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Dissecting the Classics – Frankenstein

October 19, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

There are very few things I love more than a good monster movie. This subgenre of horror was practically the entirety of horror in the early parts of the 20th century. I’m talking the era of Dracula, The Mummy, The Invisible Man and this week’s stone cold classic, arguably the very best of the bunch.


Wide Release Date: November 21, 1931
Directed By: James Whale
Written By: Francis Edward Faragoh, Garrett Fort, Robert Florey & John Russell
Produced By: Carl Laemmle, Jr.
Cinematography By: Arthur Edeson
Edited By: Clarence Kolster & Maurice Pivar
Music By: Bernhard Kaun
Production Company: Universal Pictures
Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein
Mae Clarke as Elizabeth Lavenza
John Boles as Victor Moritz
Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Waldman
Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster

What Do We All Know?

Whether you’ve seen this film or not, you’re almost certainly familiar with it on some level. The image of this particular take on Frankenstein is the definitive version in pop culture. Whether through homage, Halloween costumes, parody or public domain guest starring roles, this movie’s story, characters and especially its monster have sunk their teeth into the collective consciousness to a shocking degree. If we’re honest, when people think of Frankenstein in the abstract, they probably think more about this movie and its imitators than Mary Shelley’s novel.

There’s no real question that Frankenstein is an iconic movie with a great impact on film and pop culture. But how well does a 1931 movie hold up in 2018? In my opinion, it fares really well thanks to efficient storytelling, foreboding atmosphere, and the amazing performance of Boris Karloff. I admit that Universal monster movies are my jam, and I’m inclined to enjoy these films any way. But I think Frankenstein stands tall as a great film, and probably the best indicator of that is that, barring the equally good immediate sequel, there hasn’t been a film that’s done it better sense. So let’s take a look at what made this movie come to life.

What Went Right?

Right off the bat, Frankenstein makes an interesting choice by having the film introduced by Edward Van Sloan, stepping behind a curtain to warn the audience that the movie may shock and horrify them. While this definitely feels like a concession made to the sensibilities of the time (the movie was subject to heavy censorship upon original release), I think it’s a smart addition that accomplishes two things. One, Sloan is so effective in his delivery that it adds to the mood of the piece before we even see an image of the film. Second, it helps acclimatize the viewer to how the film is presented. This version of Frankenstein is based on a stage play adaptation and the acting and sets capture that tone – it might not be how movies are presented today, but looking at it from that perspective helps with the immersion.

Once the film proper begins, the narrative is thrown right at us. We get a sense of the gothic horror setting, Henry Frankenstein lets us know his plan to reanimate the dead, and Fritz retrieving the brain of a deranged killer to put inside Frankenstein’s body. The stakes are made clear, and the film rarely deviates from this central idea. Even when we cut to Henry’s bride to be, she is on a search to find out where Henry is and why he’s staying away from her, leading to us getting some background information at Frankenstein’s former university. The first act comes to an explosive end as the monster is animated, an all-time great set piece with the classic “It’s alive! It’s alive! IT’S ALIVE!” line. It’s unnerving, especially since the dialogue is emphatic about how Frankenstein is going against God and nature by creating life from these corpses.

But while that scene is iconic, the film only picks up from there as Boris Karloff gets to play the monster. The monster is a brilliant achievement in make-up and costume design, but Karloff’s body movements and strained facial expressions really bring it to life. It’s a primal, almost-animalistic portrayal that makes the monster deeply sympathetic helped by the framing of the scenes. I really admire how the film so effectively balances our empathy for the monster with our terror – this is an abomination that should not exist, but he’s not aware of that.

The film’s defining moment of tragic horror comes when Frankenstein’s monster has an encounter with a young girl who is throwing rocks in the water. At first it’s heartwarming to see the girl welcome his presence and invite him to play, but things take a terrible turn when he throws the girl into the water, drowning her. This lets the whole village know of what is lurking in their midsts and inspires yet another iconic scene: the torchlit mob chasing down Frankenstein in his monster to a mill before burning it to the ground. This is such a simple film, one where nearly every scene is a classic in its own right and utterly indispensable from the greater narrative.

What Went Wrong?

One obvious point of contention for those who have read the book is that this film really doesn’t follow or adapt the book in any meaningful way. It’s a very loose adaptation, one that takes the central concept of a mad scientist creating a golem and little else. But ultimately, I think this film can be forgiven for its faults as an adaptation. It’s a different interpretation of the material, and I think it adds a lot to the mythos. It’s possible to like both the book and the movie for their differences, and one cannot replace the other.

Relative to its time, Frankenstein makes very few missteps. It’s certainly campy and artificial, though it makes no attempt to hide it. If I were to change one thing, I think I would add a little more prologue to Doctor Frankenstein. Having the information that he was a professor whose research got him kicked out of a university relayed to us is fine, but I think it would have been fun to see Colin Clive get to act out some of these scenes. Starting the film with him already in his castle and trying to build his monster is certainly efficient, but I do think the movie could use just a little more padding out.

And In Summary…

Frankenstein is probably not quite a timeless masterpiece, but it is a bona fide classic. Nearly every scene is iconic and occupies a permanent place in the imagination of horror fans. I don’t feel it’s an exaggeration to say that this movie belongs in the conversation with The Wizard of Oz, The Godfather, Jaws and Star Wars in terms of lasting impact. Definitely catch it at least once.

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Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rocky, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sixth Sense, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Clerks, Goodfellas, The Avengers, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Frozen, Jaws, The Omen, The Incredibles, Life of Brian, Escape From New York, Independence Day, Vacation, Ghostbusters, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Hook, Men in Black, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Double Indemnity, Lethal Weapon, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, The Exorcist, Psycho

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