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From Under A Rock: Frankenstein (1931)

October 31, 2015 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
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From Under A Rock: Frankenstein (1931)  

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There’s a first time for everything in a person’s life: your first time re-animating to life. Then of course there’s your first identity crisis because for the next 80 years, everyone calls you by your creator’s name. There’s also the first time you throw a kid in a lake and they don’t make it. And lastly, there’s the first time the entire village wants you to atone for that. And lastly, there’s the first time Mel Brooks makes a mockery of your entire life.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show (determined at the discretion of my writing partner, Aaron Hubbard and I in alternation). This column is a companion piece to my podcast of the same premise, which you can check out here.

Last week Michael put 28 Days Later into Aaron’s eye sockets like it was a pair of thumbs. This week Aaron takes Michael out from under the proverbial rock on the 1931 Universal Monster Classic Frankenstein.

Frankenstein

Aaron Hubbard: When I realized I was going to be picking a movie for Halloween week, I initially panicked. I don’t watch a lot of horror films in general and most of the ones I consider to be worth watching are movies that you’ve introduced me to. However, I then thought back to something I do love; old school monster movies. I’ve had a fondness for Gothic horror literature and film ever since middle school, and if you’re only going to watch one of the Universal Monster movies in your life, it’s got to be Frankenstein.

Michael Ornelas: I’m not sure if it’s Universal, but I have seen The Creature from the Black Lagoon and I enjoyed it quite a bit. And I enjoyed Frankenstein every bit as much! It’s sometimes hard for me to watch these old movies because they introduced revolutionary but simple story ideas – ones that have been evolved into something more masterful over the past 85 years. So it’s tough to appreciate the originals when you’ve seen something that’s a more impressive take on it unless you were around for the context of its newness. That said, I didn’t feel this movie in particular suffered too badly from it, and I realize now how many of the story beats have appeared (intentionally referenced, of course) in other movies and TV shows I’ve seen. And despite its age, there was a lot to be impressed with in Frankenstein. I texted you pretty early on while watching this that the film sets were amazing and set the atmosphere that the movie wanted almost immediately.

Aaron: The sets and atmosphere do a lot for this movie. When movies that come out almost a century later still reference and draw inspiration from a movie for its set design, you’ve done something right. What I enjoy most is that the script is actually really smart, and because it revolves around the science of necromancy it may never feel dated, unlike other genres like science fiction. I also got a kick out of how the film makes no attempts to hide the fact that it’s a movie; we have a man introducing the film at the start, we have scenes where we literally have a camera moving from one room in a set to another in a way that makes it obvious it’s a set. It’s like watching a high-budget version of a theatre show. Which this is, since it’s based more on Peggy Webling’s play than Mary Shelley’s book.

Michael: One thing that the “theatre” feel of this movie allowed it to get away with was its old-timey acting. Acting wasn’t really something that made roles feel relatable until arguably the 60s or 70s (of course with some exceptions). However, this felt like it was acted for stage as well…but it still totally worked for film, and I appreciated that. The motions and line readings were broad, but not so much so that it felt hammy. The characters that were supposed to have my sympathy got it. Also, I loved the monster. I expected him to look goofy, and he didn’t. The first time we see him, the way he looks through his brow made me feel like I’d be genuinely scared if I ran into this guy on the street. Or near a lake. I also expected him to be completely slow and lumbering, and that wasn’t the case as he had a scene involving hand-to-hand combat and he was menacing and dangerous. I really appreciated that.

Karloff

Michael: Seriously, that gave me chills.

Aaron: I think Frankenstein’s monster in this film is a small miracle; you’ve got the phenomenal Boris Karloff and Jack Pierce’s make-up working perfectly to pull off an illusion that would have ruined the film if it failed. The monster is terrifying, but also incredibly sympathetic, I feel. The film doesn’t really have a protagonist so to speak. It’s men doing things that they probably shouldn’t just because they can, a monster that doesn’t understand the world, and the innocent people who suffer from those events. It’s a very dark tale. So dark in fact that my home state censored half of the movie, which I found amusing.

Kansas

Michael: Just because your state has a team in the world series doesn’t exactly make it the best place to be. I mean…you willingly live in a place called “Tornado Alley.” Anyways, I don’t have too much more to say about this movie this week. Sometimes a tight product just warrants praise. It’s hard to find things to take away from the movie outside of its age and having seen better things since. The script worked, dialogue was good, acting was alright, but the vision will last forever. It was such an imaginative movie for the time, and its on-screen iteration is great. And the dark themes you mentioned gave it much more depth than I had expected. The plus is reserved for my all-time favorites, but this definitely rates highly.

A

Aaron: I think what I find so fascinating about this movie is that it is among the least faithful adaptations of a book ever put to film. I love Mary Shelley’s book; it’s thoroughly captivating and exceptionally dark, and explores themes that this movie never touches on. Largely because the creature in her book is intelligent and learns to speak and confronts its creator mentally and not just physically. It’s a classic. But the cool thing is; so is this movie. It’s wildly different but also so very good, and has defined what people think of when they hear the word “Frankenstein”. When something is iconic, you know it even if you haven’t seen it. This movie is the very definition of that.

A

What’s your favorite interpretation of Frankenstein? The book, this movie, Young Frankenstein? Something else entirely?

Next week:

Michael: So my next pick is a movie that, admittedly, has a ridiculous premise. But it’s explored so fully that you can’t help but have a fun time. It’s non-stop action, and a guilty pleasure of mine:

Crank

Aaron: I’m all for guilty pleasures. I mean, we watched The Boondock Saints about a month ago.

Michael: I hope this one fares a bit better with you than that did for me. I’ll know this time next week.

What gets your adrenaline pumping?

Michael’s Podcast Shill

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9.3
The final score: review Amazing
The 411
James Whale's Frankenstein from 1931 is one of the most iconic and tributed films in the history of cinema, and for very good reason. The atmosphere it creates, the legendary sets, the spectacular make-up on the monster all make a film that looks impressive. Boris Karloff's frightening and sympathetic portrayal of the monster and characters like Frankenstein ("It's alive! It's alive!") and Igor are the stuff of legend. Regarded as a landmark in the horror genre, it still holds up as quality filmmaking 84 years later.
legend

article topics :

Frankenstein, Michael Ornelas