In the name of Science!
There is only one monster from the golden era of horror movies that has managed to spawn countless sequels, remakes, adaptations, and spoofs while staying almost exactly the same: Frankenstein's monster. Though commonly referred to simply as “Frankenstein” the monster has changed very from it's major motion picture in 1931. When people think of Frankenstein today, they are still thinking of Boris Karloff 's stone face and neck bolts. Even the remake starring Robert De Niro in a much more realistic interpretation of how the character looks could not change the public's perception. It is a true testament to how important the 1931 movie really is. Of course, our knowledge of things get distorted over the years thanks to all the various appearances of the character. Sure we remember the big lines like “It's Alive!” but do most people know who said it? When you ask “Who was Dr. Frankenstein's assistant in the movie?” most would be incorrect in saying “Igor”. For a character so beloved in the horror world, sometimes people get the simplest facts wrong.
Frankenstein is a 1931 Universal Pictures horror movie based on the novel of the same name by Mary Shelley. The film stars Colin Clive (Bride Of Frankenstein, Jane Eyre) as Heinrich “Henry” Frankenstein and Boris Karloff (The Mummy, Bride Of Frankenstein) as The Monster, though in the beginning credits, the Monster's role is billed only with a question mark. Henry Frankenstein is a young scientist determined to reanimate dead tissue and create new life. With the help of his hunchback assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye, Dracula, The Invisible Man), Henry steals corpses in an effort to piece together a human body for his ghoulish experiments. To continue with his morbid work, Henry has become reclusive, setting up a laboratory in an abandoned watch tower far from town. Elizabeth (Mae Clarke, The Public Enemy, Waterloo Bridge) Henry's fiance, grows concerned over his increasingly strange behavior and, with the help of her friend Victor Mortiz (John Boles, Sinners In Paradise, Curly Top), reaches out to Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan, Dracula, The Black Room) for help. Dr. Waldman informs Elizabeth of Henry's dark experiments and all three agree to go see him. They find Henry in the last stages of his experiment. They watch in horror and amazement as thunder and lightning start up Henry's machines and give life to the patchwork of dead body parts, giving life to a hulking monster. Unfortunately, because of a mistake by Fritz, an abnormal brain was put into the monster's body and he proves difficult to control. Though he is hideous to look at, the monster is a simple, gentle creature. He is like a newborn baby, discovering the world for the first time. Fritz takes sadistic pleasure in torturing the monster with a torch. His fear is mistaken as an attack so Henry and Dr. Waldman chains him up in the dungeon. Later, they discover Fritz strangled to death by the monster and determine that he is unfit for society. The creature eventually escapes, strangling Dr. Waldman in the process. While Henry and Elizabeth prepare for their wedding, the monster wanders through the countryside where he meets a little girl. Much to his delight, they throw flowers into a lake. When the flowers run out, he tosses the girl into the water, drowning her by accident. An enraged band of peasants pursue the monster who is headed right for Henry and Elizabeth's wedding. What will happen to this misunderstood creature and will Henry be able to save him?
"Look at that manicure! Look at that manicure!!!"
Though it doesn't have the same supernatural elements as it's counterparts Dracula, The Mummy, and The Wolfman, Frankenstein manages to be the most frightening. Though tame by today's standards, the movie truly frightened audiences in the 1930's. Multiple scenes were censored, including the one involving the monster throwing the little girl into the lake. The movie begins with a rather ingenious warning to the audience about what the shocking things they are about to see. It is a clever introduction that sets the audience up nicely. While the monster looks are unnatural, it's the basic human emotions that are both touching and unnerving. We feel for this creature, born into a world that does not understand it. Like a baby, it is innocent, with only the most basic functions of understanding and comprehending. That touching, childlike humanity makes the monster a truly sympathetic character. That sympathy is shattered when we see how strong and violent it could be. Combined with Henry's all-encompassing obsession, Frankenstein has an incredibly sad and somber tone to it despite being a horror movie. Every character suffers in some form or another, making the film a surprisingly tragic experience. The movie does have some differences from the novel, but the overall tone is very much the same. If I have any real complaint with the story is the relatively happy ending.
"Flower Power, you say?"
What really helps make the movie work is the great cast and solid directing. Boris Karloff's performance conveys the monster's frightening strength and incredible weakness. Though he never utters a word, Karloff is able to use simple sounds and movements that speak louder than words. His stone-solid, emotionless face also seen in The Mummy gives an unnaturalness to the monster that still unnerves audiences to this day. Colin Clive is highly enjoyable as the mad scientist Henry Frankenstein. His iconic scream of “It's Alive!” conveys his absolute madness and has been used in countless forms of media and entertainment. Universal Pictures regulars Dwight Frye and Edward Van Sloan help round out the cast with good supporting performances. Director James Whale (The Invisible Man, The Old Dark House) creates a dark and winding atmosphere, giving the film a Gothic feel. The sets are classic Universal horror and actually look better than if they were shot in a real location.
Frankenstein Meets Swamp Thing never fully materialized
We have seen Frankenstein's monster in all forms of entertainment, whether it was in the wide number of sequels, remakes, and cross-overs, or The Munsters, comic books, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Throughout it all, it has essentially stayed the same (Frankenberry doesn't count). The iconic monster was able to reach it's status through great acting, incredible directing, and a story that truly touches the audience. One can view Frankenstein as simply a black-and-white monster movie from the old days, but they would be missing the bigger picture. It is an existential story of man's fragile nature and society's inability to understand. It is a deep and incredibly sad story that most can relate to. The movie has a decent amount of action and some scenes deemed “too controversial” when it was first released. Thanks to the hard work and talent of all involved, Frankenstein has rightly become a classic, taking it's place on the Mt. Rushmore of Universal Monsters.