Friday, November 23, 2012

Frankenstein (1931) review



Colin Clive (Henry Frankenstein), Boris Karloff (The Monster), Fritz (Dwight Frye), Mae Clarke (Elizabeth), Edward Van Sloan (Dr. Waldman), Victor Moritz (John Boles)

Directed by James Whale

The Short Version: This is B/W horror at its finest and a true classic of the horror genre. It might be over 80 years old, but FRANKENSTEIN will live forever on behalf of a searingly spooky atmosphere, tight direction, superb make up, and spectacular lead performances especially that of Boris Karloff in a career branding role as the Frankenstein Monster. A spectacular film with a few scenes that resonate even today and an undying piece of dialog that has permeated the American cinematic lexicon all these years later. 


Dr. Frankenstein, obsessed with building new life by using various body parts taken from stolen cadavers, finally succeeds in creating a living being. The experiment is a success, but ultimately proves to be a failure through a series of disastrous events that leads to the frightened, angry villagers banding together to destroy the monster.

When I first saw the original FRANKENSTEIN, it was sometime in the late 1970s on a local version of Shock Theater. These vintage Universal monster classics were also a popular attraction on late night during the week; but Spooks Ran Wild on the weekends at any time during the day, and especially at night. There was a high probability that a local station would show a movie like this just before signing off for a few hours before daybreak.

I hadn't seen FRANKENSTEIN in its entirety since probably my childhood. The film was kept alive in my mind via a stack of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazines I had accumulated before the periodical folded in 1983. FRANKENSTEIN, and other similar B/W classics were also the life's blood of The Pictorial History of Horror Films; a book I obtained via a trade in third grade. There was a renewed interest once Universal re-released them on DVD several years ago.

Seeing Whale's timeless classic again (including the sequels) after all these years was a real treat. For whatever reason, I took my time not only buying these movies (save for the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON set. Love the BLACK LAGOON movies!), but watching them, too. I suppose Hammer's interpretation of the subjects spoiled me for years against revisiting the Universal classics what with their bloody splashes of color and innovative take on the material. 

Interestingly, Hammer chose the Frankenstein character as their first such horror picture while Universal chose Dracula.

Seeing FRANKENSTEIN (and others) now, there's a beauty to Whale's film that's unmistakable in its operatic aura and hauntingly baroque art decor that's complemented by striking indoor sets. These recall earlier examples of German Expressionist cinema that can be seen in other Universal horror pictures till it had mostly dissipated by the 1940s.

Mexican horror cinema was also greatly influenced by Universal monster pictures of the 1930s replicating the atmosphere of their American counterparts. What those films lacked in budget, they made up for in creativity.

The acting in FRANKENSTEIN is also worth mentioning. The Silent Era served those actors well once recorded dialog became fashionable. Boris Karloff didn't have to say anything to evoke an incredible amount of emotional gravitas. It's truly a brilliant performance that's dominated by facial expressions, hand gestures and simple grunts and groans to convey the monster's feelings. Boris Karloff became a major genre player here, and is easily the best, most recognized actor to play the role of Frankenstein's Monster.

Colin Clive is equally mesmerizing as Henry Frankenstein. It's a joy watching him gradually explode at the seams leading up to his monster being brought to life. Up to that point, he's the epitome of the 'Mad Scientist' schematic. Afterward, he wears this emotional mask of regret and despair of the grave mistake he has made.

Dwight Frye, fresh off DRACULA (1931), is back as another off-kilter character as the hunchbacked Fritz. He's not in the film all that much, but during his short time onscreen, he shows himself to be a deplorable sadist. His exit from the film was a shocker to me as a kid. I figured it was a given he'd kick the bucket, but the distant, blood-curdling scream followed by the discovery of his corpse sent chills up my spine as a small boy

The make up by Jack Pierce is still an impressive work of art all these years later. It's even more astounding when one looks at the handful of films that crudely copied Pierce's iconic design over the years; these others pale in comparison to his original work.

At a brisk 70 minutes (with credits), FRANKENSTEIN delivers dynamite performances and barrels of atmosphere. It might be dated, but the film still holds weight as one of the greatest horror films of all time; spear-headed by two unforgettable performances and a signature line of dialog that remains a potent part of pop culture iconography.

This review is representative of the Universal Legacy Collection.

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