Director: James Whale
Starring: Colin Clive, Mae Clark, John Boles, Boris Karloff
“How the hell do I even start this one???”
I don’t mean to hit you all with a “as I stared at my blinking curser” writing cliché, but that’s the question I keep asking myself as I try to put down in words what I hope will be a review worthy of one of the classic horror films that helped define the entire horror genre. Frankenstein, along with Dracula is probably the most well-known horror story ever told. It’s been done and re-done so many times it’s probably impossible to accurately count the different versions. My introduction to the Frankenstein story came in the form of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, at a drive-in theater no less, which to this day is one of my earliest childhood memories. I was too young to get most of the jokes, but I fell in love with the story. I was in my late twenties before I ever saw the 1931 Frankenstein, and it was the last of the classic Universal pictures that I saw. I think because of that, I was able to watch the film with a much more open mind and it helped me study the film more closely.
Frankenstein tells the story of Henry Frankenstein and his assistant Fritz (not Igor), as they collect various body parts so that the young Frankenstein can pursue his scientific goal of recreating life from dead tissue through various electrical apparatus. Frankenstein’s girlfriend Elizabeth starts to get pissed off because the young doc is spending all of his time up in some abandoned watch tower with two other men, one of which is dead.
You can’t blame the girl for being a little sexually frustrated.
She decides to trek to the top of the hill to confront Henry and drags along her friend Victor, who I can’t believe she’s not sleeping with, and Dr. Waldman, Henry’s old college professor. You savvy classic horror fans will recognize Dr. Waldman as Van Helsing from Dracula, and Dr. Muller from The Mummy. This brings me to my first sidebar—I absolutely love that the classic horror films used the same actors in essentially the same roles. Aside from the obvious Lugosi, Karloff and Chaney roles, there were a good number of supporting actors that were essentially pigeon-holed into the same roles in the classic films, and I for one would love to see more of that today. At the very least, today’s “horror actors” deserve the same kind of respect that their forefathers received.
The trio shows up right as Henry is about to conduct his final experiment and they get front row seats to the reanimation of Frankenstein’s creature, not to mention what’s arguably one of the most famous scenes (and quotes) in horror history—Frankenstein’s famous cries of “It’s alive. It’s ALIVE. IT’S ALIIIIIVE!!!!” At this point we only see the Monster—eh hmmm—the “creature’s” arm raise; the big reveal doesn’t come until some minutes later in the film. Frankenstein and Dr. Waldman are discussing the questionable success of the experiment some days later—specifically the fact that the brain used in the creature was that of a deranged criminal—when we are finally introduced to one of the most infamous horror icons of all time: Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster! After a few scenes in which we discover that the Monster LOVES sunlight, but contradictorily HATES fire, the monster loses his proverbial shit and is forced into restraints. The very much expendable Fritz feels it’s a good idea to fuck with the monster with a torch and is quickly hung by the neck. Henry soon realizes that his creation is an abomination and solicits the help of Dr. Waldman to help him sedate the creature so he can be humanely killed again—or for the first time—or whatever. So after a quick conversation that probably went something like “so Waldo, it looks like you’ve got this shit in the bag, so I’m gonna bug out, marry Elizabeth and finally tap that ass,” Henry prepares for his wedding to Elizabeth and leaves Dr. Waldman to dispatch the creature. Not surprisingly, Waldman screws this up and gets choked to death by the Monster, who then escapes. The Creature stumbles along through the forest until he comes up on a little girl left to play by herself next to a very deep lake by her father, who—had this been modern day—would have promptly been reported to Child Services. The monster and the girl chuck a few flower petals into the lake, and when the creature finds that they’ve run out of flowers, he gives young Maria the ole heave ho and in she goes, where she subsequently drowns because her giant Austrian braids drug her to the bottom of the lake. Meanwhile, Frankenstein is waiting to marry, and subsequently get it on with Elizabeth, when he’s told that the Dr. Waldman has been found strangled in the lab. He then hears a scream, surmises that the Monster is in the house, is told that the young girl was drowned by the creature (how the hell her dad deduced this I’ve no idea, as this was WAY before the invention of nanny-cams), and decides to form a mob of townspeople to seek out and destroy the Monster. Frankenstein eventually finds the monster on top of a mountain, where the creature knocks him out and drags him into a nearby windmill. The monster throws Henry from the top of the windmill, and he miraculously survives. Meanwhile, the villagers set fire to the windmill and the Monster presumably parishes in the fire.
This review is running a little longer than my usual posts, but I think given the weight of this particular film you’ll all forgive me. I’ll close with a couple of thoughts on the film.
First off, I love the old Hollywood method of showing the cast, or “Players”, at the beginning of the film, and simply ending the picture with “The End.” In the case of Frankenstein, the fact that the role of “The Monster” was followed by an intentional “?” was very clever for its time, because Karloff wasn’t very well-known prior to Frankenstein—he’d only done a handful of silent films and some serials. My second big observation is that while Karloff’s performance is legendary, and horror fans owe a lot to these early performances, Colin Clive’s role as Henry is very underrated in my opinion—especially the close-ups on his face as he interacts with the supporting characters while they question his sanity and the success of his experiments. There have been countless articles written and conversations had about the Frankenstein story, one of which is whether the “Monster” is really a Monster, or a misunderstood victim. In my opinion, as the character is portrayed in the film, he is a monster. While he didn’t necessarily start that way, Fritz essentially pisses him off to the point of murder, and he doesn’t let up for the rest of the picture.
You all know I’m a slasher whore and prefer buckets of blood over atmosphere, but I also give proper respect where it’s due. For horror fans, watching Frankenstein should be like visiting a holy place, and should be done so with the appropriate frame of mind and reverence.
Watch this one, multiple times. You may not realize it at first, but this film influenced your life, and mine. Horror wouldn’t be what it is today without Frankenstein.