Synopsis: Dr. Frankenstein dares to tamper with life and death by creating a human monster out of lifeless body parts.
Stars: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Boris Karloff, Edward Van Sloan, Frederick Kerr, Dwight Frye, Lionel Belmore
Director: James Whale
Running Length: 70 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: Until recently, I’d never seen director James Whale’s landmark 1931 version of Frankenstein before, but I felt like I had. That’s because there are so many iconic images, scenes, and vocals from it existing in popular culture that, like the creature at the center cobbled together from multiple bodies, one could easily have assembled it in their mind. There’s obviously nothing like sitting down and actually watching the 70-minute film from beginning to end and the viewer is reminded again why some movies are classics and stand the test of time while others fade from memory before you’ve even made it home from the theater. This is not one that’s easily forgotten.
After the unexpected success of Dracula in 1931, Universal Studios fast tracked their plans to create a host of horror films that could be made for relatively little money but would turn a nice profit for the studio. The next film in this mix was Frankenstein and though originally intended to star Bela Lugosi as the Monster, the star of Dracula left after being unhappy with the way the role was coming together. Looking back, it was fortunate that Lugosi could remain ever associated with the vampire Count he made iconic, making way for Boris Karloff to put his stamp on the Monster creation of Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein.
While the movie is ostensibly based on the book by Mary Shelley that was published in 1818, it’s by way of an adaptation of a 1927 play that was itself adapted from the novel. Like a game of telephone, Shelley’s story lost some of its intensity in the transition of mediums, but the outline is generally the same. Scientist Frankenstein (Victor in the book, Henry in the movie) is obsessed with creating life out of dead matter and will resort to unorthodox methods to test his experiments. Assembling a body out of the parts of cadavers, he brings the Creature (dubbed the Monster in the movie) to life but becomes repulsed by what he has created and abandons his work for his waiting fiancée, Elizabeth. When the Monster breaks loose and starts to wreak havoc on the nearby village, Frankenstein has to confront his creation and put an end to the horror.
It’s hard not to watch Frankenstein and stop yourself from being a little awed at both the enormity of the impact the film has had while at the same time recognizing how scuttle bones the picture is at times. Backdrops that ripple to indicate it’s not a cloudy sky but a painted curtain, concrete walls that bounce, some hasty editing to cover for special effects that weren’t quite perfected. Yet for all those rinky-dink callouts, oh my goodness is this film gorgeous when it comes to costume design and some of the sets that were constructed. Frankenstein’s lab and lair are incredible sights to behold, and the windmill finale is as impressive a set piece now as I’m sure it was then.
At the beginning of the film, one of the actors comes out and makes a grand announcement to the audience that the movie we are about to see is shocking and this is our final warning to leave if we didn’t think we could take it. It’s a nice touch to set the mood and I’m sure must have gotten some audience members hearts racing. Of course, we look at a low impact (in terms of horror) film such as Frankenstein now and wonder how it could have ever been considered ‘scary’ but then again, consider that much of the talk then was based on word of mouth so many people were going to this after someone told them about it. The hype built up in their heads was likely looming large and this pre-show announcement would only boost that hope for thrill even more.
Performance-wise, the film tends toward the typical broad-ness of the era with everyone affecting that same stage-y presentational way of delivering their dialogue but it’s really all about Karloff as the Monster. While Karloff also memorably played The Mummy the next year in 1932, he would always be associated with Frankenstein and for good reason. There’s an emotional core to this creature and Karloff discovers it early on. The Frankenstein character has gone on to be portrayed as a mouth-breathing dunderhead at times but not the way Karloff has played it. This is a confused living being trying to adjust to his surroundings that didn’t ask for the situation he’s in but being forced to conform. It’s no wonder we often sympathize with the Monster more than any of the other characters.
Followed by six sequels that started with Bride of Frankenstein in 1935 (no, I haven’t seen that either…yikes!) and ending with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948 (yes, I’ve seen that and it’s grand!), Karloff would return for two as the Monster and one as Dr. Frankenstein! The character of the Monster would go on to be a popular figure in many horror related features through the years, it certainly helped Universal continue to churn out their initial batch of now-legendary monster movies. Attempts at remakes that are closer to Shelley’s original novel have been made over the years, but the image of this 1931 Frankenstein sets a high bar for any subsequent production. That’s saying something about the longevity of this picture. It’s (still) alive, indeed.