1931’s Frankenstein remains after more than eighty years, one of the most recognisable, influential and respected horror movies of all time. While it may do little for the gore hungry Saw generation, to those of us who appreciate the art of film, it stands up against the test of time and despite numerous subsequent attempts at the iconic story, this version will undoubtedly be the one you have in your head. From the imposing gothic architecture and magnificent use of shadow to the distinctive and now ‘go to’ flat head, Frankenstein is a movie which many of us will know before even seeing it in full.
The plot is taken from Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel of the same name and should be known by anyone with at least one functioning sense. The story and its characters are some of the most iconic and recognisable not only in horror history but also literary history and the tale has been repeated and twisted in everything from Mel Brook’s spoof Young Frankenstein to TV classic The Munsters to the recent animated film Frankenweenie and has influenced countless books, TV shows and movies. This adaptation is relatively faithful version of the timeless original text.
At the film’s opening, actor Edward Van Sloan appears from behind a curtain to deliver a brief caution to the audience. His words resonate with child in you to make you feel a little scared before the film even begins. His closing words of “We warned you” must have built the anticipation in the original audience’s minds before they’d even had a glimpse of the monster. Of course by today’s standards the film barely even registers the thought of fright but I’m sure that audiences in 1931 left the theatre as excited and scared as a modern audience does when viewing the latest gut busting, brain slurping horror. As well as not being at all scary, the film is also slow to build. For a 70 minute film it takes its time to show the monster and for the chaos to ensue. Early scenes focus on Dr. Frankenstein and on his motives and possible madness.
A problem with a monster movie, especially one like Frankenstein is that you can’t wait to get a glimpse of the monster. The film teases and draws you close before its reveal and even when the monster is finally presented, he walks backwards towards the camera and in a darkened room. From this scene on though, the monster is highly visible. The movie spends some time on Dr. Frankenstein’s motivations and although this is sometimes interesting, it is intercut with a side plot about an upcoming wedding which I didn’t care for. Once we pass the “It’s alive! It’s alive!” scene, the Doctor and the rest of the characters take more of a back seat and without speaking a word of dialogue, Boris Karloff’s monster becomes the focus. The monster is given some of the pathos and ‘emotion’ that later versions give him but it isn’t layered as thick or anywhere as sickly as in the likes of the 1994 Branagh-De Niro adaptation.
My favourite thing about Frankenstein was its design. The makeup was exceptional, especially given the age of the film. Karloff is unrecognisable in his most recognisable role, behind layers of revolutionary makeup. Although the design on the monster was not set before this movie, it has since become the look we expect to see. I was taken aback for example when I saw the De Niro version which lacked the flat topped head. Jack Pierce is the man who is credited with creating the look that took four hours each day to perfect. The makeup when added to the bulky costume and 6 kg shoes turns Karloff into the monster rather than acting the monster.
Aside from the costume and makeup I also thought that the direction and especially cinematography was breathtaking. The film makes heavy use of shadows by lighting scenes from either floor level or above head height which creates some drastic lighting effects that smack of German expressionism and reminded me a little of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu. The set design also reminded me of a scene in the later Murnau classic Sunrise: A Tale of Two Lovers. In that film, the German director created a Dutch angle while keeping the camera perpendicular. He did this by twisting the backdrop and sets into skewed and contorted positions which give the effect of the camera being off kilter while in fact remaining traditionally straight. It’s a great effect and creates an ill at ease feel to the sequences in which it is used. They also work to create differences between scenes outside the laboratory which are filmed in a much more traditional way.
The acting is a little problematic here, being an early example of the continuing lack of acting prowess in the horror genre. Boris Karloff excels in his role and I was also very impressed with Frederick Kerr who played Baron Frankenstein. The rest of the cast though were wooden and off-putting. This is rarely more than a small annoyance and if anything make me laugh more than anything else. The acting aside, Frankenstein has the full set of criteria to make it a bona fide classic. The story is a classic, the makeup looks great, the central performance is mesmerising and it is exceptionally well made for its era and budget. Despite numerous attempts, this early film still remains the definitive version of Shelley's novel.
- This 1931 wasn't the first or even the second screen adaptation of Shelley's story. A 1910 and now lost 1915 version preceded it.
- When it was re-released in 1934 the Hays Code had come into effect. As a result several scenes were cut from future versions with some scenes not being restored until 1999. Scenes considered blasphemous or in bad taste such as the death of a child were cut.
- Bela Lugosi was originally offered the part of the monster but turned it down as the character doesn't speak. John Carradine also turned down the role.
- The method of animating the monster isn't discussed in the source novel but the electric method featured here has become the accepted methodology and appears in most subsequent versions.