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Frankenstein (1931)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Edward Van Sloan, Dwight Frye

Written By: Garrett Fort, Francis Edward Faragoh Directed By: James Whale

The Short Version

Dracula started the Universal horror empire, but Frankenstein cemented it.

So much of everything that followed can be traced back to this.

Yes, it’s tame by modern standards, but no less a classic for it.

Boris Karloff’s performance still ranks as brilliant, as does Colin Clive’s.

Any self respecting movie fan – horror fans especially – should see Frankenstein.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Yes, it’s got lots of holes in it.  But it’s so well crafted and so delicious that you simply won’t care about them.

Pairs Well With...


Delicious, clean, flavorful German style wine that one can very well imagine being made by the Frankensteins on that lovely estate of theirs.  They never do say what variety the “great grandmother’s wine” is, after all, and I like to imagine that it’s this one.

“Look!  It's moving.  It's alive.  It's alive. It's alive, it's moving, it's alive, it's alive, it's alive, it’s alive… it’s alive!

Even now, over eighty years later, that frantic, exhausted, ecstatic exclamation which may or may not have been partially ad libbed by actor Colin Clive (depends whom you ask) remains one of the most memorable deliveries of any single line in motion picture history.  Even people who have never seen Frankenstein – and if you haven’t, what the hell is wrong with you? – know where those words came from and what they signify.  They herald one of the signature moments in all of horror – and indeed in all of movies – and the cementing of Universal’s place as the dominant horror studio for the next two decades.

They’re also a hell of a lot more interesting than what happens during the same scene of Mary Shelley’s book.  In fact, I’m going to take a little literary detour and share with you the entirety of the creation scene from the novel, which occurs at the start of Chapter 5:

“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils.  With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.  It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”

That’s it.  No fierce tempest raging outside, no lightning, no Tesla coils, no creepy little assistant, and certainly no powerful exclamation of triumph to cap it all off.  What takes but a single paragraph in a verbose novel is given roughly 20% of the film’s total screen time.  This, my friends, is the power of movies when they’re done right.  It’s the power to transcend the source material and become something more that leaves an indelible mark upon the imagination that persists long after the experience of witnessing what happened on the screen.  This is the power of James Whale’s Frankenstein.

It might seem tame to you now, but there’s a lot of power hiding in there.

As both a voracious reader and a lifelong fan of the movies, I’ve learned that the axiom “the book is better than the movie that’s made from it” is usually true.  Frankenstein is one of the major exceptions.  As much as I love gothic horror and as much as I appreciate intellectual dialogue and historical context (“Frankenstein” is generally considered to be the first modern science fiction novel, even as it skirts the details of the science), the fact is that I’ve always found Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” to be about four times longer than it needed to be, and overall rather dull.  However, just as they did with Dracula earlier in the year, the folks at Universal chose to do a very loose adaptation of Shelley’s work (or more to the point, a loose adaptation of an already adapted stage play); but unlike the case with Dracula (Stoker’s book remains superior and is in fact still one of the greatest pieces of horror literature ever written), the screenplay for Frankenstein turns out to be a generally more entertaining – and certainly more accessible – telling of the story.

Though it is extremely liberal with changing the details of the story – the “monster” in the book is an erudite intellectual named Adam, and the book makes no mention of God at all – Frankenstein retains its most important element and expands upon it for a modern (in 1931 terms) audience.  Written with a definite awareness of “what works” for the screen, the script creates from what amounts to whole cloth what has since become the generally accepted version of how to animate a monster.  (With a nod to Fritz Lang and Metropolis, of course.) Indeed, most modern readers who do pick up the book are surprised at the lack of Tesla coils and so on, because what the writer, the production designers, and the rest of the crew invented for Frankenstein has become so pervasive.  As written in the novel, Dr. Frankenstein essentially just waits for his creation to wake up.  Here, though, the maximum potential for emotional impact is achieved through an awareness of what the audio visual medium of film is capable of, and the results, as discussed above, are breathtaking.  Even if the entire rest of the movie had been worthless (which it is not), that scene alone would be enough to assure the status of Frankenstein as one of the all time greats.

The trade off that comes with amplifying the science of the story is an oversimplification of its ethics.  Mary Shelley herself was an atheist and did not assign her character any religious viewpoints; the film, on the other hand, sees the idea of “man playing with an idea that should be solely the provenance of God” as the quickest, most direct way of presenting the same sort of general dilemma, while also eliminating any need for the monster to give scholarly monologues that seem to go on for days.  The script further simplifies the monster’s violent reactions by replacing his complex, psychologically driven desires for vengeance with pseudoscientific nonsense about his having been given an “abnormal, criminal” brain after Frankenstein’s bumbling assistant drops a mason jar and ruins the “healthy” brain that was originally meant to have been used.  These changes would become the blueprint for most “Frankenstein” oriented works to follow in the decades to come (whether they involved the specific character or just the concept); whether or not this is a disservice is essentially an academic matter for each individual to decide.  Regardless, in terms of a simple means to the end of telling a story in the most efficient, accessible way possible, it works here.

It is also what allowed one of the greatest performances in all of gothic horror to happen.  Despite playing a near-mute character under incredibly heavy makeup, then-unknown Boris Karloff delivers one for the ages.  Without saying a word (and audiences would later discover through other performances that Karloff could easily have played the erudite), Karloff expresses the monster hopes, his pains, and his torments.  His monster is far from being an evil blunt instrument of destruction; rather, he is a sympathetic and even sad character – an outsider who knows from the start that he can never be accepted as he is.  (Something director James Whale understood all too well.)  When the monster is first shown sunlight through an opened window, the joy on Karloff’s face is apparent even under all of the makeup, and the way he reaches for it says more than any speech ever could.  Similarly, when the window closes, the pain and devastation are clear.  In the famous scene involving the death of the girl (which was cut from US releases for being “too violent,” and generally unseen until video restoration sixty-odd years later), Karloff makes it clear through his expressions that the monster is horrified at what he’s done.  Just as Bela Lugosi had made Dracula into the embodiment of evil earlier in the year, Karloff makes Frankenstein’s monster into the ultimate object of pity.  It is, truly, a sublime effort.

Colin Clive, meanwhile, plays Dr. Frankenstein to a level that has since become the bar for all “mad scientists,” and by which most of those who’ve followed have been found wanting.  He, too, breathes great complexity into a character whom the script would have allowed to play as stock in a lesser man’s hands; the agony and the ecstasy he displays over the course of the film should be easily recognizable to anyone who’s pursued an intellectual endeavor with passionate fervor.  (I’m sure many modern psychologists would instantly mark Clive’s character as a manic depressive, come to that.)  He’s relentlessly believable, and just as Karloff makes the character of the monster sympathetic, so, too, does Clive make his own character sympathetic, despite the handicap of having brought all of his troubles upon himself.  Without question, it is the performance of a lifetime.

And of course, it’s James Whale who makes sure all of these good things can happen from his capably held seat in the director’s chair.  He understands how to grab an audience at a visceral level – the Tesla coils – and at an emotional one, as well (drawing out the best from Karloff and Clive); a very rare combination to find in horror of the time.  He also keeps the pace brisk (avoiding the novel’s greatest sin) while at the same time keeping the story a very human one.  Whale’s philosophy was that there was such a thing as too much horror, so he makes sure to inject lightheartedness, humor, and simple joie de vivre into all of his “intense” films, including this one.  (This would also be the common philosophy of most other horror filmmakers of this and later periods, much to the chagrin of many fans who would complain of it being taken too far.)  Here, it works.  The Baron entering his dotage serves as the comic relief, and he’s not overbearing as he does it.  Meanwhile, Elizabeth serves as the film’s simple human compass, and again, she never oversteps.

With that said, the opening, moralizing monologue delivered by Edward Van Sloan at the start of the movie is more than a bit much.

Indeed, that’s far from the only imperfection to be found in Frankenstein.  There are more than a few major plot holes to be found if you make any effort at all to do so, and the moralization throughout does get a little wearing after a while.  But at the end of the day, none of that matters.  The fact that the girl’s father would have no way at all of actually knowing that she’d been killed by anyone else – let alone the monster specifically – simply cannot get in the way of a good story, and Frankenstein is, for all of its flaws, exactly that: a good story, well told.

Bottom line, even after more than eighty years, Frankenstein remains one of the true classics of not just the horror genre, but of all of motion picture history.  If you love movies at all and especially if you love horror and/or science fiction in particular, you simply have no excuse not to see this movie.  Just as the novel “Frankenstein” is required reading in many schools, so is Frankenstein required viewing, whether you’re actively going to school for anything or not.  Consider it a part of the modern cultural identity that you owe it to yourself to experience if you haven’t already, and to reacquaint yourself with if it’s been too long.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, January, 2012

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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