Wednesday 24 October 2012

Frankenstein (1931)

The university in my hometown (University of Aalborg) has a faculty of bioengineering. One of their specialties is to develop prosthesis controlled by electric signals in the functioning nerves. You should basically just think that you want to move and the prosthesis moves. You can volunteer for their experiments in which they will send electricity through your body and it is supposed to be rather painful. In order to advertise for new students to the faculty they made a commercial video featuring Frankenstein crying “IT’S ALIVE, IT’S ALIVE!” while electric current pours into his animated monster.

Nobody will even for a second wonder about this reference. Show me someone who does not know of Frankenstein and I will claim you found him in an ice crevasse, frozen down for centuries. The story of Frankenstein and his monster is iconic beyond the usual usage of the term and is not at all outdated today. I am only wondering why Hollywood in its craving for easy surefire plots has not made a remake since 94 of Frankenstein. Not that it is necessary at all. I am quite satisfied with the original from 1931.

Of course I love the above mentioned scene where the monster gets animated. It is every bit as satisfying as its iconic status promises. All those gadgets frying with electric current, tesla balls and all, and above a thunderstorm raging to set the stage. Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein and Boris Karloff as the monster are perfect in this scene. Colin Clive is full of insane fire and has that wild look in his eyes. Perfectly believable. And Karloff owned that monster.

In fact these two actors carry the movie all the way through. The general performance of the cast is very mixed. I am not too fond of Frankenstein’s girlfriend Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) or his friend and many of the extras are outright annoying. I am a bit undecided about Edward van Sloan’s Dr. Waldman. While certainly better than van Helsing in “Dracula”, there is still something artificial Teutonic about him that I cannot come to terms with. Dr. Frankenstein’s father, the baron on the other hand is superbly played by Frederic Kerr. His no-nonsense straight talk and attitude is a perfect counterweight to the lofty and rather insane attitude of his son. Though is very Irish manner may be clashing with he supposedly Germanic origin

But no matter, this is a movie entirely borne by the two leads.

The comparison with “Dracula” is unavoidable. They came out shortly after each other and are both iconic horror movies. They even have some of the cast in common. The difference between the two is that Frankenstein works and Dracula does not. James Whale managed to set the exact right gothic ambience right from the opening with Frankenstein and his assistant, the hunchback Fritz (Dwight Frye) rummaging through a cemetery looking for leftover body parts. I just cannot think of a better opening to a gothic horror movie. Also the tower used as Frankenstein’s laboratory is a perfect pick. Dark and damp stones, yeah! Light years ahead of “Dracula”. But also in the direction here works so much better. While “Dracula” suffers from being uncomfortable with the sound technique, “Frankenstein” uses the technique instead of being afraid of it, the action flows much more naturally and is not limited to a simple stage with people coming in and going out. No, Frankenstein survives even today.

The eternal question when it comes to “Frankenstein” is if the monster is truly an evil character begotten by an unholy experiment or if he is a misunderstood and mistreated child in a giant’s body, forsaken by his creator. The film generally takes the former opinion. Dr. Frankenstein is repenting his deeds and the monster is vilified as a murderous monster and hunted down by a mob with pitchforks and torches and finally burned alive to stamp out this evil.

But Karloff suffuses the monster with empathy and childlike attitudes. It is primal in its fears and anger and joy and when it is sitting by the water with the little girl we see that it is just a kid with too big a body. It terrifies and saddens it that the girl is afraid and drown, but he is confused, does not know what to do and runs away.  

This position becomes a lot in focus in the follow up, “Wife of Frankenstein”, but more on that when it gets time for that movie.

The monster seeks his maker, but he rejects it and wants nothing to do with it, which of course angers the monster. That is also a classic theme.

Frankenstein as the irresponsible scientist is a warning that there is a limit as to how far you can go, but I think more a lesson to be responsible and stand by what you do. He created the monster, it is his responsibility. To just abandon it is the real crime here.

One day I should go over to the bioengineering department and see if they are truly creating a monster and if they will be more responsible than Dr. Frankenstein.


  1. I agree that this classic monster film works, while Dracula mostly doesn't. One thing that no Frankenstein movie has gotten right (to my knowledge) is that in the book the creature does not stay a frightened child, but becomes a well-educated and urbane being. It's also Dr. Frankenstein himself that ends up going after the creature, even to the Arctic ice, not townspeople with torches. (Hence the reason the book is titled "Frankenstein" for the main character, not for the monster.) Every subsequent version seems to use this movie as the story template, though. The closest to getting it right was the 1994 version, which almost no one saw.

    1. Well, including me. I did not even know there was a 94 version till I looked it up. I should like to see a version more in line with the plot you describe.

  2. I'm definitely in agreement that Frankenstein holds up far better than Dracula. Nice write up of the monster. Karloff does such a great job here in a very sympathetic performance.

    1. Thank you. I must admit that I was greatly inspired by your review.