Frankenstein as a character, a concept, and a monster has always been a fascination for viewers. The original Mary Shelley novel has been adapted more times than I am able to count, and continues to be modernised, subverted, and parodied. Perhaps it’s a fear of death that brings us back to this story of the doctor who proves that we can cheat the grim reaper, or maybe simply it is an excellent story that deserves to be introduced to new audiences over and over. In 1931, James Whale was tasked by Universal with directing one of the first movie versions of the story, and also one of the most influential on future versions of the story.
Overview: A doctor decides to play God with predictably bad results.
Iconic: Much of what we think of the story of Frankenstein and his monster come from this movie. Ask anyone to give you some idea of Frankenstein, and you’ll hear about bolts in the neck, green skin, ‘It’s alive!’, a hunchbacked assistant, and maybe a flat top hairstyle. Some of those things originate in Peggy Webling’s stage play from which this movie is adapted (and of course the play was adapted from Mary Shelley’s novel), while others are pure magic created by Jack Pierce, Boris Karloff’s go-to makeup man. There is a great deal to love about this movie, but it is the central monster that is the major draw card.
Karloff: Considering how often Frankenstein has been adapted and parodied, it is incredible that Karloff’s version still has so much affect. Many modern takes on the character go for scarred tragedy in their performances, but Karloff’s character is called The Monster, so he acts accordingly. He is child-like but animalistic, big and lumbering, but also quick and deadly. He is pathetic but fills any space he inhabits. He lurks. He lurks a lot. One of the scariest images of the film is when he appears in the bedroom of Elizabeth, Doctor Frankenstein’s new bride. As she mills around in the front of the set he climbs in the back and simply approaches her. His presence and movement is otherworldly and unpredictable, and you find yourself calling out to Elizabeth to get the hell out of there.
Horror: It’s always tempting to write off older horror movies as not being scary enough or technically adept as modern films to deliver jumps and frights. But if you’re saying that, you’re watching the wrong movies. Frankenstein delivers some chilling imagery and James Whale manages to frame each image like a portrait. The scene of Maria’s father carrying her dead body down the street lasts for so long and never looks away. We follow a father’s grief right up to the doorstep of the man who created the creature who killed his child. It is chilling and heartbreaking and a testament to Whale’s immense skill as a director.
Overall: It’s a short movie that sometimes feels long, but once the monster enters the story the movie zips from set piece to set piece until the fiery finale. There are definitely other great portrayals of Frankenstein’s monster, but all of them are simply adaptations of Karloff’s great work.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures