James Whale, 1931
Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles
"Now I know what it feels like to be God!"
Though the plot shouldn’t need retelling, for the (hopefully) 2% of you that haven’t seen this film or heard about the plot in detail, I will summarize to be on the safe side. Two of my biggest Frankenstein related pet peeves are that people think the name of the Monster is Frankenstein — that’s the name of his creator, the doctor — and that the name of the assistant is Ygor — that character doesn't appear until the third film in the series. The original assistant's name is Fritz.
Henry Frankenstein, an obsessed young scientist, isolates himself with his hunchback assistant, Fritz, in order to create human life. To accomplish this, Henry and Fritz go grave robbing and experiment with electricity. His fiancée, Elizabeth, and his friend Victor become concerned with his behavior, but he turns them away. They seek out the help of his former mentor, Dr. Waldman, but it is too late. Dr. Frankenstein has managed to create life during a lightening storm in the form of a patched together monster with a defective brain.
Though the Monster is innocent, he does not understand his own strength and is prone to violence when frightened. He eventually escapes when Fritz torments him with fire, which terrifies the Monster, and Henry realizes what he has set loose upon the world. He prepares for his wedding with Elizabeth, but the townspeople become aware of the Monster when he accidentally drowns a little girl. The Monster also interrupts Henry’s wedding day and attacks Elizabeth. The Monster is soon chased into the mountains by the enraged townsfolk, though Frankenstein is also determined to destroy his creation once and for all. They face off at an old, abandoned mill, where it seems both creator and creation will be destroyed.
As with Dracula, Frankenstein was adapted from a play version of a novel — Mary Shelley by way of Peggy Webling — and a lot of Shelley’s plot details are outright ignored (such as the Monster learning to speak) or streamlined. Shelley’s philosophical complexities are abandoned in favor of a plot that emphasizes the mad scientist angle that is barely touched upon in her novel, but that proved so affective on screen.
The film is surprisingly violent, even though much of this is left up to the viewer’s imagination, and resulted in a lot of cuts for the initial theatrical release. The murder of a child and the harrowing later scene where her father carries her dead, drowned body through a town festival is one of the most powerful moments of violence in early American horror and far outstrips Dracula in the horror department. The scene of implied rape, where the Monster breaks into Elizabeth’s room is another moment that still has the power to shock. There are also some incredible stunts, such as the windmill scene, which is slightly marred by Henry Frankenstein’s surprise recovery at the end of the film, but I really hate Hollywood enforced happy endings.
This is indisputably Karloff’s film and the one that would make his career. His amazing performance is at once monstrous, tragic, funny (occasionally unintentionally), and sympathetic. His acting is almost Lon Chaney-esque, achieved through facial expressions, arm gestures, moans, grunts, and purely physical acting. His collaboration with make up artist Jack Pierce (they worked together for several weeks before shooting began) produced one of the most memorable and influential monsters in cinema history. His jerking, lumbering walk is both childlike and alien, and some of his solo scenes, such as when he sees sunlight for the first time, are some of the most powerful in early Hollywood cinema. Pierce’s make up was based on his idea of what botched brain surgery would look like and on a study of corpses. Applying the make up, including copious amounts of putty to Karloff’s face and eyelids, took several hours every day and was apparently quite painful. Kenneth Strickfaden also deserves a mention for creating the electrical effects in the laboratory and, in particular, during the Monster’s “birth.” He allegedly used an original Tesla Coil, built by Nikola Tesla himself, to achieve some of the affects.
The rest of the cast is mostly excellent, particularly Colin Clive. Clive is perhaps an unlikely leading man and is clearly overshadowed by Karloff, but reaches some incredible heights of hysteria and obsession as Dr. Frankenstein. He is an unlikable character and there is something perverse about his passion to create life, to effectively reproduce outside biological and sexual norms. This is enhanced by his obvious disinterest in his fiancée, who he treats more as a social set piece than as someone he loves or has a sexual interest in. Though his friend Victor may seem like an extraneous character, his obvious devotion to and affection for Elizabeth serves to underline Henry Frankenstein’s neglect of and disinterest in her. Mae Clarke is a bit drab as Elizabeth and seems to be going through the motions for most of the film, but in part it works because she had so little to work with in terms of script.
There’s some wonderful direction from James Whale, who would go on to make a name for himself with the possibly superior Bride of Frankenstein, as well as other horror classics such as The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man. The magnificent cinematography was provided by Arthur Edeson, who would also film two of my favorite Bogart vehicles, Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon.
Though Dracula came out less than a year earlier and is often known as the forerunner of American horror, Frankenstein is easily the superior film, including being more financially successful. While Dracula has a slowly moving, parlor room potboiler pace, Frankenstein is full of action, though it does have some similarities with Dracula, namely overlapping actors. Dwight Frye (Renfield) plays Fritz, Dr. Frankenstein’s deformed, demented assistant, and Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing) plays another mentor-like character. Van Sloan also gives an out of character speech for both films to allegedly alleviate the fears of audiences and let them know that, after, it’s only a movie.
When Robert Florey was originally slated to direct, Bela Lugosi was considered for the part of Frankenstein and later the Monster, but turned down the latter role because he considered it beneath him. It was one of the biggest financial mistakes of his career. We will never know what the Florey-Lugosi film would have looked like, but director James Whale’s use of German expressionism was a huge influence on later American horror. The large, shadowy sets, particularly the opening graveyard shots, laboratory, and final scenes at the windmill are far more visually impacting than almost any other horror film from the period.
I’m reviewing the Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection box set, which includes all the sequels: The Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, The Ghost of Frankenstein, and House of Frankenstein. Regardless of which version you purchase, the film comes highly recommended and is also recently available on Blu-ray as part of the Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection. Though Karloff reappears in one of the most magical sequels ever made, Bride of Frankenstein, he perhaps unwisely appeared for one last time in the role in Son of Frankenstein. Here Bela Lugosi costars as the malicious assistant, Ygor. Lon Chaney, Jr. took over for The Ghost of Frankenstein, again appearing alongside Lugosi, who finally took up the role of the Monster in the comical Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Frankenstein’s Monster graced the screen one last official time in the monster mash up movie House of Dracula, where Glenn Strange donned the thick putty make up. In later years, Frankenstein’s monster descended into parody with horror-comedies like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Despite this, Karloff’s original performance still has the power to elicit sympathy and terror in equal measures and is one of the finest horror performances in American cinema.