Directed by James Whale
Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is conducting experiments in secret that are an abomination to God and man now his creation has run amok.
Colin Clive gave an amazing performance as Henry Frankenstein. He was perfectly over-the-top and manic as the mad scientist. You can see his ego and narcissism when the character brings The Monster (the legendary Boris Karloff) to life and he exuberantly exclaims “It’s ALIVE!” Clive became the character here. The character of Henry moved from insanity to regret tinged with panic by the end of the film all courtesy to Clive’s skill. This talented actor was gone far too soon at the age of 37.
Unlike most horror films of the time, Henry appears to have a specific scientific discipline in which he was trained prior to going over the edge and slapping together cadavers for shits and giggles. Often the central troublemaker was called a “scientist” or given the title of “doctor,” but a specific discipline was never hinted at. They appear to have just decided to science one day and create mayhem. Oops! Here Henry is a trained physician.
And then there was Boris Karloff. Karloff the Great! Karloff the Magnificent! The one and only Boris Karloff. There was no one like him before and there has been no one like him since. He turned in a star making performance with a script that contained only grunts and groans for him. How does that even happen? But it did. He had worked in theater and film prior to this but Frankenstein is what made this actor a household name.
The Monster (as it was called in the credits) was sympathetic and more than just a lumbering creature as people tend to think of it. You could empathize with it and even see it confused by the world in which it found itself. Everything was new and this simple-minded thing with inhuman strength did not know what to do. Its ignorance coupled with its brute strength and simple mind was a recipe for disaster. This was all owed to not only the direction of Whale but the performance of the talented Karloff.
The makeup is iconic to this day. We have the raised head with the flat cranium and drooping eyes and the well-known bolts in the neck. This was all topped off with the thick soled shoes that made the 5’11” Karloff menacingly tall. Jack Pierce was known as difficult but the man was a genius in his time.
This film is filled with memorable moments. One of the best known involves the young girl playing with flowers Little Maria (Marilyn Harris). Still shocking by modern standards and horrifying by the standards of the day, we watch as the simple creature who is finally experiencing kindness from the girl misinterprets things and ends up accidentally drowning her. This tragic moment was cut for the longest time from prints of the film and thought lost until it was rediscovered in the 80s and finally restored to the picture.
This 1931 classic from Universal Pictures is an amazing film. A true horror classic. This movie had a definite visual style. The lighting and the designs were such that they were to create a mood and a feeling. Look at the castle and the old windmill for example. Do they make structural sense? Do they look real or do they look more like stylized pieces of art? These designs were definitely influenced by German expressionist film of the time.
Some of the techniques used in filming and some of the choices made by Whale and crew may not pop with modern audiences but look at the number of films made in the five years before or after this film and you will see much of the same things done in the ones that are considered classics. This movie took those and tossed in horror and came of with something amazing and original that is still talked about to this day.
Like so many other movies at the time, Frankenstein was based on a play. Here it was a 1927 play by Peggy Webling and as such it was a broad adaption of the classic Mary Shelley book. It definitely had a much softer ending than the original story upon which it is based. You will get the idea of the book in broad strokes but not in specifics. I gripe about this often in modern films because what happens is you get something weaker that is trying to ride the coattails of something superior. I guess they knew what they were doing back then because what we have is something that is just as good and strong in its own right as the inspiration. Not quite like the original. Less a sibling and more a cousin.
The unfortunate thing about Frankenstein is so much of what they did with style and tone and even the monster makeup was copied repeatedly so now what was frightening is clean and even family friendly. Remember The Munsters and family patriarch Herman? He was based on this design. Frankenstein drowned a little girl that he was tossing daisies into the water with! That is not quaint and family friendly.
Frankenstein, while not as frightening as it was the day it opened, is still an entertaining film with a great deal of atmosphere and a wonderful story. It has inspired many imitators but none as great. You may not be frightened but you will enjoy it.