Cantabrana

Ygraine Hackett-Cantabrana is an Irish pinup model, burlesque performer and podcast host of 'What A Scream' . When she is not taking her clothes off onstage in a flurry of blood and guts, she co-produces events for Women in Horror Month in Ireland. She is a regular contributor to Ghouls Magazine, Moving Pictures Film Club and has previously written for Fangoria and British Film Institute. Deeply obsessed with all things dark and macabre from a frighteningly young age, Ygraine's favourite sub-genres are the occult and possession.

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