An obsessive scientist recreates life using the corpses of dead men.
“Frankenstein” is one of the grimmer Universal Monster movies. While all of the monster movies have elements of darkness, none of them revel in that darkness quite so much as this one, and that begins almost immediately. The film even goes so far as to have Edward Van Sloan (who plays Doctor Waldman in this film) come out on a stage before the film begins, to give a word of ‘friendly warning’ that the film you are about to see may horrify you. While the details of James Whale’s “Frankenstein” are almost nothing at all like those in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (nor is the film like Kenneth Branaugh’s “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”), it does have the skeleton of the same story. Frankenstein is the story of a young, brilliant scientist who recreates life out of dead tissue. The novel is a morality tale about the dangers of playing God. The novel’s subtitle is The Modern Prometheus- a reference to the Greek titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity, but as a result was punished for all eternity (he’s chained to a rock where an eagle eats out his liver, which then regrows overnight, and he’s forced to relive his punishment daily- the Greeks were messed up). This film is, in its own way, a morality tale along the same lines, only it goes about telling the story in a different way. I actually read this book before I saw the movie, so in the back of my mind I tried to keep track of the differences, and gave up about twenty minutes in. Both stories are worth experiencing, this one is just a touch more theatrical.
“Now I know what it feels like to be God!”
Our film opens in a graveyard, with our heroes, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive, “Mad Love”) and his assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye, “The Bride of Frankenstein”), hiding behind a tombstone from a funeral procession, waiting until they can steal the fresh corpse from a new grave. They dig up the corpse, cut down a hung man, and begin experimenting on the lifeless tissue. Eventually, Henry’s bride to be, Elizabeth (Mae Clarke, “King of the Rocket Men”), grows worried about Henry and goes to visit him with one of Henry’s old mentors, Doctor Waldman (Edward Van Sloan, “Dracula”), and a friend, Victor Moritz (John Boles, “Captain of the Guard”). They discover Henry’s horrible experiment and urge him to put a stop to the madness, but he is determined to go forward with it. During a storm, Henry somehow harnesses a power that allows him to reanimate the corpse. At first, the Monster is rather tame, but fire causes him to panic and act wildly, and Henry begins to realize that his greatest dream might turn into a nightmare.
Really the most captivating part of this movie is the story itself. It is a disquieting tale that builds rather slowly in the first half, but culminates in a rather tragic end (that is, until “The Bride of Frankenstein”). There are some great moral dilemmas that happen in this film, but front and center is the idea of meddling with things that man should not (a theme that other Universal Monster movies explored as well- particularly “The Invisible Man”). Frankenstein, in this film, is a strange character. At the beginning, when he’s driven by his obsession, is not a very sympathetic character, but after he raises his monster, he spends more time with Elizabeth and becomes more sympathetic and human. It makes it all the more tragic when we see the horrors that his monster is carrying out. Some of the other characters in this film are very memorable as well. Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr, “Waterloo Bridge”) is delightfully cantankerous, and makes a very memorable father figure for our character. Doctor Waldman is also a great character; he, like Frankenstein, is curious about the secrets of life and death, but he’s more cautionary about going forward. Fritz (Frye), plays the character that has since evolved into Igor, but it’s interesting to see where the character got his roots (If I’m remembering correctly, in Shelley’s version, Frankenstein worked alone- so his assistant was an invention of the screenwriters). The acting in this movie is a touch theatrical, as it always is in thirties and forties films, but I actually thought Colin Clive did a really fantastic job of showing the depth of Frankenstein. There are also some really great moments of acting by side characters; perhaps most memorable is the scene when Little Maria’s father brings her into town.If I were to have one issue with how this film portrays characters, it would be with Frankenstein’s monster. In the novel, the Monster is indeed born stupid, but he quickly learns how to communicate, and we get a whole other layer of meaning. That removal of that layer of depth to the Monster’s character diminishes the tragedy at the end of the film. Funnily enough, in the sequel to this film, “The Bride of Frankenstein”, we see that side of The Monster, and that film, at least in my opinion, is a far superior movie, and as a whole, I think of it as a perfect film.
Production design, as with most of the Universal monster movies, is one of the stars of the show. Even from the opening scene in the graveyard we get a taste of what is to come. The set is gothic looking and decrepit- tombstones leaning this way and that, the wrought-iron fences are bent and misaligned, the clouds behind our characters are brooding and ominous. As with any good story, setting is just as much a character as the human ones- it can emphasize or detract from the tone and style of the film, and this film is dripping with style and atmosphere. There are creepy castle and laboratory sets (which apparently included one Tesla coil built by Tesla himself), elaborate festivals in towns with dozens of costumed extras, and models that are bombarded by forks of wicked lightening, or giant sets that are razed to the ground. The special effects and makeup look great, though the resurrection scene in this film is perhaps a bit underwhelming, especially when compared to the dramatic sequence in “The Bride of Frankenstein”.
This is one of the great Universal Monster movies. It’s full of great moments of gothic horror, amazing set designs, memorable characters, and an interesting moral dilemma. I absolutely recommend this movie, but even more so than this film, I recommend its sequel. Where this film establishes a world and characters, “The Bride of Frankenstein” really shows the extent of how far Frankenstein’s exploits might go.
This is part of our 31 Nights of Thrills Series. Not all of the movies we review for this series will be strictly horror, but all will have something to do with the spirit of things spooky or scary. If you like those types of movies, be sure to check back throughout the month of October!
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