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A distinguished man in a fine tuxedo emerges from behind a dark theatre curtain and warmly welcomes us to the film. He regals in the introduction of the titular character, Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his hubristic attempt at creating life without reckoning upon God. He warns us that what we are about to see may be thrilling, shocking, and even horrifying, and if we are not up to such strain, well, he warned us.
And so begins the original theatrical release of the now famous Frankenstein and his monster. The tale is familiar to most: a once respected scientist becomes obsessed with regenerating dead tissue, scavenging for dead bodies to test his theories, eventually assembling a rather large man with an–unbeknownst to him–abnormal brain. Throw in some electricity and a wild thunderstorm, and presto, a lumbering, dangerous beast is awoken. At least that is what the local townsfolk see, and they are not happy, especially when it is accused of drowning a young girl in a local lake. Out come the torches and pitchforks, and the hunt is on.
A classic by any standard, this beautifully shot, black & white horror film set scare standards for years to come and established for all time the tropes of Frankenstein and his monster. An absolute must see, and like every movie, has one great moment.
Atop an abandoned hilltop windmill, Frankenstein and his humpback assistant Fritz (no, not Igor!) have everything in place. With their creature strapped to an operating table, a spectacular storm flashing in the sky above, they raise the body into the exposed night air and let the crackling streaks of lightning rain upon the corpse and the mass of diodes, mechanism and gadgets all wired up to spark it to life.
This is probably the most important, if not most influential moment in all of horror cinema history. Deviating far from the source material, the producers create one of the most iconic sets and scenes ever put to film. While one can easily draw a line of homage to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (click here for comparison) from a few years earlier, the Frankenstein-monster-comes-to-life scene is a masterwork in every respect. Its attention to detail and use of light and dark are still breathtaking to this day.
What now looks like parody, as it has been played in numerous films since, was powerfully dramatic in its day. A mad-scientist in his white gown is now a comedic character in entertainment and could never be taken seriously, but that only serves as testament to how impressive the role in its origin was, and ultimately, is the highest compliment. Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein is mesmerizing to watch and his character’s transformation from legitimate to half-crazed is pure joy to watch. There’s a reason “It’s alive! It’s alive!” is ranked as one of the greatest movie quotes of all time.
We must start with Boris Karloff as the Monster. The opening screen credits list the Monster only as “?” making the audience wonder at who will be behind the make up. It’s a clever trick that adds a little more mystery for first time viewers. Just who would be the beast? What would he look like?
We must try to image a time when “movies” were still in their relative infancy. The first “talkie” was released just three years before. Think about that. Soundtracks weren’t a thing yet. The first full-length color film was still four years in the future. Monster movies weren’t new of course. Nosfuratu had sent chills a decade earlier, and Bela Lugosi’s Dracula was a big hit earlier in the year. There had also been many iterations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It was time for something different. Frankenstein was ready to make a mark. The only other film adaptation of the Frankenstein story was a 1910 Edison Kinetogram, a 16-minute short that few got to see. It was a very small production filmed in three days with almost no budget. The monster was played by Charles Stanton Ogle and looked like this:
In Mary Shelley’s book, the creature is described as:
His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!-Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath: his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriences only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips
Those crowded in theaters that November night in 1931 must have been anxious, having perhaps seen a painted poster teasing the film. They’d been warned at the start and if they were fans of the book, knew already that things were going to be a lot different. When Karloff does make his entrance, it doesn’t disappoint. We hear it scuffling outside the door, gently pushing it open. The creature draws slowly into the light with its back to the camera. The darkness is broken by slivers of gray light beyond and when it turns, a pale glow befalls its ashen face and its dead glistening eyes pierce directly into us. It looms and we tremble.
Bela Lugosi, yes, Dracula himself, was actually offered the part, but some not so convincing make-up tests proved he was unsuitable, and he left the project, though a promotional poster for his efforts still exists.
The flat head was not conceived yet, and the studio moved ahead with a different star and director, who also completely revised the story from the Lugosi script, which had him acting just as mad killer. Director James Whale emphasized a more humanized, psychological thriller, and makeup artist Jack Pierce (with some controversial debates about Whale’s involvement) redesigned the monster into how we know it today, with a flat head and electrodes (those are not bolts) on his neck.
Boris Karloff was mostly an unknown, having played parts in silent films for ten years. Frankenstein made him an international sensation. But it was no easy task and the experience left him in permanent pain. The shoes alone weight 11 pounds (5g) and the makeup was torturous, along with wearing the burdensome costume. Filming required him to move a lot, and eventually, carrying the massive weight of the wardrobe and the body of a fellow actor proved too much and he injured his back. He would suffer chronic pain for the remainder of his life.
Still, his performance here and in the follow-ups Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein are seminal. Not as lumbering and dense as often remembered, in this original, the monster is portrayed like a frightened, ignorant animal, often quick and confused. Modern parodies have over-shadowed the “human” qualities of Karloff’s creature, where we forget he is an amalgam of several stitched together people with a decidedly unbalanced mind. He is hostile because he is, by default, feared and repulsed rather than accepted and welcomed, kept in the dark recesses of the windmill and chained to a wall, turned ugly by those that gave him life. Ironically, he kills the hunchback Felix first, himself a misshapen and ignorant man that is entirely to blame for the condition of the monster’s brain. Yet we see it as defense as the cruel Felix taunts the “newborn” man with fire. When he does escape, he wanders into the countryside and meets an innocent child, too young to know how cynical and harsh the real world is. She thinks she’s made a friend. And so does the monster.
By any account, Frankenstein is a masterwork and rightly deserves the praise and honor it holds. We highly recommend it and is the perfect Halloween film to begin a night of frights.
Director: James Whale
Writers: John L. Balderston (based upon the composition by), Mary Shelley (from the novel by)
Stars: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, Boris Karloff