Mad scientist Dr Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) has holed himself up inside a hilltop windmill with his hunchbacked assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) to complete his life’s ambition: to recreate life from a body stitched together from human corpses. While his fiancee Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) and best friend Victor (John Boles) do their best to dissuade Frankenstein from his quest, he successfully revives a monster (Boris Karloff) anyway – and is now unable to control it.
James Whale’s 1931 horror film Frankenstein is an near-impossible film to review. It is coming up on 90 years old, and that gives the entire picture a rather charming and dated appeal. At the same time, as a key early Hollywood horror film, it helped inspire an entire cinematic genre for a generation. Things in Frankenstein that seem like silly stereotypes today – the mad scientist, the torch-wielding mob, and Boris Karloff’s iconic bolt-necked appearance – were of course much more inventive at the time and enormously effective.
James Whale has directed a wonderfully atmospheric film, packed with inventive angles and deep expressionistic shadows. It is the sort of photography that has a tendency to leap out at the viewer. Thrown in between typically 1930s shots there will suddenly be a moment of dynamic movement – a crane shot, a tracking shot, and even the occasional moment of handheld photography.
The screenplay, based by a group of writers from Peggy Webling’s stage adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel, takes quite a lot of liberties with the original story. In some cases it is simply a matter of streamlining and truncating the novel. In others it is somewhat inexplicable, like giving Frankenstein a hunch-backed assistant named Fritz (Dwight Frye) or weirdly swapping first names for Victor (now Henry) Frankenstein and his best friend Henry (now Victor). The book also revises the origins of Frankenstein’s monster. In the novel the details of the creature’s creation and raising are deliberately vague. Whale’s film specifies that the monster is given the brain of a dead criminal – thus further justifying its violent outbursts once animated – and provides a much more specific representation of that monster’s birth.
The acting is relatively theatrical, as was the fashion of the time, but it is worth appreciating what an outstanding job Boris Karloff does with the monster. Subsequent representations of the monster in Universal’s films have warped the popular memory of the character. It is impressive what Karloff actually does here, giving the character a wonderful intensity when required – and even the odd moment of humour. The iconic imagery of Karloff as the monster has endured for almost a century now, but it is important to note just what a tremendous impact his performance has upon the film.
Another element that really stands out is the paucity of music. A remarkably large amount of the film plays out without musical accompaniment, including the murders of both Dr Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) and a young girl named Maria (Marilyn Harris). It makes the killings seem even more horrific, because they do not seem as exaggerated. The monster’s murder of Maria is particularly effective. It is presented in an almost absurdly comic fashion that spontaneously turns to abject horror. Later scenes, such as the monster terrorizing Elizabeth, seem to pull their punches somewhat, which seems odd when placed alongside the sudden and appalling cruelty applied to young Maria.
There is some slightly weird stuff happening with regards to accents. The film is set in an unspecified mainland Europe. The lead cast almost entirely speak with English accents. A few key featured extras and smaller supporting players simply use American accents. It is weirdly distracting in a few rather important scenes.
Frankenstein remains a hugely influential and effective film. It is a wonderful example of 1930s horror cinema, is inventively shot and beautifully paced, and Boris Karloff’s central performance successful launched a pop culture icon. This is one Hollywood classic that thoroughly deserves its reputation.