Frankenstein (1931)

James Whale

Colin Clive - Dr. Henry Frankenstein
Boris Karloff - The Monster
Mae Clarke - Elizabeth
Edward Van Sloan - Dr. Waldman
Dwight Frye - Fritz
Frederic Kerr - Baron Frankenstein
John Boles - Victor Moritz

Genre - Horror/Monsters

Running Time - 71 Minutes

The year 1931 is probably considered the genesis of the popularity for horror cinema. Universal had the extremely successful Bela Lugosi DRACULA. Paramount Pictures released the great DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, starring Frederic March [which MGM had bought the rights of until Warner Brothers rebought those rights recently for home video distribution]. But I think the most popular, and beloved, horror film of the year was probably James Whale's take on the 1818 Mary Shelley novel, FRANKENSTEIN.

There was a lot of buzz for this adaptation. The main buzz was about the casting of the Monster. Bela Lugosi, who had become a major horror star due to DRACULA, was originally cast for the role. Until the time of the film's release, much of the media and press had still believed that Lugosi was in the film, playing Frankenstein's creation - which led to some people feeling misled, seeing that they went to watch Lugosi in the role. In actuality, Lugosi hated the make up process required to transform him into the character. So he dropped out of the project [at least according to him], although Lugosi would play the Monster in 1943's FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. However, many say that Lugosi [as well as the first hired director for the film, Robert Florey] were fired, as they weren't a fit for the movie. Lugosi has stated that the character of The Monster was nothing like the character he had read for in Florey's script, with that version of the monster being a sociopathic murderer without remorse or conscience.

Boris Karloff and director James Whale were hired to replace both Lugosi and Florey respectively. The script had changed quite a bit once these two were added, making the Monster more of a sympathetic figure. Jack R. Pierce created the trademark look for the Monster, which required Karloff to wear 13 pound shoes that were 4 inches high. Karloff also had to sleep with the makeup on, so the look could remain consistent. There's controversy whether the "flat head" look was either Pierce's or Whale's idea, but nothing had ever been confirmed either way.

However, everything fell into place and FRANKENSTEIN was released on December 4, 1931. It was a smash hit right out of the gate, and is considered the film to really solidify Universal Studios as the studio for quality horror cinema. And after 81 years, FRANKENSTEIN is still a great film that holds up surprisingly well and resonates quite effectively today.

At a funeral, Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his hunchback assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) are hiding, spying on the ceremony. Once it's over, Frankenstein and Fritz dig up the buried body to gather some dead tissue. The two have been doing this for a while - plundering graves and morgues in order to gather up the body parts of corpses for an experiment. As a doctor in Electrobiology and Chemical Galvanism, Frankenstein wants to prove that he can re-animate dead tissue with electricity. He and Fritz have stitched up all the dead tissue they have gathered, creating a large body that he plans to restore back to life.

Frankenstein's inner circle, including his beautiful fiancee Elizabeth (
Mae Clarke), has been worried sick about him. Rather than planning for their wedding and spending time together, Frankenstein has secluded himself more and more with this experiment. After a strange letter from Frankenstein, Elizabeth and others - including Victor Moritz (John Boles) and Frankenstein's teacher and mentor, Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) - barge to an old watchtower that happens to be Frankenstein's laboratory. As Frankenstein feels threatened by their presence and worries that they'll discredit his achievements, the mad scientist decides to let them stay to watch him bring his creation to life. During a thunderstorm, Frankenstein takes the opportunity to use the lightning to charge up the dead tissue with electricity. When the body begins to move, everyone is shocked except for Frankenstein - who worries the others when he claims to be a god.

When Frankenstein learns that Fritz
's mistake had given his creation an "abnormal brain" rather than a "normal" one, the scientist succumbs to stress and exhaustion. The creature, like a child, has no idea how to adapt to this world he's been brought into, lashing out and having tantrums. It doesn't help when Fritz torments him with a whip and fire, which the Monster is highly afraid of. As Frankenstein attempts to recover and realizes what he has done, he and Dr. Waldman decide to restrain the Monster in order to destroy it. Now feeling alienated and frustrated, the Monster escapes from the restraints, leaves the laboratory, and enters town with the rest of civilization. As the Monster tries to adapt and learn through experience within a normal society, his mistakes start to haunt him as the villagers can't accept what he is - leading to a violent manhunt that doesn't have a happy ending.


FRANKENSTEIN was the first Universal Monsters film I had ever watched as a child. I think that's why I prefer it over DRACULA and 1941's THE WOLF MAN, although I'm not saying that FRANKENSTEIN is the best Universal Monster film that was made. Still, I had always found FRANKENSTEIN to be an appealing watch, even years ago. Not only was the look of the Monster freakin' cool, but I think even at that age I was able to understand the themes that run throughout this movie. It's one of those films that's beautiful to look at, yet the messages it's trying to express through the visual presentation resonate with me a lot more.

Just like DRACULA before it, FRANKENSTEIN is more based on the stage productions adapted from Mary Shelley's novel rather than the novel itself. The difference between the film and the novel is mainly the lack of philosophy that novel had about the Monster's creation - whether it was right or wrong and when do morals come in when man attempts to play the role of God. Also, the book had a lot of moments where Frankenstein and his creation would argue over his existence and the way the world perceives him. The film dumbs it down a bit, with the creation being nothing but a child-like brute. There's also not much time for any sort of philosophical debate about the Monster's existence. But unlike the adaptation of DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN still manages to maintain the essence of the novel with themes that continue to be as powerful today as they were back in 1931.

One of the main themes is obviously the idea of man wanting to become God. But isn't that what every Mad Scientist story is about anyway? Frankenstein is obsessed with this idea of creating a person out of dead tissue, just to bring it back to life - as if this will make him feel like he's better than everyone else. He's corrupted by the power of this knowledge he has, believing that this is the new evolution of humanity and he's the one making it happen. While I'm glad the first act of the film plays around with this theme, I do wish it could have been explored more. That's not to say that the lack of depth hurts the film, because it doesn't. But you could do a whole lot with a theme like this. Just the simple fact that Frankenstein is trying to be God by using science, which is something religion is pretty much against, can be a topic all on its own. Also, his "Godhood" fails because his creation isn't perfect in his image [thanks to Fritz]. I also feel that Frankenstein never really gets punished for his actions of creating this Monster, besides maybe that bit of exhaustion he suffered with and getting injured while trying to stop the Monster in the film's final act. But the man pretty much gets away with it unpunished. He still goes through the wedding, which brings the entire town together in celebration. He doesn't die at the end. And he's never blamed for bringing the Monster to life when tragic things happen. The lack of morality is questionable, but it still doesn't take away from the film's enjoyment. FRANKENSTEIN is obviously meant to be a film to scare people, not exactly make them think deeper and look between the lines. But if you take the time, those issues are definitely evident.

Probably the stronger theme of the film is the idea of acceptance and tolerance. Because the Monster wasn't created by the hands of God, and because he looks different and acts different, he's treated like an outcast. And honestly, it's no fault of his own because he was forced into a cruel world that's too afraid to take the time to understand him and teach him social norms. Frankenstein is proud of his creation until he learns that the brain he asked for was bumbled by Fritz, stealing an "abnormal" brain instead. Instead of having an intelligent creation, he has to deal with one who is slow to learn and adapt, with the mental capacity of a child. Because of this, Frankenstein washes his hands of the whole matter, letting Fritz and Dr. Waldman to deal with the Monster instead. Great parenting! This is a terrible move since Fritz harrasses the Monster, abusing him with glee. Dr. Waldman wants to kill him so he can study him, which doesn't please the Monster at all. When your own creator abandons you because you aren't his perfect "child", that does a lot to someone's psyche, regardless if they have an adult brain or a child brain. Because of this neglect and lack of love and compassion, the Monster lashes out and runs away from the laboratory.

Now in the real world, the Monster begins to experience the world outside of the laboratory. The only one who embraces his presence is a little girl named Maria, who is shocked by his appearance at first but decides to befriend him anyway. This is a pivotal scene, as we finally see the Monster finally happy due to the fact that someone, a child no less, has accepted him regardless of his appearance. They play by the pond, throwing flowers into the water, as she teaches him how to make them float. Unfortunately once he runs out of flowers, he grabs Maria and throws her into the pond. She eventually drowns and is rightfully blamed for it by Maria's father and the rest of the village. However, this scene shows that the Monster didn't mean to murder Maria, as he's worried about her while she drowns, but has no idea what to do. He panics and runs away, knowing what he did was wrong. This shows that the Monster is not some killing machine who has no conscience. This Monster feels embarrassed and horrible about what he did, not understanding that his actions had consequences. Because of this, you gain a ton of sympathy for him because he didn't kill Maria out of Malice.

I always feel bad when the village have no hesitation when they grab their torches and attempt to kill the Monster. Sure, the Monster did kill Maria - accidentally. But they never blame Frankenstein for creating him. He's never really held accountable. But since the Monster is a creature created by unholy [a.k.a. scientific] means, he's pure evil and must be stopped. I find it funny that when Maria's father brought her drowned corpse to the village and blamed the Monster for her death, everyone jumped on the bandwagon, even Frankenstein. How did they even know the Monster did it? Maria's father wasn't even watching her! Shouldn't he be just as responsible? It's obvious that because the Monster is different, he's the scapegoat. Not sure if I find it fair or not, but that's what makes FRANKENSTEIN work so well. You can either watch the film for what the story tells on the surface, or you can look between the lines and debate about the moral and thematic issues that are clear to see here.

For a 1931 film, the make up and the effects used are very well done. Jack R. Pierce's look for the Monster is simply iconic, with the flat head and the bolts coming out of the Monster's neck. It also helps that Boris Karloff just has the perfect face for the Monster's look. The special effects include lightning, which isn't too impressive today but probably was back in 1931. Also the thrilling fire scene where the villagers set the Monster's hiding place down in flames, as the interior construction falls down on the Monster and traps him to his death is choreographed really well. The film is definitely more exciting to look at than DRACULA.

This excitement is also helped by James Whale's direction. Whale, usually known for his eccentricity and humor, gives FRANKENSTEIN a ton of atmosphere due to a German Expressionist influence, like done in the 1919 film, THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. This is plainly seen at how some of the sets are structured, with circular stairwells and machinery only a mad scientist could appreciate and want. The laboratory, in particular, is composed and framed so well. Even the backdrops look painted on [they probably were], really giving off this surreal vibe as if this story doesn't take place in any reality we're used to. I also love that Whale really creates a lively film that's not too stagey like DRACULA is. There's more action sequences and the camera has some nice style going for it. I love the scene where the Monster enters for the first time, using close ups to show the monster's face. And the use of no music really adds to the film for me. There's something cold, yet inviting, about FRANKENSTEIN and how it's filmed. James Whale really did a wonderful job bringing the story to life here - one that still holds up better than modern adaptations of the same story.

The acting is pretty good here as well. Colin Clive is really over-the-top for most of the film as Dr. Henry Frankenstein. Usually this sort of thing would bug me if it was out of context, but I think it works here because he's how I would picture a mad scientist to behave. The "It's alive! It's alive!" scene is so great and Clive really makes it work to show how obsessed his character had become. The other actors, like Mae Clarke as Elizabeth, Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Waldman, and Dwight Frye [Renfield from DRACULA] as Fritz [not Igor] do well in their roles.

But the main star here is Boris Karloff, billed as "?" in the opening credits, as the Monster. For a character who utters no dialogue besides the occasional grunts and groans, Karloff sure makes him charismatic and sympathetic without even trying to do much. His subtlety really makes his character work, as the Monster is both scary and gentle. His fear of fire and his guilt over Maria's death is conveyed perfectly through Karloff's facial expressions, even underneath all that make up. It's no surprise Karloff would become a star after this film and would even portray the Monster a couple of more times in his career. Like Bela Lugosi's performance in DRACULA, Karloff is iconic as Frankenstein's Monster. As a matter of fact, I don't think anyone has even come close to matching Karloff in the role even after all these years. He's that good.


- Dr. Frankenstein and his assistant, Fritz, like to steal corpses from cemeteries for Frankenstein's experiment. The whole idea is pretty grave, don't you think?

- Frankenstein's Monster is afraid of fire. He must have dealt with a horrible case of chlamydia in his previous life.

- Before Dr. Waldman could dissect him, the Monster strangled the doctor to death. In this case, the Monster was a lot sharper than Waldman's scalpel.

- The Monster threw Maria into a pond after he ran out of flowers to throw. If this was during the age of To Catch A Predator, the Monster would get arrested for trying to get this girl wet...

- The Monster frightened Elizabeth prior to her wedding to Frankenstein. Those kind of screams ought to be saved for the honeymoon!

FRANKENSTEIN is just a classic. It's a fun watch, it has great direction, great acting by Boris Karloff, and themes that still resonate as much today as they did back in 1931. This is everything you would want from a classic horror film from this era. James Whale's FRANKENSTEIN is probably my favorite Universal monster film that isn't a sequel of sorts. DRACULA may have gave Universal Pictures a ton of attention when it came to horror, but FRANKENSTEIN is the film that put it on the map without hesitation. There's no reason why any horror movie lover shouldn't go out of their way and watch this. Essential viewing in my opinion.

4 Howls Outta 4


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