US (1931) Dir. James Whale

This review is actually quite a daunting one to write since the subject is one of the most iconic horror films ever made about which millions, billions and possibly frillions of words have already been written. What could I possibly add to what has been said about this vastly influential classic?

Frankenstein came hot on the heels of the unexpected success of Dracula in 1931 which Universal were keen to capitalise on, hoping to repeat its glory with another adaptation of a classic horror novel. They opted for Mary Shelley’s 1818 gothic tale of a scientist who dared to play god and create a living human being from the body parts of the dead. James Whale’s version may have deviated from the original novel, as film adaptations are prone to doing, but in the process created not just film history but also set the blueprint for practically every horror film that followed as well as providing the definitive physical imagery of the patchwork creature.

Horror fans today probably won’t be able to understand how this film scared the bejesus out of audiences in 1931 but it did, largely because such a viewing experience had not been exposed to audiences before. Universal famously added a cheeky but canny warning before the film to cover their backsides in case audiences did find it too much. Obviously modern audiences pretty much know what they are in for but this was pre-code and pre-ratings so film goers got whatever was on offer.

Learned film buffs will know that, despite this being considered the launching point of the Frankenstein legacy on film, the first cinematic attempt came in 1910 when Thomas Edison presented his version, with Charles Ogle played both the monster and the doctor. It’s a world apart from Whale’s film, running less than 15 minutes and incredibly hammy, but the monster’s creation and make-up was very advanced for its time.

Henry Frankenstein (a brilliantly deranged yet conflicted performance by Colin Clive) delivers one of the most famous lines in movie history “It’s alive! It’s Alive” after the monster awakens. What preceded it was the then futuristic laboratory set-up  – again duplicated hundred of times over the years – of an operating table rising up to the top of the ceiling to receive the lighting in order to re-animate the hybrid cadavers. This was an idea exclusive to the film but has since gone become an integral part of the monster’s creation in future adaptations of the Frankenstein fable and other similar horror concepts, reinforcing the huge influence Whale’s presentation has had on cinema.

Whale’s vision was heavily inspired by German Expressionist horror films such as The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari (1919), Der Golem (1920), and Nosferatu (1922) with its use of light and shadow. This is hugely evident inside the castle when the monster is trapped in his room being tortured by Frankenstein’s hunchback assistant Fritz – not Igor – played by the legendary Dwight Frye. The room is half lit by thick shafts of daylight from a high window while the monster staggers around in the dark being teased with a flaming torch.

This effect is employed again in the final act when the monster is being chased by the angry villagers high into the hills at night time, the merest hint of moonlight creating intimidating and eerie silhouettes against the painted backgrounds, which are unfortunately badly exposed in this impressively digitally remastered high definition Blu-ray edition viewed for this review. This is a simple but hugely effective scene to behold – and not a green screen in sight!

The power of this film lies predominantly in the seminal and impeccable performance of Boris Karloff as the monster. A bit actor with some stage and bit part film experience, Karloff was given the role after original choice Bela Lugosi turned it down and cemented his place in move history. We may call the result of Frankenstein’s experiment the “monster” but in fact it was a man with the mental faculty of a child, the original intelligent brain accidentally destroyed by Fritz so he picked up the nearest one, that of a deranged criminal.

Karloff brought incredible tenderness and pathos to his interpretation of the monster creating a character that can only be viewed as sympathetic rather than a feared menace. Employing subtle facial expression Karloff shows the creature viewing the world through innocent, untainted eyes, experiencing a whole new world with simplistic joy.

The most emblematic moment of this is the controversial and moving scene (which remained cut from the film for many years) in which the monster plays by the river with a little girl (Marilyn Harris) and ends up accidentally drowning her. Karloff plays the role with the absolute natural humanity and instinctive panic and startled upset at the result of his actions, in total contrast to the monster he is supposed to be.

As much of Karloff brought the monster to life, its lasting impression on our psyches and in cinema/pop culture shares credit with the iconic make-up design of Jack Pierce. Whenever you say “Frankenstein’s Monster” to anyone, the image of the flat head, thick brow, sunken cheeks and the electrodes through the neck will immediately jump to the mind of everyone. It’s been copied, imitated and lampooned but no-one wears it better than Karloff and no-one applies it better than Pierce.

James Whale’s Frankenstein doesn’t have any blood, severed limbs, jump scares or explicit violence and features some slightly “stagy” acting so why is it so revered? Because it not only did it set a new standard for horror films in 1931 but it is a masterclass in atmosphere, subtlety and invention that still has the power to compel and manipulate our sense some 80 plus years later.

The phrase “often imitated, never duplicated” is tailor made for Frankenstein, unless of course you are a fan of its first sequel…