Frankenstein (1931) Review

Frankenstein (1931) Director: James Hale

“It’s alive! It’s alive!”

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★★★★★

“How do you do? Mr. Carl Laemmle [the producer] feels it would be a little unkind to present this picture without just a word of friendly warning. We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation – life and death. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even – horrify you. So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now’s your chance to – uh, well, we warned you.”

A young gentleman named Edward van Sloan (who plays Dr. Waldman and previously played Van Helsing in Dracula) steps forth from behind a curtain to offer a warning on behalf of Universal producer Carl Laemmle that the following picture may shock and horrify audiences. Frankenstein is James Whale’s brilliantly revisionist interpretation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel of the same name. It explores the dangers of modern science in its pursuit of the boundary between life and death, and it engenders a strange mix of terror and pity for an unholy new creature which is foisted upon the world.

Upon inheriting control of his family’s struggling studio, Universal Pictures, Carl Laemmle Jr. made the risky decision to release a pair of short, cheap horror movies –and it worked! In 1931, both Dracula and Frankenstein spawned many years of “creature features” as terror films once again recaptured the moviegoers imagination.

In some ways, Frankenstein is a tragic film that contemplates the maddening dangers of modern science’s relentless inquiry into the physical world in an effort to unveil the animating causes of life. Fire plays a significant theme, a la Prometheus, and also the contrast between the self-proclaimed progress achieved by modern science and the life-producing union of man and woman (Henry and Elizabeth) are starkly juxtaposed with one another. Curiously, the audience develops a sense of empathy for the monster as the film advances, culminating in a pitiable scene in which the monster screams in agony as he burns to death (or so we believe…)

Originally, Bela Lugosi, of Dracula repute, was cast to the play the part of the monster. However, after initial screening tests, he rejected the role and Boris Karloff was cast instead, effectively vaulting Karloff into international stardom.

The story begins in a familiar Bavarian country village (the set was recently constructed for use in All Quiet on the Western Front). A shadowy Expressionist scene unveils two men, Dr. Frankenstein and his assistant, Fritz, as they rob a grave. They carry a coffin all the way up to Dr. Frankenstein’s castle to reanimate the corpse. Unfortunately, the body was once the victim of a hanging and the two will need to acquire a new brain. Fritz makes his way to Goldstadt Medical College where he retrieves an ‘abnormal’ brain and brings it back to Dr. Frankenstein. Meanwhile Elizabeth, Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancee, convinces his former professor to pay a visit to Frankenstein’s castle where Frankenstein claims to have discovered the cause of all life. He proves this to his guests by awakening the corpse he has created, shouting “It’s alive! It’s alive!” Dr. Frankenstein claims to know what it is like to be God.

Later, he and the professor are confronted by this newly animated monster (designed by Hollywood make-up artist Jack Pierce). The monster is obsessed with light, but fears fire. He attacks his creator as he is tied up and taunted with fire. After a brief sedative, the monster flees the castle and wanders through the surrounding woods before he comes upon a little girl, Maria, who is playing alone by a lake. In one of the most famous scenes in the film, she teaches the monster how to make flowers float on the lake. It is a simple, touching moment between natural and unnatural life sharing a moment of innocence. In jest, the monster lifts the girl to see if she will float like the flowers, but instead she drowns in the river and the monster flees.

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Meanwhile, Dr. Frankenstein recovers from his bout of madness while creating the monster, and he reprioritizes his plans to marry Elizabeth. However, on the day of their wedding, the town discovers the truth of the murder of little Maria and they chase the monster, who has taken Dr. Frankenstein hostage, to an old windmill in the countryside. The monster climbs to the top and throws his former creator, Dr. Henry Frankenstein, over the side of the building, and the angry mob burns down the mill with the monster still inside of it. It is actually quite a haunting scene as we listen to the agonizing groans of the monster. Originally the film ended here, but audiences were displeased so a short scene was added to complete the film in which we are given a glimpse of Dr. Frankenstein recovering while his father makes a toast to the House of Frankenstein.

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