Frankenstein (1931) Review

Frankenstein (1931) Director: James Hale

“It’s alive! It’s alive!”



“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.


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.

Dracula (1931) Review

Dracula (1931) Director: Tod Browning

“Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.”



After the unfortunate passing of Lon Chaney, Hungarian-born Bela Lugosi was chosen to star in Universal’s newest picture, a risky horror film under the direction of Tod Browning called Dracula. It was an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel of the same name which was then running as a popular theatrical play (also starring Bela Lugosi). In the film, Bela Lugosi offers a seminal performance which has forever entered the public consciousness as the legendary bloodthirsty vampire. His intensely pale stone-face looms large over the movie. This was actually the film that launched the Universal Studios classic horror craze –the “creature features”– with successive films including Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Today, we look back on a film like Dracula as being “so bad it’s good” however, as much as I loved Bela Lugosi’s performance, this film is clunky and awkward at times (the scenes of the storm-wrecked ship were even lazily lifted from another film). The entire mid-section of the film is a bit stilted and drab, despite the wonderfully atmospheric opening. With cheap, cost-cutting measures replete throughout the production, Dracula is also an homage to its silent predecessor, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors by F.W. Murnau. However, in contrast to the legal issues facing Nosferatu, Carl Laemmle Jr. made sure to acquire the rights to the story before producing this film. In fact, Dracula was a big risk for Carl Laemmle Jr. as he took over control of the family company, Universal Pictures. Dracula still manages to haunt and delight audiences in certain respects and it certainly is a film worth seeing, mainly for Bela Lugosi’s iconic performance, a performance he later regretted for typecasting him. The extreme close-ups of Bela Lugosi’s face are the stuff of cinematic legend.

In Dracula, we experience a cold, elemental fear of the outsider –Count Dracula represents a polite foreign aristocratic predator who is found calmly hiding in plain sight, profaning the sacred, corrupting the innocent, and preying upon unsuspecting citizens. The overt eroticism of his neck-biting predates the Hay’s Code, and unlike the hideous monstrosities of modern science which result in stories like Frankenstein, Dracula points us toward something more natural, primordial, and darkly evil. In this way, not unlike Greek tragedy, classic horror movies remind us of the inherent chaos and unpredictability of life.

The film begins as a carriage full of travelers races through the Borgo Pass in Transylvania to arrive at a remote Inn before sundown. The Borgo Pass is a craggy mountainous pass littered with stone castles. The locals describe a deep fear of evil happenings here –Walpurgis Night– where an ancient Nosferatu lurks after sundown. One traveler, Renfield (Dwight Frye), is unafraid of the dark and he commissions his driver to take him further up to Count Dracula’s castle, despite the creeping of nighttime, because he says he has important business to transact with the Count. One of the villagers hands Renfield a crucifix for protection. As they approach the castle, we are offered an initial glimpse of the 500 year old Dracula emerging from his coffin along with his three undead brides. Suddenly Dracula, himself, appears before the coachman as the buggy arrives at the castle, Renfield sticks his head out the window of the carriage to find that no one is driving, but rather a bat is merely leading the way.

“There are far worse things awaiting man than death.”

When he enters the hazy, creaking, shadowy, cob-webbed castle, Renfield is greeted by a tuxedo wearing Dracula who leads him to a bedroom as they discuss the sale of London real estate. Dracula drugs Renfield with “very old wine,” before Dracula and his wives close in on the body to harvest his blood. Days later, Renfield and his “master” Dracula are aboard the stormy ship called Vesta as they head for London. Mysteriously, the ship enters the harbor with everyone dead, excluding Dracula and Renfield. Dracula remains in his crypt until evening but Renfied is believed to be raving mad by local authorities. Later, Dracula meets a group at the opera house where he preys on women after announcing he has purchased the old dilapidated Carfax Abbey. Meanwhile, Renfield has been moved to the Seward Sanitarium where he feeds on the blood of flies and other small creatures.


“For one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you are a wise man, Mr. Van Helsing.”

The doctors in London have trouble identifying the cause of the mysterious marks that beginning appearing on peoples’ necks around London, until Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) accurately attributes them to a Nosferatu Vampire. When he first meets Dracula, Van Helsing notices that Dracula does not actually appear in mirrors, which forces Dracula to excuse himself from the room so that he can claim another victim, Mina (Helen Chandler), while Renfield takes a victim of his own, the maid. Dracula takes Mina back to his crypt, but he is followed by Van Helsing and Doctor Harker. Dracula, feeling betrayed, kills Renfield and flees to his coffin. Shortly thereafter, Van Helsing and Harker drive a wooden stake through Dracula’s heart offscreen and they escape with Mina as church bells ring off in the distance.