1931. Directed James Whale.
A definitive example of man playing God that moonlights as a tragic examination of how sons are defined by their fathers, James Whale’s Frankenstein is an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s legendary Gothic novel with a surprisingly dark adherence to the source material. An unforgettable lead performance, unnerving set designs, and brooding cinematography combine to deliver a seminal film about the nature of identity and the dark wonders of parenthood.
Dr. Frankenstein creates a living being from harvested corpses in the European countryside. His creation quickly gets out of control, setting off a pulse pounding, sorrow filled manhunt that forces the Doctor to confront his vain attempts at omnipotence. Boris Karloff stars as the Monster, a role that would jettison him to the heights of horror character acting. His ability to communicate childlike awe through the hideous filter of an abomination is both terrifying in its power and pitiable in its summation. Colin Clive supports as Dr. Frankenstein, the mad genius who dares disturb the universe. His chemistry with Karloff is not given enough time to grow, but the fundamentals of their relationship are abundantly clear, bordering on satire. Fathers often defend the deeds of their offspring while failing to grasp how their own actions were essential to the process and the doctor is no exception.
Arthur Edeson’s eerie cinematography is transformative. The tight, bizarre framing of the laboratory scenes are contrasted by the sharp angles of civilization. The black and white colors become more defined as the story moves to the doomed marriage of the second act, reminding the viewer that there is always a cost by making everything appear real when compared to the fever dream sequences of the beginning. Jack Pierce’s makeup design eschews the inhuman appearance from the novel in favor of something almost human, giving the creature the appearance of a monstrous savant, an unholy man-child whose hulking form is encased in a Spartan, but unforgettable pauper’s ensemble designed by Mae Bruce.
The screenplay captures the high notes of the novel, allowing for some darker, pre-Hays code departures including an accidental drowning and a harrowing showdown amidst a burning mill that would eventually be censored. Despite the astounding technical elements, Frankenstein never gets to the heart of Shelley’s material, with everything riding on the monster’s massive shoulders, overshadowing the moments in between by rushing to creature’s next chilling appearance. Whale’s directorial presence is minimal, letting his cast do the work and coasting to each set piece without ever grabbing the viewer by the throat. At its core, this is a tragedy masquerading as a horror film. This initially seems like a minor flaw, but future offerings in the series would unabashedly display the terrifying (in)human elements that are possible for such a film, a reminder of Frankenstein’s flaws.
Available now for digital rental, Frankenstein is a classic horror film whose importance to the medium remains relevant today. While falling short of its follow up, Frankenstein spins a familiar, but satisfying tale of mad science and the anathema of its design. Featuring outstanding set pieces and a soulful central performance, this is an excellent starting point for exploring the Universal Monster canon or a spooky trip down memory lane during the Halloween season.