Saturday, November 3, 2012

Classic Monster Movie Marathon: Frankenstein (1931)

Of all the classic monsters that I have and will cover in this little marathon, I think it's safe to say that Frankenstein's Monster is perhaps the most iconic, if not at the least the most recognizable. You can be a snob and remind people that "Frankenstein" is actually the name of the doctor that created the quite well-known monster with a flat top head, bolts in his neck, and a lumbering walk - but honestly, that doesn't really matter anymore. What matters is that the bare bones of this story written by Mary Shelley have continued to influence media for damn near 200 years since it was first published.

The story perhaps does not need repeating but I like talking about it anyway. A seemingly mad scientist creates a human body from pieces he has stolen from graves and the gallows and brings it to life using electrical machines powered by a great thunderstorm. The creature at first seems to be rather simple and harmless, but soon shows his murderous capabilities - perhaps caused by the fact that he was implanted with the brain of a criminal. The creature doesn't understand what he's doing, but is nonetheless hunted down by the proverbial angry villagers with torches and burned down in the very building where he was "born."

Dracula and Frankenstein are like the two main Titans of this oeuvre of Universal monster movies. Everybody knows their names and their stories, but all the parody and popularization of their images has perhaps made many people forget (or not even know in the first place) that these characters were first presented to us in really, really excellent movies. Frankenstein may be an "old" movie and it may be in - gasp! - black and white, but guess what? It can still be an awesome movie, and this one most definitely is. As I've mentioned before with these Universal movies, there's much more beneath the surface than just a movie about a monster causing some mayhem. Like The Invisible Man, Frankenstein is a more character-driven story and is at its core an important morality tale.

Don't forget that the subtitle to the original novel was "The Modern Prometheus." Not that new Ridley Scott movie, but the mythical figure who created man by molding him out of clay, and who stole fire from the gods to be used by man. Mary Shelley was above all trying to tell a cautionary tale about any man who attempts to play God and messes with life and death, and the consequences that could arise from it. There are countless, and I mean countless, movies and stories that deal with some kind of monster or being created by science where things end up going horribly wrong. These scientific experiments are usually meant to somehow improve upon life - to makes us live longer, for instance - or they are done out of sheer arrogance, to prove that something seemingly impossible can be accomplished with science. And the moral of every story like this seems to always be that just because you can do something does not mean that you should do it, as Dr. Frankenstein proves in this movie.

The infamous scene with the Monster and the little girl Maria when he throws her into the lake and drowns her still makes the skin prickle a bit to watch it today. On the one hand, you're terrified for the girl who is incredibly adorable and innocent looking, but on the other, you feel bad for the Monster too. There's no way he can understand what he's doing, and his immediate fear and remorse show that he's learning. In that way, the scene can even make you angry at Dr. Frankenstein for doing this to both the Monster and the girl. Actually, the scene where the Monster kills Maria was not the worst for me. No one ever seems to mention the next part of the story, which has Maria's father carrying her dead body through the village to Frankenstein's house. The way her lifeless arm and head bounce around as he walks and the reactions of everybody in the background make this a difficult scene to watch, and a brave scene for the movie to do at the time.

I guess it's time to talk about the man himself, Boris Karloff. Frankenstein's Monster is his most well-known role and is what made him a Hollywood name. The Monster's inability to speak was perhaps fortuitous because it is what Karloff does with his body and facial expressions that really creates the character, and easily conveys all of his feelings of confusion, fear, and anger. The way he walks when the Monster makes his first full appearance, the way he reaches for the sunlight - all his moves are simply perfect in every way, and any actor today only wishes he could copy what Karloff does without looking silly at all.

A lot of love and praise is heaped upon Karloff for this movie, but what of the man playing Frankenstein himself? At least in the first part of the movie, he is the real star of the show for me, and yet I had never even known his name before I decided to write about Frankenstein. Colin Clive is remarkable as Henry Frankenstein. His portrayal is so magnetic and charismatic, aided by his piercing eyes and a voice that conveys madness, desperation, and determination all at the same time. That one lock of hair that falls in front of his eyes when he's going all crazy-rambling? Perfect image, and dead sexy as well. He made only 18 films during his short career, but he no doubt made a lasting impression with this role - helped by his wonderful delivery of the famous line "It's alive!"

Sidenote: Loved seeing Dwight Frye again as Frankenstein's hunchbacked assistant Fritz. Same as his role in Dracula, Frye brings such amazing creepy comedy and physicality to this role. Awesome actor! Also, the guy playing Baron Frankenstein was a freaking hoot.

Have I heaped enough praise on this movie yet? Do you get that it is an amazing classic that will never be forgotten? Good. There's so much more to talk about here - the ominous lack of music; the fantastic set at the windmill; the finale with the villagers - but hopefully I've highlighted enough of what the movie means to me to make you go see it and love it as much as everyone else does. Another horror icon with an indelible place in film history, the story of Frankenstein and his monstrous creation has and will always with be us, no matter where the genre goes in the future.

And just for the fun of it again, here's a picture of me with Frankenstein's Monster at Madame Toussaud's in NYC.


  1. Ah, what a fantastic post - I'm so glad you enjoyed this iconic old monster movie. How did the lack of a musical score affect you? Did you know that when I first saw this movie (and up until a video release in the 90's) there were two short clips edited that drastically changed this movie? One is Henry's line after "It's alive!" There was a cut to remove the line "Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!" And here's the bigger of the two - the monster throws his last flower in the water...then cut. The next time we see Maria she's dead in her father's arms. We never see the monster throw her in the water, nor his terror or remorse when she sinks. It really made the monster out to be a much more villainous beast, who now seems to have killed the girl in anger over running out of flowers to throw or something. It was a revelation to see those scenes restored 60 odd years after they were originally seen. Karloff was so amazing in this role he got to go by his last name only for the next couple of years - sometimes coupled with "the Uncanny." I mean, his actual onscreen credit! Jack Pierce's makeup was absolutely amazing - and so stomach churning at the time that they kept Karloff sequestered throughout shooting. And how about that warning at the beginning from the guy who played Dr. Valdmann? How I do love this movie. I would definitely recommend seeing at least the next in the series - Bride of Frankenstein - as it brings the same people together (Karloff, Clive, director James Whale) and makes a bigger, crazier movie, with the great Ernest Thesiger joining the fun as mad old Dr. Praetorius. After that Karloff came back for one more turn as the monster in Son of Frankenstein - which ends up fairly essential for Bela Lugosi's finest non-Dracula role as a broken necked nutjob named Ygor, who befriends the monster with no one's best interests at heart. After that the 40's rolled around and the quality slipped, though if you continue on you will get to see both Lon Chaney Jr. (Ghost of Frankenstein) and Bela Lugosi (Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman) play the monster. If you go that far, you should read up on the making of FmtW, as Bela's performance was severely compromised by post production editing. After that Glenn Strange became the lumbering brute for a couple more monster rally pictures, then met up with Abbott and Costello along with Lugosi and Chaney. This has been a fun series of posts - thanks for them!

    1. The lack of music was so perfect for this movie, and it worked for Dracula too. For some reason, I think some ominous, spooky music would have almost diminished it a bit. Spooky music whenever the Monster was around would tell us that the Monster should be scary, and take away from his sympathetic nature. And the makeup on him was so amazing - love that sunken cheek look and the costuming as well.

      I can't imagine how much those cuts would have ruined the movie! The part where he gets scared after killing the girl is so pivotal.

      I don't know how far I'll get with all the sequels, but I will definitely watch Bride of Frankenstein for sure! I am interested in seeing how Chaney and Lugosi portray the Monster, though.

      The series isn't over yet! Still a few more movies to go.

  2. It seems like the very definition of "thankless job" to play the mad doctor in a Frankenstein movie, doesn't it? Colin Clive is indeed awfully good in this movie; it's a shame that even eighty years later, he is overshadowed by Karloff ... but also understandable, I guess.

    I recently got to see a Frankenstein / Bride of Frankenstein double feature at the movie theatre where I work. Pretty damn cool!

    1. Clive is so amazing, it really is a shame that he never seems to get his due credit for what he did here.
      Oh, seeing both of them on the big screen would be fantastic! Jealous!

  3. Your love for this film really comes through in your review, Michele. And you're SO right. For its time, Frankenstein was rather daring in so many ways - not least the scene in which the Monster kills the little girl. What also surprises is how much sympathy is generated for the character. And I completely forgot Dwight Frye was in this! He's been in quite a few horror titles, and always seems to play variations of the same bug-eyed spook. Love him!

    PS I also love that quote in your banner. :)

    1. Thank you, James. Frankenstein is really almost a perfect film and touches on so many things that are still important today (science messing with nature and all that stuff). Dwight Frye is one of my new favorites now. His performance in Dracula was really amazing and creepy, and here he is just so funny too.

      I of course love that quote too! I found it while doing an article in college about why people like to watch horror movies, and I've always remembered it because it's so true - and if you're a horror fan, you'll understand it and appreciate it all the more.

  4. Very cool post. I got to take my 9-year-old son to the Fathom events double feature of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein this year, and both of us were blown away. I always preferred Bride until I saw them back to back on the big screen. Something about Karloff's face ten feet high really drove home how great an actor he was.

    You sort of have to put yourself in the mindframe of someone in 1931 watching the film for the first time to truly appreciate it. We can be jaded by all the gore we've seen in films, but to people in the 30's, this was groundbreaking stuff. The sense of danger you get when Frankenstein is trying to subdue his captive monster is extraordinary.

    A couple of dumbshits walked out after 20 minutes, but my son and I were riveted. Thanks for keeping the classics alive, and hopefully through posts like yours, people will gain an appreciation for the films that laid the groundwork for modern horror.

  5. Michele,

    Possibly one of the best write ups I have ever read about this classic film. Amazing. Keep up the great work, and I can't wait to see your thoughts on BRIDE.