Frankenstein (1931)

When concerned friends question Dr. Frankenstein’s sanity, he simply replies, “Crazy, am I? We’ll see about that.” But you see it in the actor’s eyes and you believe it: he is crazy. At least, in that moment, the weight of his obsession and eccentricities have crushed his ability to act sanely in a social setting. I wouldn’t exactly classify him as cuckoo, just crazy.

If reanimating a body he stitched together from the prime parts of freshly buried corpses isn’t a clue, I don’t know what is. For such a character to be believable, he’d have to be crazy. Actor Colin Clive makes us believe it.

Even the secondary characters are more than what meets the eye. Since Dr. Frankenstein’s reluctant lab assistant Fritz (he’s the Igor character) is frightened of dead bodies, you wonder why the scientist hired him in the first place. But it’s so believable in execution you don’t question it, you accept it. And Fritz’s unusual quirk provides a setup for the terrifying events that are about to be set into motion.

Considering all the bad spin-offs and remakes and sequels that were made, I wondered why no one bothered to make a prequel and answer these questions. Probably because a prequel wouldn’t have the monster in it and therefor wouldn’t be financially successful. Oh, and prequels generally suck and sap the magic out of original ideas anyway.

Maybe you figured it out by now, but Dr. Frankenstein is my favorite character. He’s the one who fascinates me. Without him we wouldn’t have the monster at all. In the confines of this movie, he really does become God and maybe a little bit more.

But this is a Frankenstein movie so I better talk about the “monster.” In the opening credits, Boris Karloff’s name is nowhere to be found. Instead, the filmmakers tease the audience with three question marks where the actor’s name would normally be. If that didn’t build enough suspense, there’s a prologue (reportedly written in part by John Huston) that warns the audience that what they’re about to see may shock them.

When Frankenstein’s monster makes his appearance, it really is shocking. We see the monster for the very first time walking through a door backwards. Why does he walk backwards? Only so we’ll be creeped out when he slowly turns around and looks at us with those spooky eyes. So what if it doesn’t make any sense? It’s effective.

And all the makeup effects in the world wouldn’t redeem a bad actor underneath. Many modern day horror directors should learn this. Especially the ones who rely mostly on CGI.

The monster’s abnormal brain – or the brain of Abby Normal, as the Mel Brooks’ parody insists – belonged to a criminal, but the monster himself has not committed any crimes. When he kills Fritz, it’s due punishment. When he kills the girl, he did so accidentally. And when he attempts to kill his creator, well, who can blame him?

Frankenstein’s monster isn’t evil and the hero isn’t good. The movie doesn’t distinguish between good and evil. It goes deeper than that. Its characters are real people who do real things in an unreal situation.

On a technical note, you can sometimes see the wrinkles in the backdrops, but the sets are beautiful and big. The production value here is huge, especially when things buzz and throw sparks in the lab. As I write this, the movie is well over seventy years old, but I fear that when people say it’s outdated, they’re conveying to the younger crowd that it’s boring. It’s not. Sometimes the pace can be frantic.

What’s beautiful about Frankenstein is the subtlety. Maybe it’s an allegory for modern science and blah-blah-blah, but if it is, it doesn’t try too hard and becomes more effective and less preachy than other Hollywood movies I can name. What some people consider as modern science ‘playing God’ is as topical today as it ever was. But in the movie, you get so wound up in it all that no matter your opinions or beliefs, you want Dr. Frankenstein to play God. Because if he doesn’t, you won’t see the monster, which is what you pay to see in the first place.

I would be willing to pay to see a movie about the scientist’s early life, even if the monster never appeared. Then again, maybe all those questions I had are what make the whole thing so fascinating. As it is, the movie makes you think a lot. If you didn’t have to think so much, maybe it’d take the fun out of it.

Official Score