It’s a Classic: ‘Frankenstein’

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“Look – it’s moving, it’s alive…”

A horror icon: Boris Karloff stars in ‘Frankenstein’ (image credit: Universal Pictures, used for illustrative purposes only).

Year:  1931

Starring:  Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Edward Van Sloan, Dwight Frye

Director:  James Whale / written by:  Garrett Fort & Frances Edward Faragoh

What’s it about?

Henry Frankenstein hails himself as a genius when he brings life to a creature pieced together with exhumed body parts and the brain of a criminal, but soon discovers that playing God may have ghastly consequences…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Adapted from the play by Peggy Webling which was based on Mary Shelley’s novel (Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus, first published in 1818), director James Whale’s Frankenstein is rightly considered as one of the all-time greatest horror films and followed hot on the heels of the success of Universal Pictures’ Dracula.

Drawing from the themes of Shelley’s literary masterpiece and presenting them visually in a visceral and horrific manner, Frankenstein delivers atmospheric chills and thrills with memorable performances, inventive production design and incredible character make-up all shepherded under the meticulous direction of James Whale.

Leading the cast is Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein, the young scientist obsessed with reanimating the tissues of the dead and whose grave-robbing endeavours lead to a monstrous creation.  Clive tackles his role with an intellectual intensity that although for the most part is restrained, bears fruit when Frankenstein erupts into bouts of manic joviality as he celebrates the success of his experiment.  Clive is ably supported by Dwight Frye as Frankenstein’s deranged hunchback assistant, Fritz, Mae Clark as his fiancée Elizabeth, John Boles as Victor Moritz and Edward Van Sloan as Doctor Waldman.

However, it is most certainly Boris Karloff that makes Frankenstein truly unforgettable.  In a departure from Shelley’s original work, this version of Frankenstein’s ‘monster’ is simple minded and beastly, yet childlike.  Aided by the iconic make-up design (created by Jack P. Pierce, who is sadly uncredited), Karloff brings all of those qualities to life – the wonderfully awkward, stumbling physical performance and animal-like whines and groans conveying a real sense of tragedy and the creature’s yearning for acceptance.  It makes for numerous standout moments and especially effective in the monster’s lakeside encounter with a young girl that surely ranks as one of the most startling and impactful in the history of cinema.

Karloff would of course return for 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein (and second sequel Son of Frankenstein, released in 1939) after appearing in The Mummy in 1932.  James Whale would also continue his association with Universal’s classic horrors, helming The Old Dark House (which also stars Karloff) and The Invisible Man before reuniting with Boris Karloff for the aforementioned Bride of Frankenstein.

No analysis of Frankenstein is complete without mention of Charles D. Hall’s art direction, chiefly the sets for Frankenstein’s castle – the twisted, sloping stone walls evoking a sense of madness and foreboding whilst the levers, dials and instrumentation furnish the laboratory with intricate detail that together with the bristling arcs – and sparks – of electricity deliver a feeling of raw energy and tactile authenticity.

Whilst some might find it all a bit quaint by today’s standards, there’s still an undeniable power to Frankenstein that on a cold and wintry evening can effortlessly captivate the viewer and formulate suspense in a way that most modern horror films cannot replicate.

Standout moment

After subjecting his patched together corpse to intense electricity, Henry Frankenstein witnesses the slow twitching of the creature’s fingers as his creation comes to life – to the joy of Frankenstein and the terror of his audience…

Geek fact!

Dracula star Bela Lugosi was originally set to play the monster in Frankenstein but ultimately dropped out, leading to the casting of Boris Karloff.  Lugosi would go on to portray Igor in Son of Frankenstein.

If you like this then watch…

Bride of Frankenstein : Colin Clive and Boris Karloff reprise their respective roles for James Whale’s poignant and darkly comic sequel which boasts an iconic turn from Elsa Lancaster as the titular “Bride”.

Young Frankenstein : Mel Brooks’ beloved comedy is more an affectionate homage than a straight-up parody that features one of Gene Wilder’s finest performances and is further legitimised by the use of original props from Frankenstein.

7 thoughts on “It’s a Classic: ‘Frankenstein’

  1. I love the Universal Monster films. They are so wonderfully gothic and dark. Frankenstein is a fantastic film, a horror classic, and Karloff’s performance as the monster is brilliant. Great review! I often revisit these classic horror films in the run up to Halloween 🙂

  2. Although most critics state that Bride is superior, for my money the original Frankenstein is the more memorable and chilling film.

    You hit it in the nail about how the moody atmosphere and sets truly set the tone for this film which is still amazingly effective to this day.

    Overall, this is an encompassing and well written retrospective of a horror/sci-fi masterpiece.

  3. Phenomenal review as always, Chris. I remember watching this movie for a class project back in high school. It was quite the movie and it really did have so many amazing moments in it. That lakeside moment was so tragic and innocent… Really, this whole human-monster analogy was so well-done. Having read the book much later, I’m still surprised by how different Frankenstein truly was intended to be. Like some kind of talking, wise, philosophical Hulk. I wonder if we’d ever see that kind of Frankenstein some day.

    • Thanks Lashaan, you had me chuckling at your very apt likening of the literary version of the monster to a wise and philosophical Hulk! There’s something special about the interpretation in the 1931 film that works in a way that a more faithful version wouldn’t have been as successful.

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