Frankenstein (1931) (review)

Gods and Monsters

Will the male half of the species ever get over its fear and awe of the reproductive power of the female half? If the enduring popularity of the Frankenstein story and its variants is anything to judge by, the answer is no. And endure it does: From Frankenweenie to Frankenhooker to Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound, this is a story that has inspired almost countless retellings. But the original filmed version, directed by James Whale in 1931, is still the best.

The film opens with tuxedoed narrator offering us “a word of friendly warning”: the movie you’re about to see “may shock you — it may even horrify you.” It’s hard for us today not to see this disclaimer as tongue-in-cheek — though movie fans know the tales from the early days of the medium in which women faint in the aisles and run screaming from theaters when confronted with movies like this one, this Frankenstein can’t compete on a purely graphic visual level with modern films. (See Kenneth Branagh’s recent version, and prepare for the icky scene of the birth of the monster, awash in gallons of amniotic fluid. Yuck.) But for the sheer audacity of its exploration of, as the narrator says, “the two great mysteries of creation: life and death,” this Frankenstein remains powerful.
Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) has a “mad dream,” his former medical professor, Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan: Dracula), says, “to destroy life and recreate it.” Frankenstein is obsessed with bringing to life “a body I made by my own hands,” and there we have it: the desire to co-opt the one thing a woman, maddeningly, can do that a man can’t. Interestingly, though the film downplays the female contribution to its own creative process by identifying the author of the source material only through her husband — watch for the credit that reads “From the novel by Mrs. Percy B. Shelley” — it does not look with approval upon Henry’s plan to subvert nature.

Henry is engaged to Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), but he has abandoned her, at least temporarily, for his work. His father, Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr), thinks another woman is to blame for his son’s suddenly lack of interest in his fiancee, and in a way, the baron is right: it is a kind of sex that’s distracting Henry. With his hunchbacked assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye: Dracula), Henry is digging up corpses, stealing pickled med-school brains, and assembling a creature (Boris Karloff: The Mummy) whose violent birth throes occur on the original dark and stormy night. By the time the creature, months later and long since escaped from Frankenstein’s castle, crashes Henry and Elizabeth’s wedding, the normal course of heterosex has been well and truly disrupted. (For an exploration of how Whale’s homosexuality influenced the film thematically, check out the semifictional Gods and Monsters.)

Whale’s Frankenstein is a monster movie with a twist: the monsters are the supposedly normal humans, and the putative monster is a misunderstood and tormented creature. The film very stylishly and visually sets up the dichotomy. In the graveyard at which Henry and Fritz do their bodysnatching, there’s not a cross or a statue or a fence that stands straight — nature and man are askew of each other. Henry’s castle looks like a Goya painting, with nary a right angle to be found — in the now-classic mad laboratory, walls shoot off at all angles, distorted shadows rushing up them; narrow flights of stairs twist up to dark recesses. All rationality is gone from Henry’s world, and the castle is a manifestation of his deranged mind.

And then there is the “monster,” with his dead eyes and sad face, a tragic figure chained in the castle cellar and beaten by Fritz; in one scene, Whale’s camera lingers on the creature’s beseeching hands, asking for release from its torment. After the creature escapes the castle, its attempt at friendship, which might perhaps have redeemed its miserable existence, ends in horrifying calamity. Whale’s sympathies are entirely with the creature, and entirely against its creator, who ends up, ironically, amongst the requisite torch-wielding villagers out to destroy the creature.

Eerie, beautiful, and ultimately poignant, Frankenstein is still a startling film about the borders between genius and madness, science and atrocity.

AFI 100: #87
unforgettable movie moment:
When Fritz drops the healthy brain he’s snatching from the med school, watching in panic as it makes a wet splat, he covers up his faux pas by absconding with a shrunken, diseased, criminal brain.

previous AFI 100 film:
86: Mutiny on the Bounty
next AFI 100 film:
88: Easy Rider

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