An obsessed scientist assembles a living being from parts of exhumed corpses. (IMDB synopsis)
Another definitive performance in a film that came out the same year as the aforementioned Dracula. In this film, the creature is played by Boris Karloff, sporting that rectangular prosthetic forehead we’ve all come to associate with the character. My research tells me that they had to use caustic lead-based paint for Karloff’s makeup back in the day. Not cool, man. Not cool.
All right, so first of all, a bloke in a tuxedo steps out before a theatre curtain to warn us that what we’re about to see many thrill, shock and horrify us. We get one last chance to leave. No? Not leaving? All right, well, we were warned.
For some reason, Victor Frankenstein is called Henry in this film, and we see him and his assistant Fritz collecting corpses with which to create their new creature. Fritz is played by Dwight Frye, who was also Renfield in Dracula and seems to do quite well playing raving loonies, and he might be the first of many hunchbacked assistants in future Frankenstein films. Anyway, Fritz is tasked with stealing a healthy brain from the university laboratories. The professor has two specimens to show the class – one a normal brain, the other abnormal – the sad and soggy brain of a criminal and a degenerate, whatever that means. Guess which one Fritz takes home with him.
As it turns out, Frankenstein has chosen to complete his experiment in a ruined windmill filled with electricky scientific apparatus, all hooked up to a lightning conductor on the roof. Before the eyes of his former professor, his friend and his fiancee Elizabeth, Frankenstein brings the creature to life. Unfortunately, it would seem he has created a monster, and the rest of the film is devoted to bringing its life to an end.
I’ve actually read the book Frankenstein and liked it immensely when I was a teenager. For one reason or another, this turned out to be a very loose adaptation, barely touching on the issues Shelley raised. I imagine a lot of it had to do with heavy censoring at the time (which I‘ll get to in a moment), but the main problem I have with the 1931 film is the creature itself. Whereas in the book, the creature starts out sensitive and intelligent and is driven to monstrous acts by unceasing rejection, this one is… well, he has that abnormal brain in his head, so he’s got to die, I guess. Kids, when you try this experiment at home for yourselves, just make sure you get a healthy brain and your creature will turn out JUUUUUUST fine!
I don’t blame Boris Karloff for this at all – I think he had a lot to deal with in this part, what with the four hours of makeup per day, the 13-pound shoes, all those takes of carrying actor Colin Clive up the hill that did his back in, etc. But he doesn’t have much to work with. The creature’s lines consist of grunts, screeches, yells and the occasional “Rrrrowlnrnrn”. He’s treated a little harshly at the start, as Fritz insists on shoving a flaming torch in his face and whipping him for no good reason. But then when he gets loose, the creature ends up attacking others, chucking a young girl in the lake and almost killing Elizabeth. The only good thing I can say about this creature is that his physical appearance is such stuff as Hallowe’en costumes are made of. The squarish forehead, sunken eye-sockets, electrodes in the neck… he’s got it all.
The character of Frankenstein is OK in this; he’s just a bit of a jerk and not quite hammy enough to be amusing; I mean, I’ve seen hammier. A few of his better lines are, “Crazy, am I? We’ll see whether I’m crazy or not!“ and “It’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive! […] Now I know what it feels like to be God!” The latter part was removed due to the Hays Code, as it was believed to be blasphemous. Another thing that got cut was the creature throwing the girl into the lake (he thought it was a game, yesee). But then, without that, audiences would just have seen the girl’s father carrying her body into town and not known exactly how she was killed. That seems worse to me!
Another thing that jumped out at me with this film was how useless the female characters were. Elizabeth is always worried about her fiancee and at one point her women’s intuition tells her that something awful is going to happen, but she’s told not to worry her pretty little head about it. She then tells Frankenstein,
“I love you so!”
And he replies:
Ha! Frankenstein, you romantic so-and-so.
Any other women who appear have the important job of standing by and looking concerned, and don’t even get to join the angry mob at the film’s climax. (I like to think that they WERE there, just in fake beards, as in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.) But, again, this was just the way the world was back then. Do you know what they call the author of the original novel in the credits? Mrs. Percy B. Shelley. Yup! Just the woman who married that dude who writes poetry. Now let’s all go into the other room and smoke cigars!
It’s one of those Gothic films that everyone should see at least once, but I didn’t like it as much as the others. Maybe I’m just too fond of the original story. I think there are almost certainly better, more faithful Frankenstein adaptations out there, and one day I’ll find them. The best thing about this film is the imagery that would inspire horror films even to this day. Remember the angry mob and the ruined windmill in Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie? This is where that came from! I know! Who’d have thought?
6 ½ jam sandwiches.