After the odd genre release during the silent era, Universal finally launched into what would become known as the Universal Monsters franchise 1931 with a double bill of Dracula and Frankenstein, two films that took full advantage of cinema finally latching onto the concept of sound. What emerged was – for lack of a better phrase – nothing less than a fucking classic factory which forged the look and feel for the entire horror genre. But whereas the first of the two ventures, the similarly iconic Dracula, was somewhat stagey affair, Frankenstein director James Whale wasn’t afraid to imbue his production with far more style than it’s caped predecessor. As classic a horror movie that’s ever existed, Frankenstein was (and still is) a gold standard for genre filmmaking of that era and a rock solid template for one of the most adapted stories of our age.
In a remote Bavarian graveyard, driven young scientist Henry Frankenstein indulges in a spot of body snatching with his hunch backed assistant Fritz the way many of us window shop in the local mall. He’s searching for the raw materials he needs to complete his godless experiments and imbue a stitched together body with life and all he needs to complete his ghoulish set is a brain. Fritz, not exactly being the intellectual sort, fails to spot the difference between a brain labelled “normal” and one labelled “abnormal” while thieving some grey matter from a laboratory and Henry’s creation winds up with a criminal’s cerebral matter stuffed in it’s skull. Meanwhile, Henry’s fiancee, brother and mentor have tracked him down to the decaying windmill he’s been experimenting in, rightfully worried about his fraying sanity and they end up with a front row seat to Frankenstein wilfully breaking the laws of nature. Unbelievably, the manic scientist is successful but his creation doesn’t turn out the way he hoped with the lumbering creature growing violent and confused when confronted with fire and so Henry, exhausted and sickly from his delirium is shipped off back home while his mentor stays behind to euthanize the pitiful abomination.
Upon escaping, however, the creature accidentally causes the death of a child and soon the whole village are grabbing their torches and pitchforks and scouring the land for the lumbering brute who encores by gate crashes Henry’s wedding and almost killing his bride (there’s almost always one relative at a wedding who starts a fight, isn’t there..?). Joining the lynch mob in order to rectify his hideous mistake, Henry will have to face down his own creation if he’s ever going to have peace ever again…
It’s sometimes tough reviewing the old classics as it often a struggle to be impartial thanks to literally decades of plaudits, homages and worshipping, but Frankenstein luckily makes my task easier by thankfully emerging as the real deal. Eschewing it’s theater origins (it actually was based on a play that was in turn based on Mary Shelley’s timeless shocker) and narrowing down the plot to item’s most basic thread (no Arctic showdown), James Whale fashioned a timeless experience that still carries some heft a staggering 90 years later. Virtually every attempt at Shelly’s cautionary tale, at some point has to go through this version and 9.9 times out of ten it’ll come off second best thanks to it’s visually being essentially encoded into our consciousness since birth.
Take the flawless design and performance of the creature itself: the design of the monster is ridiculously iconic, with the flat-top skull, neck-bolts and hand-me-down jacket look spun into timeless gold by the alchemy of Boris Karloff’s layered performance and the genius of makeup man Jack Pierce. It’s a look that’s still to be equalled, let alone surpassed, to this day and even performances from such actors as Clancy Brown, Aaron Eckhart and Robert De frickin’ Niro have fallen by the wayside. That would be a towering achievement for any movie but it’s a stone cold fucking miracle for a film lovingly crafted back in the simpler days of 1931 where overly theatrical performances were the norm.
Like a lot of monster flicks from the bygone age, anyone on screen who isn’t coated in gruesome makeup tend to be a little flat for my tastes but lead Colin Clive manages to stand out if only for his magnificently maniacal line reading of “IT’S ALIVE!!!”. Everyone else delivers nicely although the majority of the cast genuinely seem unaware or uninterested that they’re supposed to be playing Germans (the elderly Baron Frankenstein, I’m looking at you) but this is balanced out by the lush visuals the movie injects directly into your eyeballs.
The film looks lush, with some legitimately gorgeous sets (Frankenstein’s makeshift windmill/lab is one of the greatest mad scientist labs in cinema, period) and genuinely stirring scenes that have achieved a timeless quality that few of the other Universal Monsters managed to equal. Chief of these is the tragic moment when the creature benignly plays with a little girl by throwing flowers in a lake and equates that pretty things therefore belong in the water: cue the unforgettable image of her distraught father carrying her drowned body past partying villagers celebrating the upcominging nuptials… Other indelible images include the monster’s first close up as he slowly lopes into the light (Kaloff looks legitimately dead!) and Frankenstein’s windmill ablaze against the night sky as the sails still lazily rotate.
Calling Frankenstein the Citizen Kane of horror movies may sound like rabid hyperbole (especially considering that it’s sequel is arguably even better) but it’s actually a pretty fair statement as it’s influences are as just as keenly felt; after all, ask anyone to explain what the monster looks like and I’ll bet your ass that no one is going describe the one from Hugh Jackman’s Van Helsing…
One of the most important movies of it’s time? Frankly, I agree.