Director: James Whale. Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles. USA, 1931. Budget: $262,007. Box office: $12 mln. IMDB: 7.9. My rating: 4/4. A classic horror tale.
– Look! It’s moving. It’s alive. It’s alive… IT’S ALIVE!
– Would you like one of my flowers? You have those and I’ll have these. See how mine float.
(Little girl talking to the monster)
– The brain which was stolen from my laboratory… was a criminal brain.
– That body is not dead. It has never lived. I created it. I made it with my own hands, from the bodies I took from graves, from the gallows.
There is some very primordial feeling in “Frankenstein”. A fear not so much of the unknown, but rather of something (and this word, “some – thing” is crucial here) non-understandable, incomprehensible, irrational. Unlike most post-70’s horror classics (although I am not such a big horror conoisseur), it is not driven by purely evil instincts which normally include only chase, torture and murder, but has a more human face and body. Human soul? Good question. But body – yes, even if it comes in artificially combined limbs and organs. Like a caged animal, it retreats or attacks. Caged in by humans. And created by humans, too.
The background. Tons of literature was dedicated to “Frankenstein” and all that surrounds it. In short, it belongs to so-called Universal Horror films. Officially, it was a period between 1923 and 1960, although it was the Classic Period (roughly 1930-1946) when the best movies were made, like:
- “The Mummy” (yes, the horrible 2017 version with Tom Vacation was a reboot and the first installment in the Dark Universe which was not a good launch)
- “Dracula” (1931, the first big success)
- “The Old Dark House” (1932)
- “The Invisible Man” (1933, also directed by James Whale)
- “The Bride of the Frankenstein” (1935, a very unusual sequel, directed by James Whale as well)
- “The Wolf Man” (1941)
- “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954) and many others.
You can read in short about the most important things of the Classic Period here.
Two rival actors, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff played a crucial role in establishing the success of the new world of horror and often starred together (Lugosi was even initially casted as the monster in “Frankenstein”, but refused the role claiming that playing the monster is too low for such an artist). What’s interesting, both actors and the director were expats – Boris Karloff and James Whale were British, Lugosi was Hungarian.
What I liked. So let me develop my initial thought. Most post-70’s Western horror movies create the suspense by jump scares – the film is not showing the fear source for a while and that is followed by an unexpected attack. For example, often the modern Asian horror works, for the most part, in a different way, the atmosphere itself is the swamp of fear you’re drowning in; the shock moment, although important, is not decisive. So if you want a simple comparison. “Frankenstein” was clearly shot in the vein of modern (last 20-30 years) Asian horror, like most pre 70’s horror movies in general.
So if we have to compare, say, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956, an amazing sci-fi metaphorical horror with social subtext, one of my all-time favourite movies) and post-Halloween slashers, “Frankenstein” is definitely closer to the first one. It’s not a movie you’d watch just to get some adrenaline. In first place, it’s a wonderful story to follow with a gloomy atmosphere.
There is a great book “Of Mice and Men”, probably one of most beautifully painful novels ever. In case you haven’t read it, here’s the story. Two migrant field workers are in California on plantations during the years of Great Depression—George Milton, a smart but uneducated fellow, and Lennie Small, a bulky and strong giant with a mind of a child, mentally disabled. As the events unfold, we see that probably there is no place in this rational world for such people as Lenny. What it had to do with the movie? Well, Lenny and Frankenstein share a lot in common. They are portrayed as monsters, but they are just victims.
What I didn’t like. It is clearly visible that the film was shot in a studio with paper backgroungs and that distracted me a little in several important episodes. I wonder why nobody took care of the film and did a proper restoration instead of shooting useless remakes like “Victor Frankenstein” (2015, with James McAvoy, Daniel Radcliffe) – these things are easy nowadays, just look what George Lukas did with his “THX 1138“. Then there were some occasional weird video editing cuts, but that’s a minor complaint.
Worth watching? Absolutely. “Frankenstein” is a great story. I have enjoyed the film much more than I expected (and my expectations were already high!). And it’s awesomeness lies not only in the everlasting influence, as it often happens with older movies. Just like “Metropolis“, “Frankenstein” doesn’t feel dated. A gloomy gothic atmosphere (hi, Guillermo del Toro), wonderful acting – especially Boris Karloff who portrayed not just a monster but a complex character – and beautiful photography.
The primordial inner shiver definitely works on multiple levels here.