IMDB #220 Frankenstein

Classic horror today, as we take a look at the 1931 version of Frankenstein, loosely based on the book by “Mrs. Percy Shelly” as the credits refer to her. A film so terrifying it was banned in Kansas, and starts with a gravely serious (or tongue in cheek?) warning to the audience that it may be horrifying or disturbing, it’s certainly a film we all know pretty well without even seeing it.

The Key Players:

Our director is a studio hand named James Whale, mostly associated with horror staples thanks to this, The Invisible Man, and The Bride Of Frankenstein- but he also directed the definitive film version of the musical Show Boat.

Boris Karloff is the name most associated with this Frankenstein, mostly for his lumbering, grunting performance, as well as the hype surrounding his casting. It was rumored that Bela Lugosi would take the role, and Universal decided to withhold the announcement of who was actually chosen, as well as keeping photos of the monster under wraps until the film opens. In fact, the credits at the beginning even say “The Monster… ?” This allowed Karloff to launch a long and storied career, but he remains most beloved for wearing bolts on his neck and going “Raaah!” (plus narrating the How The Grinch Stole Christmas animated special).

Click for More...

Colin Clive is mostly forgotten for performing perhaps the most iconic “mad scientist” type in cinema, or at least the earliest. Mae Clarke’s career highlights include this role as the mad doctor’s fiancée, a role in The Front Page (hey!), and getting a grapefruit to the face from James Cagney, oddly. Finally, Dwight Frye had the creepy assistant market cornered back in the day, playing Fritz in this film AND Renfield in Dracula the same year.

The Story:

We open with Dr. Frankenstein (Clive) and his hunchbacked, manic-eyed assistant Fritz (Frye) waiting for a funeral to finish so they can hurriedly dig up the body. On the way back to the lab (which is not explicitly in a castle, but definitely a large stone building of some kind) they cut down a hanged convict for some more spare parts.

Then Fritz sneaks into the university lap where Frankenstien had been on staff until recently to steal a brain, and in a scene that was more or less unchanged in Young Frankenstein, accidentally drops one labeled “normal brain” and takes one labeled “criminal brain” instead. I had always assumed they were making that up, but no. Just grabs the criminal one and figures it’ll be no problem.

Then Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth (Clarke), his friend Victor, and his mentor Dr. Waldman show up to ask after his health, since he’d been getting pretty reclusive and mad-scientisty recently. He reluctantly lets them into the lab to witness to big lightshow- in a famous scene, he raises the assembled body from various dead parts to the roof during a lightning storm, and lightning crashes while various Tesla devices makes sparks. The creation moves its hand, prompting the famous “It’s alive!”

The next day we finally meet the monster, lumbering slowly around the lab, and seemingly able to understand basic commands. He’s affable enough until Fritz comes in with a torch and he flips out- not understanding why, they chain him in the cellar for fear of attack. Fritz goes down there to torment him with the torch again (because Fritz is kind of a dick), but the monster kills him in a rage and breaks from his bonds.

Frankenstein and Dr. Waldman manage to subdue the monster with drugs, and wearily Frankenstein agrees to let Waldman keep it sedated to be autopsied, and returns to his father’s house to finally plan for his wedding…

The Artisticness:

What struck me about Frankenstein is that it’s mostly done without a soundtrack- there’s music over the opening and closing credits, but all other sounds are diagetic- this includes the nonstop clamor of bells during the wedding day celebrations, which turn into the constant clamor of voices during mob scenes. So the second half of the movie is sonically busy, but just with no score.

The performances were able, if affably thirties and overblown. Karloff doesn’t really have much to do, but he does imbue a certain tenderness to the monster, frightened of flame but fascinated by sunlight.


The monster, of course, wakes up and strangles Waldman before he can take a knife to it. Then he escapes and famously meets a little girl- they float flowers in the water until there aren’t any left, and he tosses the little girl in to see if she floats. Unfortunately she doesn’t, although precisely how she ends up drowning is hastily edited around and not very clear. The monster then breaks into the estate and terrorizes Elizabeth, who screams and faints. It’s only a matter of time before the angry crowd of torches and pitchforks forms, led by Dr. Frankenstein himself, to hunt the monster down.

In the pursuit, the monster knocks his creator out and carries him to a windmill, where they engage in a final struggle before the doctor falls of the top, barely surviving the fall. The angry villagers burn the windmill, the monster dying inside.

Then we get a random comic scene in which father Frankenstein helps himself to some wine the servants were brining his recuperating son


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Can’t say I was very impressed- it seemed to drag in a lot of places for such a short film. But I certainly appreciated all of the horror touchstones that this film created, from the visualization of the monster to Clive’s madcap performance. Let’s say it’s just right on the outer fringes of the 200s.

The Legacy:

Well, there’s the entirety of Young Frankenstein, every green makeup depiction of the monster ever- perhaps no movie eclipses the source material as much as this one (maybe The Wizard Of Oz?)- Shelley’s monster actually learned to speak perfect English reading Paradise Lost, and was a monster by conscious reaction to his creation and imprisonment.

I guess Herman Munster could talk, though. In any case, Frankenstein was popular enough to spawn an entire line of sequels (The Bride Of, The Son Of, The Ghost Of, and Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein) and was selected for NFR preservation and so on.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

It’s alive! IT’S ALIVE!!!

Leftover Thoughts:

This was apparently Johnny Cash’s favorite film.

I wonder how relatively frightening this movie was when it came out. I personally can’t think of any incarnation of the monster I’ve ever found frightening- it’s just like slow zombies. More funny than scary.

Adventures in Actual Movie Taglines: To have seen it is to wear a badge of courage!

0 Response to "IMDB #220 Frankenstein"

Powered by Blogger