In anticipation of Halloween and in celebration of the recent blu-ray release of the classic and iconic “Universal Monsters” series, I have decided to review each title individually in chronological order, and the latest review of the series is for “Frankenstein” that was directed by James Whale and premiered on 21 November, 1931.
Let’s get this out into the open immediately; James Whale is an absolute genius and his film “Frankenstein” is nothing short of brilliant. Although the general consensus appears to be that the sequel “The Bride Of Frankenstein” is the better film, I have always been more partial to the original film. After my latest viewing of “Frankenstein” I have once again been made aware of just how good this film really is.
The story of “Frankenstein” revolves around a brilliant scientist, Dr. Frankenstein, who after being frustrated by the confines of modern science decides to begin his own experiments which mainly have to do with bringing life back to the dead. The more he becomes obsessed with his experiments the more his mental health fails him until all he can think about is his work, shutting everyone else previously from his life out. Finally, Dr. Frankenstein thinks he has worked it all out and goes about finding the bodies he needs to prepare for his experiments. The last thing he needs is a good functioning brain, however when his assistant Fritz attempts to steal a brain from the local university, he accidently drops it ruining it in the process. The sound of broken glass alerts people of the presence in the classroom and in his haste to escape Fritz steals the other brain on the table before fleeing the scene. Unbeknownst to him, this specimen is the brain of a criminal. When the stormy night Dr. Frankenstein needs to revive his stitched up lifeless body arrives, the experiment begins in earnest, but what sort of monster will be born if at all, and if so will Dr. Frankenstein be ready to deal with the responsibility that comes with creation?
The thing that immediately jumps out at you when watching “Frankenstein” is just how well made a film it is. Director James Whale is always in total control of the film and his storytelling abilities are just masterful. It is amazing coming off watching the two “Dracula” films from 1931 before watching Whale’s film because there is no way you would have ever guessed that these two films would have come from the same year. “Dracula” seems so dusty and lifeless now, while even today “Frankenstein” feels incredibly modern and was well ahead of its time. The majority of early sound pictures were victims of dialogue in as much as characters (or the camera) could not move around too much due to the fact that the actors needed to be near enough to a microphone hidden somewhere on set catching their performances. You can feel this in “Dracula” but it is never present at all in “Frankenstein”. Whale is constantly and brilliantly moving his camera including an amazing sequence late in the film when the monster is being searched for at a wedding, with the camera passing through decorated set walls onto the next set. Speaking of his camera movement or placement, I was always impressed by Whale’s compositions; he just seemed to always place the camera in exactly the right place even if it included angles rarely used in the 30’s.
The biggest misconception about the film “Frankenstein” is that most people think that the monster himself is the titular character. This automatically brings thoughts that the film is going to be a “monster” movie when in actual fact Frankenstein is the doctor who makes the monster and therefore the film is more of a “mad scientist” film. This is important to note because it deals a lot more with humanity and what it means to be human compared to just been about a monster running around killing people. Actually, in reality “Frankenstein” deals with a lot of issues under the guise of a horror film. Ultimately the story is about the consequences a man must face after defying God and bringing life back to a dead soul. In a sense Dr. Frankenstein becomes a parent of this hideous monster and therefore all responsibility lies with him in its own wellbeing and the wellbeing of anybody it comes into contact with. Then it looks at how someone deals with the realization of exactly what they have done and given up to make it all possible.
Speaking of the monster, it is interesting to note that he is really no monster at all, rather a creature that is terrified and abused constantly in its short existence. Although the monster does some terrible things he mostly does these out of fear or in self defense, and instead of being terrified by him we feel a huge sympathy for the poor creature. Even during the infamous drowning of the little girl, this is not a deliberately malicious act by the monster and you can see how scared and unhappy he is when the girl does not resurface. The iconic performance by Boris Karloff in the role of the monster is simply amazing. It is a role completely free of dialogue barring the grunts and growls when he is threatened, and yet Karloff is able to emote so much and bring such humanity (ironically) to the role. He plays the monster as if he was a young child experiencing the world for the first time, and yet there is a constant sadness in his eyes. This is a creature that never asked for this type of existence and you can really feel that he is in a lot of pain. Karloff also used his height to great advantage when it came to scenes of physical violence. His grand stature towered over the rest of the cast giving the monster a feeling of immense power, that he was a real threat if pushed too far.
The rest of the cast are all sensational also. I think Colin Clive in the titular role of the mad scientist is truly spectacular especially during the scene of his great triumph of bringing the creature back to life. His manic cry of “Its Alive! It’s Alive! IT’S ALIVE!!” has gone done in cinematic history as one of the great moments. As much as I loved Dwight Fry as Renfield in “Dracula”, he is even better here as Fritz, Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant. At first I could not believe I was watching the same actor, his range is immense, and he seemed to revel in portraying the disturbing aspects of his character when he was abusing the poor monster. If you remember I really disliked Edward Van Sloan’s portrayal of Van Helsing in “Dracula” but thought he excelled here as Dr. Waldman, Frankenstein’s former teacher. Gone is the arrogance of the previous role and instead in its place is a sense of caring, understanding and curiosity. While Mae Clark is certainly beautiful as Frankenstein’s fiancé, she really isn’t given that much to do and to be truthful she is a little annoying when on screen. The actor that steals the movie, however (besides Karloff) is none other than Frederick Kerr who plays the Baron Frankenstein. He is absolutely hilarious with his sarcastic humour and quick witted tongue, but what he really does is bring a level of reality to the picture. While his screen-time may be limited, he makes the most of every minute he is on screen.
While all these people have all helped in making “Frankenstein” the memorable classic it is today, there is one man who may have had the biggest impact on it all and that was make-up artist Jack Pierce who came up with the now iconic design for the Frankenstein monster. He went totally against the description of the monster in Mary Shelley’s original novel and using Boris Karloff’s physique and his own intuition, he came up with his own interpretation. His creation which saw the monster with a square head, sunken eyes, heavy eye lids and the two electrodes protruding from his neck, has since become the definitive version of the monster and is instantly recognizable as Frankenstein’s monster. From the moment Pierce’s design premiered onscreen, it was to become the version that everyone else would follow. Kids today without having seen the original movie can recognize Pierce’s design as “Frankenstein’s monster” which is an amazing legacy for any artist to have.
I just want to briefly mention James Whale’s achievements a little more before I finish up this review because the success of “Frankenstein” is really due to this man. He was a special director who took this material and gave it life. He imbues the film with an atmosphere so palpable, you can just feel it. The opening sequence in the graveyard is the perfect example of this, the atmosphere is so rich and foreboding and you immediately feel the tone of the picture. This sequence also has one of my favourite visual moments of the film when Fritz and the doctor are digging up the fresh grave, and Dr. Frankenstein flicks a shovel full of dirt into the visage of the grim reaper, almost as if he is saying “you can take him, but I can bring him back”. It is a fantastic moment. In fact the film is full of these moments and that is what makes Whale so special, he cares about the little details. Another example is when Fritz is running up the stairs but stops to pull up one of his socks, it adds little to the plot, but so much to the movie itself. Visually, Whale has created a very dark film full of deep and very dark shadows. Characters can often be seen in silhouette also. I love the set design of Dr. Frankenstein’s workplace because it harkens back to the era of German Expressionism during the silent films of the 1920’s, particularly “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”. Whale also knows how to give a character an entrance, just check out Karloff’s appearance as the monster for the first time and see if it does not take your breath away.
Overall, “Frankenstein” is an amazing film, and I love, love, love (almost) every moment of it. It truly is one of the greatest horror films of all time. It is also an incredibly sad film and one with a lot of heart and heartache. If you do not feel something while watching this film, you are probably dead. This is one of those rare films where it seems like everything came together at exactly the right time and cinematic gold has been produced. Great performances by everyone, iconic make-up design by Jack Pierce and simply sublime direction by James Whale. “Frankenstein” is an absolute masterpiece.