Saturday, July 10, 2010

Frankenstein (1931)

Some may think that this is not a science fiction film, but I assure you it is. Science fiction has evolved into more space, planetary events in the last sixty years. But at it's birth it was much more about science, especially in the industrial revolution of the 19th century. Mary Shelley is considered the mother of science fiction with her 1817 novel, Frankenstein, giving birth to a completely new genre. She tackles the ideas of letting technology get beyond the reach of man, and attempting to play God. The warning against technology is still seen today in more modern science fiction stories/films, for example Terminator.

In 1931 her book was made into a film directed by James Whale for Universal Studios. Frankenstein has been adapted many times since and before, but the monster we have become so familiar with is from this film. Before the film the incarnations of Frankenstein's monster had him in rags, had him with crazy mad scientist hair, and some even had him faceless. But the flat face, limited hair, and electrode bolts in the neck all come from this adaptation. Universal Studios actually own the rights to the look of Frankenstein, which was done by make-up wizard Jack P. Pierce. Overall the movie stays somewhat faithful to Mary Shelley's book, but takes many liberties. And the creature we have all come to know and, possibly, love comes directly from the choices made in this classic of the horror/sci-fi genre.

In the middle of the night Dr. Henry Frankenstein and his loyal hunchback assistant, Fritz, dig up the recently deceased. They plan to piece together a new body from various bodies they dig up. Frankenstein's plan is to give birth to dead tissue, and to give life to this dead body. They have constructed their body, but now all they are missing is the key element: a brain. Fritz is sent out to take a human brain from the university. He drops the normal brain he is supposed to retrieve, and in his hurry he grabs the abnormal & criminal brain right next to it. Later Frankenstein & Fritz have placed the brain in the body and are ready to start the experiment. Suddenly there is a knock on their watch tower door and it is Henry's fiancee who has become worried about her future husband. She has brought their friend Victor, and Henry's old medical teacher, Dr. Waldman. Since they have shown up right at the moment he is ready to do his final test, he has them watch as he and Fritz send the body up to the top of the watch tower. Lightening strikes and they bring the corpse back down to the ground. Soon the hand of the creature begins to move and Frankenstein uproariously shouts, "It's alive! It's alive!" Life has been given to his subject and he claims now he knows what it's like to be God.

After learning that a criminal brain has been placed in the creatures body, Frankenstein is worried what it might do. But they learn that he might be a innocent creature, and not a blood thirsty monster. Henry tries to teach the creature, and he sees that he is able to sit. But their moment is ruined when Fritz enters the room with a torch and the creature becomes afraid. Henry and Dr. Waldman misinterpret this as an attack and chain the monster up in the dungeon. Later Fritz terrorizes the monster with the torch. As Henry & Dr. Waldman try to determine the creatures fate, they hear a loud shriek from the dungeon. They discover that the monster has strangled Fritz. Realizing the monster must be destroyed they decide to inject him with a powerful drug. Although the monster harms both of them, they are able to inject him with the drug, and the becomes unconscious.

Henry leaves to go prepare for his wedding, and Dr. Waldman stays behind to do an examination of the creature. The monster awakens and strangles Dr. Waldman, then leaves the watch-tower and wonders the hill side. The monster comes upon a little girl, Maria, who asks him to play with her. The two throw flowers in the lake and watch them float, but when he runs out of flowers to throw he grabs the little girl and throws her in the lake. Realizing he has made a mistake, he runs away with fear and remorse.

With all the wedding preparations made, Henry is finally happy with Elizabeth. As they ready themselves for the wedding, Victor tells Henry that they found Dr. Waldman dead at the watch-tower. Henry becomes worried then hears a loud shriek, he rushes in Elizabeth's room and finds her unconscious, but alive. The monster tried to kill her but left. Soon after Maria's father carries her into town, dead, and says someone murdered his daughter. The town forms a mob and decides to search for the murderous monster. Frankenstein leads a group into the hills and has a confrontation with the monster which leads them to an old windmill. In the windmill the monster attempts to kill Frankenstein, but he survives. Then the mob sets fire to the windmill, with the monster one top becoming terrified of the fire below him. The windmill continues to burn with the monster inside.

The film tackles some of the great themes of Mary Shelley's original work. About man and technology going beyond the grasp of man, and the consequences of these actions. Although there are many differences between the book and the film, I think the film does some things better then the book. One of those being that in the film, unlike the book, the monster never speaks. Overall I found the story of the film to tackle many elements from ethical issues, to spiritual ones. Is it ethical to accomplish something that Frankenstein did? And does these creature have a soul or is it just alive tissue? I have my own conclusions, but I think these are always intriguing themes to bring up.

After Todd Brownings wildly successful Dracula film, the studio wanted to continue with the next logical choice: Frankenstein. James Whale was one of the top directors at Universal Studios at the time, and was tapped to helm the project. When he come aboard, Bela Lugosi, who just won over everyone with his performance as Dracula, was on board to play Frankenstein's monster (here is the promo poster they already made with Lugosi as the monster). Whale's though this would be too confusing for audiences who just seen him play Dracula, so he was let go and in a chance encounter Whale's bumped in to Boris Karloff on the back lot. He asked him to come in and audition for the role, which he did, and movie history was made.

James Whale's made many choices in the film that I think kept it from being a comical joke. He turned Dr. Frankenstein & the monster into two of the most tortured characters in film history. And I don't think anyone has portrayed them better then in this film. They easily could have went down a different path that would have made them both into comical characters, but instead you get deep heartfelt performances from both actors. Whale's also had some great camera work in the film which he insisted the film be up to par and better then all other horror films. He didn't want it to be cheap and wanted it to be a step above the rest, which he certainly accomplishes. From make-up to acting to camera work, Whale's made great choices all around which remain in the collective consciousness of the world population to this day.

I don't think I've been this impressed with acting from that era, which I usually find dull and over the top, but this film is above the rest. Hands down the man who steals the show is Boris Karloff as the monster. Karloff was a relatively unknown actor at the time, but after this film he was an icon. After the death of Lon Chaney in 1929, Hollywood was missing it's great character actor, but after Frankenstein Karloff filled that slot. He become known (as Chaney was previously known as) as "the man with a thousand faces." He loved delving into a good character and could play nearly anything that was given to him. Not only did he play Frankenstein but he went on to play many other roles, such as The Mummy and countless others (mostly in the horror genre).

Karloff basically gives a silent film performance, and with no dialogue you feel everything that the monster feels. He could have made you feel just sympathy for the character, but that along with being fearful of the monster, he gives a loaded performance. With only his walk, movements, and face, you understand, feel, and fear the monster that Karloff creates. He sat for hours in the make-up chair every day to have the look of the monster, along with wearing 13 pound shoes to help off set his walking. He did everything he could to become the creature. And somehow you are not just scared of the monster, and you are not just sympathetic to him, you feel both, which is a true test to the masterful work that Karloff did on this film.

Frankenstein is of course still a classic today. I think that this is the best of any Frankenstein movie I have seen, besides maybe Young Frankenstein. And I would like everyone not to simply consider it a horror film, but also a sci-fi film. It may not be in space or involve alien life, but it is much truer to the word science when it comes to sci-fi. This film lives on in the minds of countless people across the world, even if they don't know it. Their ideas of Frankenstein and his monster all go back to the work that James Whale & company did on this film. And after nearly 80 years, it is still a classic film today.


  1. Perceptive, engaging, and thorough post. Nicely done!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.