PG – 70mins – 1931 – B&W
MAKING A MONSTER
Released to cinemas just nine short months after Dracula’s Valentine’s day bow, Universal soon realised they had another monster hit on their hands with this loose adaptation of Mary Shelley’s iconic morality tale about “The Modern Prometheus”, which would go on to produce a further seven direct sequels – and influence a whole lot more.
For all of Frankenstein’s variations from the gothic source material, this film has become just as culturally significant in its own right. Many of the striking make-up, lighting and cinematography choices director James Whale’s film conjures up (from the creation of a hunchbacked assistant to Boris Karloff’s flat-headed, bolt-necked Monster and his lightning-powered rebirth) have become stock horror tropes to this day, synonymous with the legend.
Opening with a fourth wall shattering “friendly word of warning” to the audience from Von Helsing himself, Edward Van Sloan, we are then transported to an unspecified European village to find controversial scientist Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his obedient assistant, Fritz (Dwight “Renfield” Frye) robbing the graves of the recently deceased to help in their creation of life from death.
Aesthetically resplendent are the many diverse set changes, from medical lecture halls to hill-top laboratories racked with storms so to embrace “all the electrical secrets of heaven”. However, a number of dialogue-heavy and overtly-expository scenes delivered with grave sternness to reiterate “Herr Frankenstein’s mad dream” slow the pace to a crawl before we’ve even reached those two most crucial words… “It’s Aliiiiive!”
The same diminishing effect is also brought about by later scenes of the eponymous scientist’s exuberant wedding festivities. As smart as it is to inter-cut joy with the escaped Monster’s tragic drowning of an innocent child, too much filler does zap any flow from the narrative, dampening the cumulative effect of the horror and leading to a thoroughly lacklustre and uneven plot.
The townsfolk converging into a pitchfork rabble to hunt the dangerous creature to a fiery windmill crescendo is effectively tense and climatic, particularly the Monster’s throwing of his (ragdoll) master onto the spinning blades, however I never felt like Karloff’s lumbering undead oaf was ever successfully established as a tender or misunderstood naïve, rather as a snarling, heavy-handed mute brute with an “abnormal brain”.
I accept that he did not ask to be brought into existence, or to have the brain of a criminal, however you never really pity the tormented individual like you should. Furthermore, the epilogue baiting an heir to continue on Frankenstein’s work feels horrendously tacked on and disappointingly commercialised, leaving me with the overall opinion that for all of its undoubtedly iconic imagery, Frankenstein is a flawed and uneven early creation – ironically much like its monster.