Two hundred years ago, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley unleashed her novel FRANKENSTEIN upon an unsuspecting world. The ghastly story of a “Modern Prometheus” who dared to play God and his unholy creation shocked readers in 1818, and over the past two centuries has been adapted into stage plays, radio dramas, television programs, comic books, and the movies, most notably James Whale’s seminal 1931 FRANKENSTEIN, featuring not only a star-making performance by Boris Karloff as the Creature, but ahead of its time filmmaking from Whale.
James Whale had directed only two films before FRANKENSTEIN (JOURNEY’S END and WATERLOO BRIDGE), but the former stage director certainly adapted quickly to the new medium of talking pictures. The story had been made three times for the silent screen, but the new sound technology adds so much to the overall eeriness of the film’s atmosphere. Whale was obviously influenced by German Expressionism, with its chiaroscuro lighting and oddly tilted angles (check out Dwight Frye as Fritz climbing the staircase with his tiny cane and try not to think of Werner Krauss as Dr. Caligari). The detailed set design of Herman Rosse and wonderful electronic wizardry of Kenneth Strickfaden set the iconography for all monster movies to come, and Arthur Edeson’s fluid camerawork (under Whale’s guidance) brings it all to horrifying life. Tod Browning’s DRACULA gave us the unsettling stillness of the undead vampire; in FRANKENSTEIN, the patchwork man comes to full-blooded, raging life.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: Boris Karloff’s brilliant portrayal of the monster is an Oscar-worthy performance. Inarticulate, unable to communicate, Karloff conveys so much with just his body and facial expressions it’s hard to believe he was relegated for the most part to small roles before hitting it big here. His first scene, slowly turning toward the camera, eyes dead as night, his gait uneasy as he shambles forth on unfamiliar limbs, is a debut for the ages… despite the fact Karloff had appeared in over 60 films, this is the first time he truly stood out. Jack Pierce’s astonishing makeup job transformed the actor into a brute, but Boris doesn’t so much play the makeup as he becomes it, a fully fleshed-out character whose childlike innocence is stripped away after finally lashing out against his tormentor Fritz. The famed “Floating Flower” scene, cut for decades by the censors, still manages to both shock and horrify the audience, as well as elicit sympathy for the monster, who doesn’t quite understand why his little friend Maria isn’t floating like the daisies. Haunted, hunted by the soon-to-be-cliché torchbearing villagers, Karloff’s creature reverts to his animalistic nature, and when he meets his fiery fate in that windmill (a noisy, dark, and violent scene), you can’t help but feel a bit sorry for this monster who never asked to be reborn.
Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein is the maddest doctor of them all, a totally obsessed genius whose quest to play God has driven him beyond the brink of sanity. Watch his eyes: the guy’s truly, gloriously crazy! His gleeful shouting “It’s alive! It’s alive!” leaves no doubt Henry’s gone over the edge. Only later, when he realizes the horror he’s unleashed, does Clive become a more rational scientist, determined to right his wrong. DRACULA’s Dwight Frye (Fritz) and Edward Van Sloan (Dr. Waldman) are two of the genre’s best supporting players, and their presence is more than welcome. Mae Clark as Henry’s long-suffering fiancé Elizabeth doesn’t get enough credit for her part, but she’s very good. I’ve always thought John Boles’s Victor was a superfluous role, and Frederick Kerr’s Baron Frankenstein can be annoying at times. But seven-year-old Marilyn Harris as little Maria shines in her brief but memorable role, as does Michael Mark as her father, grimly carrying her lifeless body through the village amid the wedding day revelry.
As you can probably tell, FRANKENSTEIN is one of my favorite films, one that sparked my love for horror movies that still remains strong today. It’s not just a horror classic, it’s a true film classic that has stood the test of time. It’s inventive, original, and retains its power thanks to the genius of James Whale and the towering performance by the One, True King of Horror, Boris Karloff. And thanks, lest we forget, to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, whose fertile imagination created a truly immortal Monster.