Frankenstein (1931)

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  • directed by James Whale
  • starring Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Edward Van Sloan, Dwight Frye
  • An obsessed scientist assembles a living being from parts of exhumed corpses.

“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 is your chance to, uh… Well, we’ve warned you.”

This was a clear favorite of mine and always has been possibly due to me dressing as Frankenstein’s monster for Halloween so many times as a child, a tradition that unfortunately culminated in the year when the adhesive on my neck bolts painfully fused to my skin. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t half expecting to be let down re-watching this as I have been with some of the other Universal horror titles of the era, but it still stands up as a solid movie with great effects, makeup, sets, and a few wonderfully nuanced performances.

I almost saw it as two movies this time or instead the first two episodes of a TV series. Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein steals the show in the first half as the mad scientist who has no clue what level of danger with which he’s toying. Director James Whale and set and effects designers created the perfect laboratory for Henry, with its sky-high ceilings and flowing currents of electricity. After the successful creation and even when the monster is at his most captive, there is never any doubt that the monster is just too powerful to keep contained and that he would be escaping. When he finally does in the films second half, the mood changes and it sheds a whole new light on the character as he stumbles through the daylit forest and encounters the young girl who he drowns in the river. After 10 or so horror movies that have done everything in their power to hide the horror, I have never been so shocked and happy to see on screen a young girl who can’t swim getting thrown into a river. Good on you, Mr. Whale.

The moral ambiguity of the monster is something that’s been dealt with in many ways across many mediums. Here he is awakened behaving like that which he is–the child of just one parent Henry Frankenstein. There’s a brief scene where he learns to obey certain commands but all throughout, Karloff’s expression and mannerisms signal a search for love and acceptance. The film made a point to show us that this monster was given the abnormal brain of a criminal (laughably, this clue came from a note on the jar that read “abnormal brain”), but it’s hard to think of what intent for murder he’d have if it wasn’t for the taunting by Fritz or the general antagonism he was met with by all including Henry during the conclusion.

Like his directing work on The Old Dark House, James Whale had such a firm grasp on the scary parts of the material that he was able to ease up here and there and be just as effective at showing the many emotional aspects. I am very excited for his sequel to this, a film that has a pretty solid reputation of being as good or better.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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