Filmsite Movie Review
Frankenstein (1931)
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The classic and definitive monster/horror film of all time, director James Whale's Frankenstein (1931) is the screen version of Mary Shelley's Gothic 1818 nightmarish novel of the same name (Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus). The film, with Victorian undertones, was produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. for Universal Pictures, the same year that Dracula (1931), another classic horror film, was produced within the same studio - both films helped to save the beleaguered studio. [The sequel to this Monster story is found in director James Whale's even greater film, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).]

The film's name was derived from the mad, obsessed scientist, Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), who experimentally creates an artificial life - an Unnamed Monster (Boris Karloff), that ultimately terrorizes the Bavarian countryside after being mistreated by his maker's assistant Fritz and society as a whole. The fact that the monster was named after a scientist was made clear in the film's tagline:

Frankenstein: The Man Who Made a Monster

The film's most famous scene is the one in which Frankenstein befriends a young girl named Maria at a lake's edge, and mistakenly throws her into the water (and drowns her) along with other flowers.

In addition to this film, dozens of other adaptations have been made of the Frankenstein horror story, notably from the UK's Hammer Studios (from the late 50s to the mid-1970s), and lots of other variations such as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), AIP's I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957), Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965), Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein (1974) (shot in the same castle set and with the same props and lab equipment as the original film), and Frankenhooker (1990):

  • Frankenstein (1910), d. J. Searle Dawley, 16 minute silent, Edison Company
  • Life Without a Soul (1915), d. Joseph W. Smiley, the first feature-length Frankenstein adaptation, a lost silent film, Ocean Film Corp.
  • Frankenstein (1931), d. James Whale, Universal
  • The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), d. James Whale, Universal
  • Son of Frankenstein (1939), d. Rowland V. Lee, Universal
  • The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), d. Erle C. Kenton, Universal
  • Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), d. Roy William Neill, Universal
  • House of Frankenstein (1944), d. Erle C. Kenton, Universal
  • The Curse of Frankenstein (1957, UK), d. Terence Fisher, Hammer Films
  • The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958, UK), d. Terence Fisher, Hammer Films
  • The Evil of Frankenstein (1964, UK), d. Freddie Francis, Hammer Films
  • Frankenstein Created Woman (1967, UK) (aka Frankenstein Made Woman), d. Terence Fisher, Hammer Films
  • Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969, UK), d. Terence Fisher, Hammer Films
  • The Horror of Frankenstein (1970, UK), d. Jimmy Sangster, Hammer Films
  • Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974, UK), d. Terence Fisher, Hammer Films
  • Frankenstein Unbound (1990), d. Roger Corman, 20th Century Fox
  • Frankenstein (1993), d. David Wickes, made for TV, Turner Pictures
  • Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994), d. Kenneth Branagh, producer Francis Ford Coppola, TriStar
  • Van Helsing (2004), d. Stephen Sommers, opens with a slightly modified (revisionist) creation scene and the ending burning windmill scene from the original film (in black and white!) as a springboard for the film

Originally, the famed Dracula actor Bela Lugosi was cast as the Monster, and French director Robert Florey was assigned to direct. But after various screen tests, Lugosi refused the part, and Universal chose Britisher James Whale to direct. Significantly, this film then launched the career of unknown actor Boris Karloff, who is surprisingly uncredited in the opening credits of the film as the Monster. In the beginning credits titled "The Players," the Monster is listed fourth, with a question mark after its name. In the end credits, however, where the cast list is prefaced by - "a good cast is worth repeating...," the Monster is listed fourth with BORIS KARLOFF's name following. Karloff's performance is remarkable - his acting communicated a hint of the pitiful humanity of the grotesque Monster behind its hideous, stitched and bolted-together body.

Plot Synopsis

In the opening, pre-credits prologue, the film is introduced by a tuxedoed gentleman (Edward van Sloan, one of the principal characters in the film) who steps from behind a closed curtain and delivers the following teaser - a "friendly warning" - to the audience:

How do you do? Mr. Carl Laemmle [the producer] feels it would be a little unkind to present this picture without just a word of friendly warning. We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation - life and death. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even - horrify you. So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now's your chance to - uh, well, we warned you.

The credits play with an eerie set of rotating eyes as a backdrop. The film then opens with a close-up of a pair of hands hauling up a rope. As dusk approaches, the camera pans across a group of weeping and wailing mourners and priests during a funeral service around a gravesite, in front of a statue of a skeletal Grim Reaper. The memorable, expressionistic grave-robbing scene occurs near the Bavarian mountain village of Goldstadt. [The village was constructed for the previous year's film All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).] Beneath the gloomy sky, a coffin is being lowered into a grave. Crouched in the background from behind the cemetery fence, brilliant medical scientist (but slightly insane and overwrought) Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his dwarfish, bumbling, hunchbacked assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) eagerly watch the proceedings. The first few clodfuls of dirt that hit the top of the casket make a dull clump/thud [an impressive effect for early talkie audiences].

They are there to steal the newly-buried fresh male corpse for an experiment that Frankenstein is conducting on the secrets of life. After the cemetery is vacated and the grave is filled in by a grave digger, they creep in and strip off their jackets, carelessly tossing them into the dirt behind them. The two dig up the fresh grave after the grave-digger has left. To symbolize Henry's sacrilegious lack of respect for the subject of death - an example of black humor, one shovelful of his dirt is irreverently thrown directly into the face of a nearby statue of the Grim Reaper! After completing the digging, they stand the coffin on end. Frankenstein pats the coffin with his ear close to it, murmuring that there will be a resurrection: "He's just resting - waiting for a new life to come." They haul the heavy coffin back with them on a cart as the moon rises. The film is enhanced by dark and forbidding Transylvanian settings.

On the way up a jagged, rocky slope, Fritz reluctantly climbs up a post and cuts down an executed criminal hanging from a gallows' rope. Struggling, he crawls along the crossbar with a knife between his teeth. Frankenstein hopes to use the victim's brain in his experimental attempt to assemble a new human life form, but the body falls to the ground. "The neck's broken; the brain is useless. We must find another brain," laments Frankenstein - not surprising since the man was the victim of a hanging.

Needing only a brain, Dr. Frankenstein sends his dwarfish assistant to his old, nearby medical school (Goldstadt Medical College) to steal one. [Frankenstein left the school when his demands for experiments with humans were not approved.] Fritz peers through the windows of the College, where medical students in an operating amphitheatre watch a dissection demonstration on a corpse of a psychopath "whose life was one of brutality, of violence, and murder." College Professor Waldman (Edward van Sloan), in front of floodlights, teaches about the differences between a normal brain ("one of the most perfect specimens of the human brain") and the degenerate murderer's brain ("the abnormal brain of the typical criminal"). The Professor delineates the degenerative characteristics of the criminal brain - "the scarcity of convolutions on the frontal lobe...and the distinct degeneration of the middle frontal lobe."

After the class concludes and the students are dismissed, a window at the back of the amphitheatre opens - Fritz stumbles in and down to the front where he finds the two jars of brains on display in the room. One of the brains is normal, labeled "Cerebrum - Normal Brain." He grabs its glass jar and begins to rush out of the dissecting room, but inadvertently drops it when startled by the loud sound of a gong. In order not to disappoint Dr. Frankenstein, however, the dim-witted Fritz desperately grabs the other glass jar labeled "Dysfunctio Cerebri - Abnormal Brain."

The next scene opens with a close-up of a framed picture of Henry Frankenstein with a flickering candle burning closeby. A maid announces a family friend visitor: "Herr Victor Moritz," followed by a close-up of Victor Moritz' (John Boles) face. Frankenstein's fiancee Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) greets him in the wood-paneled, high-vaulted, Victorian style parlor of the Frankenstein manor. She is concerned, worried, and uncertain about Henry, and wondering if he is emotionally disturbed. Anxious about her marital partner, she explains how Henry's most recent letter, the first she has had in four months, makes no sense. He has shut himself off from the outside world, working to the limits of his endurance with his experiments in an isolated, abandoned watchtower that serves as a laboratory. The mysterious letter reads:

You must have faith in me, Elizabeth. Wait, my work must come first, even before you. At night the winds howl in the mountains. There is no one here. Prying eyes can't peer into my secret...I am living in an abandoned old watchtower close to the town of Goldstadt. Only my assistant is here to help me with my experiments.

She explains that Henry told her about his strange experiments at a significant time - just before they became engaged and he retreated to his mountain laboratory away from her:

The very day we announced our engagement, he told me of his experiments. He said he was on the verge of a discovery so terrific that he doubted his own sanity. There was a strange look in his eyes, some mystery. His words carried me right away. Of course I've never doubted him but still I worry. I can't help it.

Victor saw Henry three weeks earlier, when he was walking alone in the woods, and was told that no one was allowed to visit him in his laboratory: "His manner was very strange." He suggests going to see Dr. Waldman, Henry's former professor and paternalistic mentor in medical school. Victor also reveals that he is a rival lover with affectionate interest in Henry's future bride:

Victor: Perhaps he can tell me more about all this.
Elizabeth: Oh Victor, you're a dear.
Victor: You know I'd go to the ends of the earth for you.
Elizabeth: I shouldn't like that. I'm far too fond of you.
Victor: I wish you were!
Elizabeth: (she turns away) Victor.
Victor: I'm sorry.

With Elizabeth's insistence to join him, they leave the comfortable, secure surroundings of the living room area, and go together to discuss their concerns with Dr. Waldman. The scene at Waldman's office at the College, already in progress, shows a row of skulls positioned on one of the shelves of his bookcases. On his desk is a row of test tubes and another grinning skull. Surrounded by symbols of death, Waldman is also troubled by their news: "Herr Frankenstein is a most brilliant young man, yet so erratic he troubles me." Frankenstein's research in "chemical galvanism and electro-biology were far in advance of our theories here at the University" and had reached dangerously advanced stages. His experiments to recreate human life, and his demands for corpses "were becoming dangerous":

Waldman: Herr Frankenstein is greatly changed.
Victor: You mean changed as a result of his work?
Waldman: Yes, his work, his insane ambition to create life.
Elizabeth: How? How? Please tell us everything, whatever it is.
Waldman: The bodies we use in our dissecting room for lecture purposes were not perfect enough for his experiments, he said. He wished us to supply him with other bodies and we were not to be too particular as to where and how we got them. I told him that his demands were unreasonable. And so he left the University to work unhampered. He found what he needed elsewhere.
Victor: Oh! The bodies of animals. Well, what are the lives of a few rabbits and dogs?
Waldman: (leaning forward ominously) You do not quite get what I mean. Herr Frankenstein was interested only in human life - first to destroy it, then recreate it. There you have his mad dream.

Waldman is not up-to-date on Henry's morbid research and crazy experiments and how he was grave-digging for already-dead corpses. Elizabeth begs that Dr. Waldman join them to visit Henry's lab in the watchtower where the mad experiments are taking place, and he reluctantly agrees.

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