Starring-Colin Clive, Boris Karloff
Scott’s Review #822
Reviewed October 22, 2018
For those of us who treasure cinematic brilliance in films of the past need to look no further than Frankenstein (1931), a masterpiece in the horror genre. In fact, considered by some to be the greatest horror film ever made, the still frightening work is based on the legendary 1818 Mary Shelley novel. Highly influential to later groupings of horror film sub-genres, the importance of this film must never be forgotten.
In a small European village, a scientist named Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is determined to create human life by way of stealing fresh body parts from cemeteries and using electrical shock as part of his creation. He convinces his assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye), to steal a human brain from a former professor’s laboratory. Due to a clumsy mistake, Fritz must steal the brain of a criminal rather than a “normal” human being, the result being dire when Frankenstein’s monster is created.
The creation of the monster (and no, the monster’s name is not actually Frankenstein as some might assume) is astounding, especially given the time-period of the early 1930’s. With a flattop, heavy eyelids, protruding neck terminals, and his hulking physique, he is a frightening figure, but with a yearning, childlike nature. The monster’s innocence makes him so tragic. A compelling scene occurs when the audience first sees the monster turn around and face the camera.
What separates Frankenstein from many other horror films is the underlying sadness and empathy that we feel towards the monster. Generally, the “villain” in most horror films is clearly defined, but who is the villain in Frankenstein? How can it be the monster when he, unaware of his own strength, drowns a young child? We root for the monster when he hangs the dastardly dwarf and we hate the town of peasants who seek revenge on the monster. The complexities in this film are endless.
The main character is an interesting study. Title billed; the character is a genius while also teetering on the brink of madness- he is not the hero of the film nor is he entirely sympathetic. He is the ruin of a monster who has feelings and a sadness to him. Frankenstein’s fiancée, Elizabeth (Mae Clark) is concerned for him, which adds a nurturing element to the dynamic. The intent is for the audience not to despise Frankenstein, but to be enthralled with his complexities.
The term “monster film” can conjure up feelings of silliness or over-the-top acting, but Frankenstein is more artistic than goofy. The famous line of “It’s alive!” was paid tribute to in later years, but an equally spectacular horror film, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) when Rosemary feels her haunted baby kick. To say nothing of the tribute Mel Brook’s classic Young Frankenstein (1974) paid to the original.
Given the film was made in 1931 the effects and lighting techniques are beyond impressive. The overall tone of the film is stylistic with a prevalent fairy-tale beauty unlike any films made at the time, save for perhaps Dracula, the 1931 horror-vampire masterpiece. In fact, both Frankenstein and Dracula would make a delicious double-feature on a Saturday evening. Director James Whale creates a magical environment that astounds, holding up well generation after generation, never seeming dated.
Frankenstein (1931) was followed by numerous sequels, the best of which is Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Undoubtedly, the film influenced campy yet important monster films to follow- most notably the “Hammer Horror films” of the same tone. Despite teetering on the one-hundred-year-old mark, the brilliant film is timeless and must be introduced to young film makers everywhere (especially in the horror genre).