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A brilliant young scientist creates life from the dead but lives to
it when his creation goes on the rampage.
Though inevitably dated and primitive by modern standards, Frankenstein remains a tremendously impressive film and a tribute to its still somewhat under-rated director, the eccentric Englishman James Whale.
Where so many early talkies were static and wordy, Frankenstein skips unnecessary dialogue and exposition and drives through its plot at a speed that seems almost indecent nowadays. Compared to overblown remakes like Kenneth Branagh's 1994 version, Whale's work now seems like a masterpiece of brevity and minimalism. His constantly moving camera, incisive editing and dramatic use of close-ups are a mile ahead of anything far more prestigious directors were doing at the time. Expressionist photography and eccentric set designs lend atmosphere, menace and help augment some rather ripe performances; a foretaste of the paths Whale would tread in the sequel Bride of Frankenstein four years later.
And then of course there's Karloff. With comparatively few scenes and no dialogue he nonetheless manages to create a complex, intimidating, yet sympathetic creature - one of the great mimes in talking cinema and thanks in no small degree to the freedom given to him under Jack Pierce's iconic make-up.
A historic piece of cinema, and one that still stands the test of time as both art and entertainment.
After having been kicked out of school for his controversial work, Dr.
Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) has been experimenting with the
scientific forces behind the creation and perpetuation of life in his
private laboratory. With the aid of his assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye),
Frankenstein finally tries his coup de grace--piecing together human
parts to create a "new" life. When his experiments do not go exactly as
planned, Frankenstein and his fellow villagers are endangered.
Like a few other classics, director James Whale's 1931 masterpiece, Frankenstein, is one of those films that deserves to have every frame analyzed. Unlike most, Frankenstein is one of those classics that actually has had almost every frame analyzed. Countless theses and dissertations have been written about the film and its subtexts, so I can't imagine that I'd add anything novel along those lines in the space provided here. Instead, I'll take a brief look at some of the more straightforward aspects of Frankenstein that, in my view, contribute to its masterpiece status.
The opening of the film has a very hefty dose of atmosphere, which continues more or less throughout its length. Although it was obviously filmed in a studio--the sky is a painted backdrop complete with wrinkles, this fact actually adds to the atmosphere of the film, even lending a slight surrealism. There is no score to speak of aside from the music playing during the titles, but the sounds that occur are just as effective, such as the ringing bell during the opening. There are also a lot of subtle visuals, and some merely subtly effective, such as the grim reaper at end of a long panning shot in the beginning of the film.
The seriousness and realism of the grave-digging scene, complete with Henry Frankenstein throwing dirt at the grim reaper, is beautiful foreshadowing. As in the rest of the film, there is nothing jokey about this situation. Watch how effectively the actors convey a sense of toiling and franticness, how they convey the "weight" of the coffin. This is a curious fact about the film overall. Although the material is relatively melodramatic, and occasionally extremely so (especially in the case of Henry Frankenstein), the performances always come across as serious and realistic rather than campy (with the possible exception of a single snarling "growl" from the monster when he encounters Elizabeth, Frankenstein's bride-to-be). Contrast this to how Tod Browning's Dracula plays in the present day. In that film, Lugosi--although I love his performance--does come across as occasionally campy, especially in the close-ups of his "hypnotically staring" eyes. Even the one character that is meant to give some light comic relief, that of Frankenstein's father, Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr), is comic only in that the character is a bit sarcastic, with a dry sense of humor. As such, Kerr portrays the Baron seriously, also.
The production and set design, as in the sequel, Bride of Frankenstein (1935), adds volumes to the atmosphere and beauty of the film. The interior of the "watchtower", where Frankenstein's private laboratory is located, is reminiscent of German expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), and they both contrast and cohere wonderfully with the more symmetrical, right-angled lab equipment constructed by Kenneth Strickfaden.
Because there is no score, the actors have no help in amping up the emotions in their performances. Despite this, rarely has either Boris Karloff's monster or Colin Clive's mad doctor been matched. Whale helps with some ingenious shots and sequences, such as the "progressive close-ups" when we first see the monster. He also gives us a number of "stage-like" devices that work remarkably well, such as the pans through cutaways in the set that in the film's world do not really exist. Interestingly, Whale has still had the cutaways decorated as if they are extant in the film's world. Although they may seem dated now, Whale's technique of fading to black between scenes also amplifies the sense of "literary chapters" in the story, and gives an effective, ambiguous sense of time passage between the scenes.
Whale also achieves some wonderful, more understated scenes of horror in the film, often set up by contrasts. For example the severe contrast of the villager walking into the wedding party with his daughter, and the surreal bucolic adventure of the villagers working their way through the countryside to find the monster.
Many younger viewers might have a difficult time watching Frankenstein if they are not used to black & white, slower paced, understated films with a different approach to acting. These classics are an acquired taste for younger generations, but of course it's a taste worth acquiring.
James Whale's original FRANKENSTEIN is a short but memorable horror
classic that has influenced so many other fright flicks, it should be
considered the Godfather of Horror Movies. This was the first of
Universal Studios' moody screen adaptations of literary Gothic horror
(the other being Dracula). Put all thoughts regarding Mary Shelly's
novel aside and see this original work of art, with Boris Karloff
bringing the ultimate monster to life.
The sets are a pure spin off of German Expressionism. The good Doctor Frankenstein's castle is twisted and distorted and seems to be not of this world. He is played by Colin Clive in a delightfully freakish performance. And, of course, the well-proportioned Fritz is there to help. Notice the signposts of evil in the opening grave robbing scenes. It is a prop-master's dream and the black and white photography displays a theatrical sense of spookiness. "It's Alive!" will live forever as one of the cinema's most familiar lines and the picture begins to sparkle as Karloff is brought to life. The influence of Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS is evident during the dazzling scene of the Monster's birth.
Boris Karloff is and always will be the prototypical Monster. The closeups of his face are truly frightening after all these years. He is walking death, however, Karloff gives him a hint of sadness, of a creature who was not meant to be. The flower-toss scene with the little girl was so controversial at the time of the film's release, it was cut from many versions. The new, restored print available on video has it.
I know FRANKENSTEIN has been spoofed many times and is wide-open to criticism regarding its dated look. Mel Brooks went so far as to use the actual props from Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory in his hilarious send-up, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Be sure to keep an open mind and watch it in the dark. Boris Karloff and James Whale have created a monstrously fun film.
MORD39 RATING: **** out of ****
Dark, cloudy nights. Thunder and lightning. Colin Clive's Frankenstein shouts: "It's Alive!", and Boris Karloff lurches forth in Jack Pierce's greatest monster makeup of all time....What more can be said about this classic?
It's one of the first (and greatest) horror movies of all time and required viewing. Karloff's sympathetic monster can evoke fear as well as break our hearts. This film made him a huge star after years of working as an unknown in tons of features.
James Whale is a masterful director, though there are less "light moments" in FRANKENSTEIN than some of his later horror films. Interestingly enough, the lack of a music score in this movie actually works in its favor.
Tight, brisk, and oozing with the stuff nightmares are made of, this grandaddy of all monster films needs no further selling.
Although I have seen better prints of the film, this DVD issue of
Universal Studio's famous FRANKENSTEIN is a magnificent package that is
sure to delight any fan of classic horror. The film itself has been
restored for content, and the Skal-hosted documentary--which traces the
story from Mary Shelly's famous novel through its numerous film
incarnations--is a delight, including numerous interviews with various
historians, critics, and Karloff's daughter. The bonus audio track by
Rudy Behlmer is also quite interesting, as are the various biographies
and notes, and although the short film BOO is a spurious mix of footage
from NOSFERATU, Dracula, THE CAT AND THE CANARY, and FRANKENSTEIN, it
is an enjoyable little throw-away. All in all, it doesn't get much
better than this.
As for the film itself, the production of FRANKENSTEIN was prompted by the incredible success of the earlier Dracula--but where Dracula is a rather problematic and significantly dated film, FRANKENSTEIN was and remains one of the most original horror films to ever emerge from Hollywood. Much of the credit for this goes to director James Whale, who by all accounts was deeply influenced by silent German film and his own traumatic experiences during World War I--and who mixed those elements with occasional flourishes of macabre humor to create a remarkably consistent vision of Mary Shelly's original novel.
Whale was extremely, extremely fortunate in his cast. Colin Clive was a difficult actor, but Whale not only managed to get him through the film but to draw from him his finest screen performance; Mae Clarke is a memorable Elizabeth; and Dwight Frye, so memorable in Dracula, tops himself as Fritz. But all eyes here are on Boris Karloff as the monster. Karloff had been kicking around Hollywood for a decade, and although he appeared in quite a few films before FRANKENSTEIN he never really registered with the public. But in this role, acting under heavy make-up, weighed down by lead weights in his shoes and struts around his legs, and without a line of intelligible dialogue he offered a performance that transcended the word "monster." This is a suffering being, dangerous mainly through innocence of his own power and the way of the world, goaded from disaster to disaster to disaster. Even some seventy-plus years later, it is difficult to imagine any other actor in the part.
Karloff would play the monster again in two later films, one of them directed by Whale, but although THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is a remarkable film in its own right, this is the original combination of talents and the original vision. Truly a national treasure, to be enjoyed over and over again. Strongly recommended.
Gary F. Taylor, aka GFT, Amazon Reviewer
To clear the air on certain misconceptions that may arise from what I say
here, I've read the book. I've liked the book. I realize that the movie
truly has nothing in common with it aside from the fact that an artificial
man is brought to life in both. But none of the above took away from my
enjoyment of James Whale's rightly considered classic film. The tacked on
introduction scene and the obligatory happy ending are indeed laughable when
one thinks of what is horrific in this day and age, but I was hooked from
the surreal credit sequence on. To me, the real ending of this film will
always be at the burning windmill, an ending of an all-too-believable
Colin Clive is a little bit overblown as Herr Frankenstein, but he does a capable enough job with the title role (something that is usually tacked onto the monster instead). Edward Van Sloan, a favorite of mine from the Universal stock company, does quite well himself as Frankenstein's old teacher, Dr. Waldmann. As for Karloff...*exhale in admiration* what can I say? I first knew him as the narrator and voice of the Grinch in Dr Seus' "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (I didn't find this out until years later, but find out I did). "Frankenstein" marked the first time that I'd ever seen him on the screen for real. From the stiff walk to the eternally mournful face, he made the misunderstood monster his for the ages (it is also telling that, in spite of this, Karloff went on to a long, illustrious, if underappreciated, career).
Two other facts that stick in my mind about this movie: the creation sequence and the naming of two of it's characters. The heavy-industrial machinery used to create the monster was inspired by the silent Fritz Lang classic, "Metropolis" (indeed, many films, from the original "The Mummy" and "Bride of Frankenstein" to "Dark City" and "The Matrix" owe a debt to this excellent science fantasy), specifically the grafting of Maria's image onto the android. This machinery, I am told, would later go on to a return engagement in Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein". Fact #2: anyone who has read the novel will know that the first name of Frankenstein is Victor and his best friend's Henry. Apparently the play (or perhaps the screenplay writers; I've no way of knowing) switched these two around to where we know have HENRY Frankenstein and VICTOR his best friend.
The only thing that has "sucked" about "Frankenstein" is its imitators vainly trying to make lightning strike twice (pun intended). But don't bet the house on any ever coming close. A hundred years from now, this brilliant alternate work will still stand as truly classic as the book that helped to inspire it.
When I watched James Whale's "Frankenstein" last night I tried to look it
through the unaware eyes of an innocent 1931 audience. Unfortunately I
failed. No matter how I try, this film still has absolutely nothing
horrifying in it. Nevertheless when I watched the great DVD documentary I
finally understood why moviegoers of the early 30's found "Frankenstein"
frightening. No one had actually ever seen anything like it before in the
motion picture. What we think is funny scared the crap out of people who
it when it was originally released. It's just so bloody hard to realize it
nowadays when we've pretty much seen it all when it comes to movie
and horror. Knowing how corny and funny this film looks that ridiculous
pre-credits warning is absolutely hilarious.
Once again, the fact that the film does not make us shiver doesn't make it a bad movie. It allows the modern audience to enjoy the film in another way. Colin Clive is terrific as Dr. Henry Frankenstein. When he shouts hysterically "It's alive! It's alive!" we are witnessing one of the greatest moments of horror film history ever. Boris Karloff is phenomenal as the creature. Although he may not be scary he's performance is stylish and touching and his make-up is soooooo cool. Supporting roles are good too, Edward Van Sloan and especially Dwight Frye (Van Helsing and Renfield from the 1931 adaptation of "Dracula") are brilliant. "Frankenstein" has to be the ultimate monster classic of the Universal studios. When we think about the concept of "classic movie monster", the image of Boris Karloff's creature of Frankenstein is the image 95% of us has first. It is the most recognized and beloved monster of them all.
I just wonder in awe at the uniqueness and charm of this movie, the
atmospherics, sets, backgrounds, lighting, effects, sound and visuals
etc. Even by watching you just get a totally uncanny sense of being
part of and being real-time witness of a magnificent period of
You can almost taste the 1930's. It's the nearest thing you'll ever experience of whats its actually like to get in a time machine. Just switch off the lights and you can even imagine yourself being a 1930's cinema goer. Beautiful experience!
This film is nothing less than a classic! It just encapsulates the best of everything involved in movie making!
Just as the Beatles influenced popular music for decades after they
came and went, so did "Frankenstein" shape the landscape for cinematic
horror. Had this film been an artistic and/or commercial failure, the
American Horror Film would have evolved in a totally different
direction, had it survived at all.
It is remarkable that the conventions established in this early talking film would continue to be utilized by serious filmmakers for over four decades, until "The Exorcist" (1973) changed the rules.
However, "Frankenstein" remains a flawed classic, partially because it's characters have, over time, become almost comical (even without the endless satires), partially because of some of the supporting performances (which inspired the endless satires), and partially because of the primitive technology available at Universal Studios in 1931. Even the tiny Hal Roach Studios produced more sophisticated product at the time.
But what of the assets? Charles D. Hall's art direction is striking, as are some of Arthur Edeson's photographic compositions. Colin Clive remains compelling as Henry Frankenstein, the intense medical adventurer, although he seems pushed to the brink at times by director James Whale, a smart, imaginative filmmaker who didn't always know when to apply restraint.
Then there is Boris Karloff as the monster; Karloff was (and is) underrated as an actor, mainly because he became content to lend himself more as a personality rather than as a performer in numerous films, especially after the mid-1940's. But Karloff, aided by magnificent makeup designed by Jack Pierce, perfectly captured the misery, desperation and loneliness of an artificially fabricated creature in this film, guided by Whale's unexpectedly sensitive direction.
"Frankenstein" survives as a flawed, but historic -- and necessary -- document that set the course for one of cinema's most enduring genres.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
While certainly leagues ahead of Browning's "Dracula", Whale's
Frankenstein still creaks aplenty, and in comparison to it's two
sequels it looks primitive indeed, and yet....of all the Universal
horrors, this is the most compelling and timeless.
I find it ironic how, in discussions of the Frankenstein legend, this film is often considered as just a footnote only worth discussing for the influence it had on physical depictions of the monster, and dismissed in favor of Branagh's "adaption" or Fisher's excellent "Curse of Frankenstein". The rationale is often that those versions are more faithful to the book. But I disagree, and if you care to read, I'll explain why.
I will admit, firsthand, that Branagh's film follows the PLOT of the novel with minimal changes, however I feel that the changes, despite their minimal size, are detrimental to the novel's SPIRIT. And although I will proudly praise Fisher's version, He seems to be less concerned with focusing on the novel's themes than he is with his "F--- the rich" subplot he includes in all his movies. Whale's version discards the plot, but creates an excellent abstract adaption that drives home the novel's themes better than anyone else has, with the exception of "Frankenstein: The True Story" and Fisher's "Frankenstein must be Destroyed". One big complaint, is how Karloff's Monster isn't as sympathetic as the novel's Monster; pure tripe in my opinion.
If anything; Karloff's portrayal is MORE sympathetic than the book's Creature. Critics say that's impossible because the Creature is given a "criminal brain" by Fritz, but that would only be a valid argument if he was shown to be violent solely for that reason, and he isn't. First, "abnormal brain of the typical criminal" could mean anything given the period's beliefs, perhaps the man in question was mentally ill, or had killed in self-defense, or was a minority of some sort. But Karloff's Monster does not turn violent for no reason, he does for flimsy reasons, but reason's nonetheless excusable because he's so stupid he walks backward and doesn't know people can drown. The creature is provoked by the sadistic Fritz, reacts angrily, is taunted, then attacks. Frankenstein, unwilling to take responsibility, has the creature locked away to be "disciplined" by Fritz. The creature kill's Fritz and breaks loose. And even then, his murders are in self-defense or accidents. The book's Creature goes through similar persecution(likely, but left ambiguous because it's told in flashback), but commits murder out of jealousy and to prove points, to COMPLETE innocents. Add the fact that the creature in the book understands the consequences, and feels no remorse until later, it becomes clear that, monster or not, he's a control-freak sociopath like Ted Bundy. The creature of the film is more like a retarded child who lashes out at bullies. The novel's creature kidnaps a child to "make him my companion"(plenty of child-abductors who are not pedophiles do the same thing in real life), then gleefully kills him when he learns he is Frankenstein's brother and frames a servant girl for the murder. In contrast, the film's Creature gently plays with a little girl, but accidentally drowns her, and dies at the hands of a mob who really DON'T have any proof he's guilty, in a scene reminiscent of both a Klan lynching and Christ's crucifixion. Yeah, what an 'unsympathetic' character in comparison to the book(Rolls eyes).
Both characters are unpredictable and dangerous, but does Karloff's Creature really come off as unsympathetic just because he doesn't talk endlessly like the novel's monster? Would you rather pity the equivalent of Ted Bundy because he can talk rather than the equivalent of Lenny from "Of Mice & Men" because he cannot? I also want to point out how, name change and assistant aside, Colin Clive's portrayal of Frankenstein comes closer, personality wise, than any others. Clive is criticized for his hammy "It's Alive!" line, but in the novel, Frankenstein raves like that for SEVERAL CHAPTERS. This film doesn't take the easy way out by making Frankenstein into a monster-hunting hero(Branagh) or into a 19th century Lex Luthor(Fisher); he's like Shelley's portrayal; basically well-meaning and fully blessed with all any man could want, but secretive, callous, neglectful, and unwilling to see consequences until it's either too late or too early. I think Clive's otherwise restrained portrayal fares better than Branagh's, who overacts "It's Alive" style in EVERY scene. The fact that Karloff inspires more fear and more pity with a few grunts than De Niro does in Branagh's whole movie is also telling.
So what exactly is the problem with Whale's film? It features the most spiritually accurate Dr. Frankenstein ever, drives home the themes of the plot better than any other version, the accusation that the monster is unsympathetic is horse ca ca since he's more sympathetic than he is in the actual novel, so what's to hate? The best answer is to visit the comments section for this movie under "hated" and the comment's under "loved" for Branaghs. 99.9% of the complaints are by children who hate it because it's an old movie in black & white, or who make homophobic comment's about James Whale(who was gay). The people who like the Branagh movie mostly just love it because it's in color, or because they are teenage English lit fan girls who think Branagh is hot, and any movie with attractive leads HAS to be better right? If they say they like it because it's more faithful they are lying because they never read it, or did read it but didn't like it, and therefore have no right to demand fidelity to source material they didn't like themselves.
This movie isn't perfect, but of the 3 films I've cited as being the best spiritual adaptations, it's the best. Simply; it's the greatest Frankenstein movie ever made as of now.~
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