Director: James Whale
Writers: Garrett Fort and Francis Edwards Faragoh
Cast: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Boris Karloff, Edward Van Sloan, Frederick Kerr, Dwight Frye, Lionel Belmore, and Marilyn Harris
Composer: Bernhard Kaun (Uncredited)
Release Date: 11/21/1931
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
After harvesting spare parts from dead bodies, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his hunchbacked assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) bring to life a grotesque and physically imposing Monster (Boris Karloff). Initially pleased with his achievement, the young scientist fails to maintain his sense of professional pride when his former mentor, Doctor Waldman (Edward Van Sloan), informs Henry that the Monster’s brain—once property of his own laboratory—is that of a dangerous, intellectually stunted criminal. Intent on leaving behind his work and marrying his fiancée Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), Henry returns home to a simple life near the countryside; however, the good doctor soon discovers that evading the consequences of his actions will not be as painless a task as he had assumed.
Though only vaguely reminiscent of Mary Shelley’s inspirational masterpiece, Frankenstein remains one of the most influential horror pictures of the 20th century. Especially worth noting is the performance of Boris Karloff, which, when complemented with Jack Pierce’s iconic make-up, adds credibility to the Monster’s position as a misunderstood outcast driven to commit unspeakable acts against the world that rejected him.
By progressing at a swift pace from start to finish, Frankenstein wastes no time in establishing a morbid atmosphere. Specifically, the movie opens with a grave-robbing sequence wherein a figure of the Grim Reaper seemingly looks over Henry’s shoulder while the desecration is committed, which provides an ominous foreshadowing of things to come. Many howling wind effects and violent bursts of thunder likewise combine to accentuate the stone interior of Henry’s castle during the life-giving scene, thereby enhancing any already present tension in a now archetypal display of a mad scientist consumed by his perceived power over nature.
Whereas the absence of a musical composition in Dracula draws attention to the technical shortcomings of that film, Frankenstein actually benefits from the lack of a traditional score to accompany its macabre subject matter. To offer just two examples, the first audible footsteps taken by the Monster will likely arouse feelings of intense dread given the raw nature of his introduction, while Karloff’s guttural and occasionally animalistic growling noises must not be overshadowed by music in order for viewers to share in the terror felt by Elizabeth prior to her confrontation with the unwelcome guest.
Perhaps most commendable, Karloff’s portrayal of the Monster embodies a certain childlike ignorance that will no doubt elicit compassion from those of a sensitive inclination (the tragic flower-tossing scene contains the quintessential example of such, with the Monster conveying complex emotional states ranging from shock and revulsion to genuine remorse—all of which are depicted with an almost infantile simplicity attributable to the remarkable nuance that Karloff brought to the role). Quite unlike his articulate counterpart from the original book, Karloff’s Monster exemplifies the manner of a mentally retarded brute yet maintains a sympathetic quality given that his “murders” are performed out of ignorance or, in the cases of Fritz and Doctor Waldman, the result of severe provocation; but never premeditated to the same degree as the crimes committed by his literary equivalent.
As per the instructions of Universal Studios, director James Whale produced an ending that features Henry recovering in bed as opposed to dying at the windmill. Though filmed with a potential sequel in mind, the above conclusion is hardly befitting a man who, through his unbridled ambition to harness those elements thought to be reserved exclusively for the divine, unleashes a murderous creation on his fellow man and—perhaps most tragically from a personal standpoint—his own friends and loved ones.
In contrast to Shelley’s novel of the same name, Frankenstein tends to forgo themes of paternal abandonment and avoiding responsibility for one’s actions (however, brief allusions to both concepts are present when Henry chooses to lock away his creation despite knowing the malice of which Fritz is capable when left unsupervised). By deviating from the source material in such a fashion, the harrowing consequences of tampering with unknown forces (or “playing God” to use a more colloquial expression) are given sufficient room to be explored to their full conclusion, with the eponymous scientist eventually paying the price for his arrogant dismissal of Doctor Waldman’s cautionary advice.
While Frankenstein showcases a variety of techniques and special effects that would undoubtedly be considered dated by today’s standards, this production should nonetheless be viewed by individuals with an appreciation for those classic films that inspired nearly a century of cinematic horror. Karloff in particular deserves the utmost praise for his performance, which forever solidified public perception of Frankenstein’s monster as a ubiquitous symbol of the undead.
Overall Quality: 10/10
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