Movie Review – Frankenstein (1931)

Frankenstein (1931)
Written by Garrett Fort, Francis Edward Faragoh, Robert Florey, and John Russell
Directed by James Whale

Universal Pictures exists today because of the monster movies. In 1930, Universal lost $2.2 million in revenues (over $36 million adjusted for inflation). Then, in February 1931, Dracula was released and made $700,000 in sales. It was clear to Universal producer Carl Laemmle Jr. that horror movies were what the public wanted. By November of that same year, Frankenstein was released. Bela Lugosi, who had shot to stardom at the studio following Dracula, assumed he would be playing the Monster. However, makeup tests showed the actor didn’t have the right look. Instead, the studio went with English actor Boris Karloff, and the rest is history.

Frankenstein evokes the same gothic fairytale-like qualities of Dracula. It’s never clear what period the story is set in as there are elements that place contemporaneously but other pieces that hint at an older time. The action centers around an ancient castle, a German village, and a rickety windmill on a hill. Henry Frankenstein and his hunchbacked assistant Fritz are collecting pieces of newly buried corpses. Henry has a grand plan to create a human body and bring it to life using electrical impulses. The missing piece is a brain which Fritz is dispatched to acquire. He fails to get the normal brain and instead brings one from a mentally disturbed corpse. The Monster comes to life and is immediately frightened and confused by the world.

Eventually, Henry loses control of his Monster, and the creature roams the countryside looking to connect with other people. Instead, he ends up killing a little girl after becoming confused about the game they are playing. Meanwhile, Henry is trying to forget his creation is out there and go with his wedding. The day is ruined when the townspeople gather to hunt down the Monster, and Henry wants to make sure he does away with the brute. A showdown takes place at a windmill where the true pathetic nature of the Monster is revealed as he dies in a fire.

Dracula is a relatively sedate, occasional titillating horror film for the time. Frankenstein is an entirely different animal, body horror, and grotesque imagery. The Monster at the heart of the store is the opposite of Dracula. Frankenstein’s Monster is intellectually delayed and has severe emotional mood swings. There’s clearly a lack of malice in the Monster. Existence is a terrifying experience for him, and he doesn’t seem to fully understand his own physical power. This movie clearly shows that Universal was willing to push its audience into a new, more extreme territory, and they were rewarded with a massive box office success. 

While the film is undoubtedly unnerving, I think it makes such a drastic change to Mary Shelley’s original novel that it loses a lot of what made that book so good. The Monster in the story learns to speak and communicates clearly with Frankenstein. Elements of the book turn up in The Bride of Frankenstein, which we’ll get to later. But in the novel, there is an evident tension between the Monster and Frankenstein, anger from the creation towards his creator. In that way, the book addresses a lot of man’s existential woes towards the concept of God. The movie ends up very lightly talking about those elements and leans into the melodrama of the Monster. 

The one area where the film absolutely excels is the makeup. It’s clear right away why Frankenstein’s Monster is such an iconic film figure. The simple, perfect design of the creature is so satisfying. Karloff’s performance is exceptional, moving in such a stiff, lumbering manner, simulating a corpse in rigor mortis being forced into animation again. He is also able to convey the childlike simplicity of the Monster’s mind. He has so little dialogue beyond a couple of words, yet he makes you sympathize with the being through his face and the sounds. Audiences would become possibly more enamored with Frankenstein than Dracula as the sequels and prevalence of the former seem to have outshone the latter in the ensuing decades. 

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