When innocence collides with horror.
After DRACULA proved a hit with its era's audience, Universal wasted no time in greenlighting a followup. What audiences got was an adaptation of Mary Shelly's FRANKENSTEIN that, much like what happened with DRACULA, only utilized certain elements and concepts from its source novel. I can't speak for you but I've read Shelly's novel several times and although I love it unreservedly, I feel it was a wise idea to craft a new narrative almost from the ground up rather than faithfully bringing Shelly's talky and rather deep character study to the screen. It would have been interesting but I doubt that the audience of 1931 would have embraced an articulate monster who often expounded at length upon the cruelty of mankind and how much his own existence was an endless hell of rejection and revulsion. Instead as helmed by the legendary James Whale, the film establishes damned near every trope found in the man-made monster genre.
Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein: Obsessed as hell but not what I would consider insane.
Brilliant scientist Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive, who gives one of cinema's great over-the-top performances here) wants nothing more than to create a living man from cobbled-together stolen pieces from assorted corpses. Grave-robbing and the theft of a criminal brain from a medical school are just two of the questionable means by which Henry obtains raw materials and soon enough, born in a baptism of lightning, his hulking creation stirs with the first signs of unnatural vitality.
Boris Karloff as the nameless monster, one of cinema's greatest waking nightmares.
Emerging as something of a mental tabula rasa, the creation's first few days find him slowly being rejected by his creator and tortured with whips and fire by the doctor's hunchbacked assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye), so all he knows of life is that it is a cornucopia of misery. He eventually kills Fritz and makes his way out of the remote laboratory and into the rustic world at large. As he makes his way across the apparently-Germanic landscape, the creature encounters several local villagers, all of whom flee screaming upon seeing his lumbering frame and gaunt, stitched-together visage. Seeking nothing more than simple kindness and acceptance, the creature finds it when he meets a sweet little girl named Maria (Marilyn Harris). The pair innocently play a riverside game that ends disastrously when the creature throws her into the water, not understanding that a human body is not necessarily as buoyant as the flowers that he and his new friend had been tossing into the drink. When the girl does not surface, the confused and frightened creature stumbles away, now legitimately the monster that all who meet him perceive him to be.
The rest of the narrative builds to a crescendo as Henry must find and deal with his creation while also keeping Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), his bride-to-be, safe as the monster, now intent upon vengeance against his creator, closes in. It all ends in a fiery climax at a windmill as Henry and the monster duke it out while the villagers, wielding the expected torches and pitchforks, have the place surrounded.
FRANKENSTEIN proved another hit for the studio, and deservedly so. For one thing, it was not directed to be as stagebound as its predecessor, DRACULA, was, and all of the performances radiate with liveliness. The visuals are also memorable, crafting a dreamlike world of forced perspective angles, deep shadows, sparking lab equipment, and eerie graveyards, all of which would go on to influence the man-made-monster sub-genre from that point onward.
On the acting front, the film is dominated by Colin Clive's Henry and Boris Karloff's monster. Their performances are absolutely iconic and defined the sub-genre as much as the visuals and the tropes involving the pissed-off villagers. Clive's balls-out obsession with creating life in his lab borders on the comical and camp, which was apparently James Whale's intent, and it is a delight to watch. To put it succinctly, Clive shamelessly turns scenery-chewing into a fine art.
But it's Karloff as the monster that truly cements this film's place in cinema and pop culture history. He perfectly conveys a pitiable blend of confused, hopeless sadness coupled with a murderous rage directed against the world and his creator. Each grunt and growl that he utters speak far more eloquently than words and despite his violent acts, we find ourselves on his side.
As is readily apparent from all that I've said thus far, FRANKENSTEIN is a landmark that must be experienced by all horror fans and those interested in the history of movies in general. But where would the Universal horror cycle go next? Stay tuned, dear readers...
Poster from the original theatrical release.