Frankenstein (1931)

Frankenstein (1931) – So I have saved the best for not-quite-last (since some of the other movies I intend to watch are sequels to this one). Frankenstein is my favorite of the old Universal Monster movies. It’s also the most popular with five sequels and a crossover with Abbott and Costello. Boris Karloff and Jack Pierce have created quite possibly the most iconic character of movie history. Karloff (billed as ? in the opening credits) gives a real performance under the makeup. My friend Jes has said there have yet to be a definitive adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel. (He actually has written a pretty great stage version with a kind of genius twist ending.) I agree that this film definitely abbreviates the novel’s story significantly, but I like it much better than any other film version I’ve seen (Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 version was decent enough up until the ending where it got really stupid).

Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) has been away, worrying his fiancée Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) and best friend Victor (John Boles). They seek advice from Henry’s medical school mentor Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan). Waldman tells them that Henry has become obsessed with reanimating dead tissue. Certainly enough, Henry has stolen away to a castle with his hunchbacked assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) to rob graves and make a creature. The Monster (played by ?… er, I mean Karloff) is a simpleton that doesn’t seem particularly violent. However it freaks the hell out around fire, which the somewhat sadistic Fritz uses to torment him. After the Monster off Fritz (he was a jerk anyway), Dr. Frankenstein resolves to destroy the Monster. The Monster disagrees.

Like all of these Universal Monster flicks, there’s a pretty good behind-the-scenes featurette made by film historian David J. Skal. In it they say everyone was worried seven-year-old actress Marilyn Harris would be terrified of Karloff in his monster makeup. Instead she had an immediate rapport with him. They say that children identified with Frankenstein’s Monster. It’s hard not to sympathize with the poor misunderstood guy. He’s created as an innocent, mistreated, then abandoned by his creator. He tries to bond with a child but it goes… badly. He’s an outsider and is thusly sympathetic for all us outsiders watching the film. In the novel, he’s bitter and twisted from the horrors he’s had to endure. His crimes are malevolent. In the film, he’s an innocent. Anyone he kills usually attacked him first (except for one, which was entirely an accident). Everyone has felt like people have condemned them unjustly. Maybe we don’t go around strangling people but we’ve all been ostracized. There’s a lot of reasons James Whale’s film can be viewed as the best of the Universal Monster flicks, but that seems like the best to me. This movie is a classic and one of my all-time favorites.


Ah, how I long for a return to the days when suspense was built via melodramatic monologue.  So I know the old Universal horror movies can seem dates and hokey to the modern jaded film-goer but I still love them.  So much so that I decided to kick off this year’s Halloween Film Fest with James Whale’s classic Frankenstein.  For evidence of how great this movie is, picture the Frankenstein monster.  You just pictured Boris Karloff in Jack Pierce’s make-up.  True it’s slightly skewed because this is a review of that movie but still.  Even if it wasn’t Christopher Lee or Robert DeNiro probably wouldn’t have been your first thought.  The film differs in countless ways from the novel it’s based on but that doesn’t detract from the quality of the film.  James Whale manages to combine atmosphere, suspense, and even some humor into a movie that became a classic for a reason.

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