Guest Post: Frankenstein (1931)

Hey there, friends, hope you’re doing well on this spooky October day. So today we’re doing something a little different. For once, you’re not putting up with my terrible opinion(s). No, instead this piece is written by my dear friend Mary, who is the first proper guest writer we’ve had on the blog, so that’s exciting. Anyhow, I won’t dawdle any longer.
Let’s just sit back and enjoy as Mary takes us through the 1931 classic “Frankenstein.

Frankenstein is one of the most culturally impactful monster movies released by Universal Studios. The appearance of the Monster and the notion of a “creator” has influenced everything from TV comedies (such as The Munsters); to fantasy cinema (such as Edward Scissorhands); to sci-fi horror (such as Ex Machina). It’s not just about the flat top head and the neck bolts, it’s about our desire to understand life and, most crucially, what makes us human.
The Monster made his first outing in 1931, in a movie directed by James Whale, who went on to direct The Invisible Man and The Bride of Frankenstein as part of Universal’s original horror canon. The very image of the Monster that we see to date is influenced specifically by this movie, and not the Mary Shelley novel on which it is – very loosely – based.

The film opens with a bow-tied Master of Ceremonies warning the viewers that what they are about to see is both disturbing and horrifying. The feels like an unusual move for a horror movie but, perhaps, back in 1931 it was deemed necessary before introducing the Monster to movie-goers who had never seen such a character before. The cast list roles up, with every player’s name listed apart from the actor playing the Monster. It’s a neat little marketing hook.

Centring around Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his lab assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye), Whale’s adaptation of the gothic horror novel really homes in on the titular character’s God complex and his quest to create new life without the aid of a higher being. A mix up at the university sees Fritz steal an “abnormal, criminal” brain – as opposed to a “normal, good” one – and thus the Monster is born. Boris Karloff – who had been a farm hand and a truck driver as well as a bit part player – brings the Monster to life in his first outing in the role.

The use of light and shadow throughout is straight out of German expressionist films. The creeping shadows up the spiral staircases are straight out of Nosferatu. It feels dreamy in its grandiose at times – the sheer scale of the windmill laboratory or the wedding celebrations – and often tapers this with close ups so tight you can see the stage make up. The only thing that prevents all of this from truly drawing you in is often the furniture and backdrops. At times, it looks like most pieces could be knocked over with a strong cough and you can see the paint brush marks on the “clouds” or “village” in the background. It feels cheap in contrast to the spiraling violins and ominous organ music accompanying it.

However, it’s not all corny. Colin Clive is excellent as Henry Frankenstein, his desperate cries of “Now I know what it feels like to BE God!” neatly summing up everything you need to know about his character. He believes himself to be a man of science; a discoverer; a creator. Yet he’s also bound by social expectations of marriage and children. Clive does well at conveying this conflict. In such a short run time, he is probably one of the most nuanced characters and, as such, you’re able to flit between empathising with and condoning his actions.

But it’s Boris Karloff you’re really here to see. The “big reveal” is teased, slowly, and he doesn’t actually appear until just around the halfway mark. His Monster is misunderstood – trying to make sense of his place in the world, acting on impulse and frightened by human behaviour. This all-but non-verbal performance is incredible to watch. The child like joy he expresses upon seeing flowers float is so sad. The close ups of his tear-filled eyes and curious expression are stunning. His appearance was achieved through practical hair and make-up effects, as well as having Karloff remove his dental bridgework to create a sunken in face.

Dwight Frye is good in his short amount of screen time as Fritz – a lab assistant who has no doubt faced his share of cruelty (owing to his own appearance) and, yet, it is he who treats the Monster the worst. Frederick Kerr, as Baron Frankenstein, is supposed to bring some comic relief but is just rather annoying. Mae Clarke, as Elizabeth, doesn’t really have much to do other than scream or look doe-eyed but, hey, it was the 1930s. That’s what blondes did in pictures, right?

What’s so interesting watching the movie now is the themes and imagery it throws up. Just years after the movie’s release, all across Europe, many were being rounded up and driven out as people became afraid of “the other”. Windows were smashed and fires were set then, too. What right to we have to say who lives and who dies? And, of course, it asks the question “What makes us human?”. Are the braying mob, bullish and jeering, any better than the Monster? Where is their humanity?

Frankenstein feels more like a melodrama-come-morality tale, as opposed to a horror (even if it does introduce us to the Monster for the first of many outings). The surprisingly nuanced performance from Boris Karloff is what makes this movie really worth watching. And, despite the ropey sets and even ropier acting, it is a classic and absolutely worth checking out this spooky season … just don’t expect to be too spooked, despite the pre-film “warning”.

Written by Mary Palmer

2 thoughts on “Guest Post: Frankenstein (1931)

  1. Nice review by Mary. I saw this film when I was still relatively young (9), courtesy of a neighbour who had a film projector. Even then, I didn’t find it scary, but I was captivated by the pathos of ‘The Monster’, and remember feeling really sad for him.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  2. Pingback: Guest Post: Women Led Horror | TheMarckoguy

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