Written by: Mary Shelley (novel), Petty Webling (play), John L. Balderston, Garrett Fort
Produced by: Carle Laemmle Jr.
Directed by: James Hale
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"You have created a monster, and it will destroy you!"
In the annals of classic horror, the films produced by Universal Studios during the 1930s undoubtedly stand as a monument to the early days of the genre. Beginning with 1931’s Dracula, the studio produced a string of classics for the next twenty years, including The Wolf Man, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and Creature From the Black Lagoon; of course, in true horror fashion, each of these films would spawn into franchise that the studio would milk for years. However, among these, one series would separate itself from the pack: the Frankenstein series, which served as my introduction to the genre that I continue to love today.
When I was a kid, my father was a huge influence on my horror viewing habits. He was the man that introduced me to all of my favorites: A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Alien, Jaws, etc. However, it all began with Frankenstein, the film he has always cited as his favorite since he was a kid himself. To this day, he reminds me of how he used to watch the film on TV when the local stations would air horror classics late into the morning hours on weekends. Having gone through similar experiences with horror films growing up, I have come to appreciate that type of atmosphere when watching a film. Any horror fan will tell you that there’s something different about watching a horror film on late night television. Sure, they’re usually edited and interrupted by commercial breaks, but for many fans, this is how they grew up with the genre (myself included).
My introduction to Frankenstein didn’t come from late night television; instead, my dad rented it from one of the various rental stores that operated in our area before Blockbuster came to town years later. While I can’t be completely sure that this was the very first horror film I ever saw, it’s the first that I can remember—and what a glorious introduction it was. From the opening scene in the gothic cemetery, I was hooked, and the film never let up. Modern audiences (read: kids today) probably won’t understand, but this film was an unbelievable experience as a three or four year old. I’ll forever be in debt to my father for introducing me to this at such a young age because I don’t think I would have appreciated it when I was older. This film influenced my taste for years to come, as it proves that gore isn’t everything when it comes to horror; instead, atmosphere and tension can provide all the thrills and chills you need.
Everyone knows the basic plot of Frankenstein, so I won’t mince with details. The film begins with Dr. Henry (not Victor) Frankenstein and his hunchbacked assistant, Fritz, stealing bodies for an experiment from the aforementioned cemetery. We soon come to learn that Frankenstein is attempting to piece together bodies in an attempt to reanimate the dead. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to Frankenstein, Fritz mistakenly takes a convict’s brain for the experiment. Meanwhile, Frankenstein’s fiancée, Elizabeth, is worried about Henry’s abnormal, obsessive behavior, so she decides to pay him a visit along with Henry’s friend, Victor Moritz. Conveniently, they arrive just in time to witness the fruits of Henry’s labor, as he reanimates the dead corpse right before their eyes in one of the most chilling sequences in horror history. Of course, Henry has created a monster here, not a man, and the rest of the film is concerned with the fallout.
Karloff’s portrayal of the Monster here makes the character one of the best in horror history; there are villains, and there are icons, and Frankenstein’s monster is definitely the latter. The Monster is immediately terrifying from the moment he enters the film. In one of the most stunning entrances in film history, the Monster lurches backwards into the frame before the camera captures a haunting, empty gaze from Karloff’s eyes. Furthermore, the Monster’s face is seemingly plastered with an eerie grin that contributes to the creature’s creepiness. The film is sometimes criticized for supposedly making Frankenstein’s creature more monstrous than human because he doesn’t speak (as was the case in Shelley’s original novel), but I feel that there’s a tragic and sympathetic element to Karloff’s portrayal despite this. In fact, the film’s other famous scene involving the creature’s interaction with a young girl is so effective because it’s made clear that the monster doesn’t know any better.
It is this element that separates Frankenstein from most horror films, as we soon come to see that the Monster is more misunderstood than he is malicious. We also come to realize that the Monster’s creator and the village townspeople are the true villains of the film, as the Monster’s fate is totally incongruous to that of his creator. Here’s a toast to the house of Frankenstein, indeed. We’ve seen other horror films attempt this kind of role reversal, but none of them presents such a tragically sympathetic creature as Frankenstein. The Monster is ultimately more the victim rather than the villian of the film, as we come to see his tortured existence as an unwanted burden that his maker has foisted upon him.
In terms of direction, Whale's film is a hallmark among “The Golden Age” of Universal Horror. Graced with lavish sets, moody backdrops, and gorgeous black and white photography, Frankenstein looks like a classy, high budget film (which it was—it cost $300,000 to produce, which was immense for 1931). The film also features an excellent performance from Colin Clive, who brings the moody, obsessive title character to life. Lionel Belmore, who would shows up in several Universal productions throughout the decade, has a nice role as Little Maria’s father; though he is only featured in a couple of scenes, they are highly effective in communicating a father’s grief over a dead child.
It is also interesting that the film features no music aside from the opening and closing credits; instead, the film is marked by a moody silence throughout, which contributes to the film’s unsettling quality. Overall, the film is marked by a mood that can only be described as ancient and gothic. The film is set in an unnamed European country during an unnamed time, which contributes to the timelessness of the tale; it also makes the tale seem like a classic horror story, as the film essentially feels as if it’s a fairy tale gone horribly wrong. As I said earlier, the film is all about creating a mood and atmosphere that is unlike any other horror film I have ever seen. This is the true definition of classic horror.
The last time I watched this film, the environment was fitting. I was flipping through the channels late one night a few months ago and came across the film just as it was beginning to air on the Chiller network. Since nothing else was on, I decided to watch the film just as my dad watched it all those years ago; also, my dad woke up towards the end and watched it with me (he has a sixth sense for this film, I swear). For a brief moment, I was a little kid again, and the film reminded me why I watch horror films in the first place: to be transported to another place and time and be entertained for a couple of hours. While Frankenstein is without a doubt a classic, the film is also just plain fun. I’ve seen it a hundred times, but it’s just as satisfying now as it was when I was younger.
Luckily, horror aficionados don’t have to wait for television airings to watch this classic, as Universal has released the film a few times on DVD now. The original 1999 release is out of print, but the film was re-released in 2004 as part of the Universal Monsters Legacy Collection series. This release also contains all of the other films in the Frankenstein series. If you only want the original film, you can pick up the 75th Anniversary Edition that was released a couple of years ago. However the difference in price between the two sets is miniscule, so I highly recommend the Legacy Collection release, which features a more than adequate presentation as far as audio and video are concerned. This release (along with the 75th Anniversary Collection) also restores some lines and scenes that were actually removed from the original theatrical presentations because they were deemed too shocking for their day. At any rate, you can’t go wrong with either release because if you’re a horror fan, you must own this film—it’s Essential!
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