Frankenstein is a 1931 American pre-Code horror monster film from Universal Pictures directed by James Whale and adapted from the play by Peggy Webling (which in turn is based on the novel of the same name by Mary Shelley), about a scientist and his assistant who dig up corpses to build a monster, but his assistant accidentally gives the monster a murderer’s brain.
The film stars Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles and Boris Karloff and features Dwight Frye and Edward van Sloan. The Webling play was adapted by John L. Balderston and the screenplay written by Francis Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort with uncredited contributions from Robert Florey and John Russell. The make-up artist was Jack Pierce. A hit with both audiences and critics, the film was followed by multiple sequels and has become an iconic horror film.
In a European village Henry Frankenstein, a young scientist, and his assistant Fritz, a hunchback, piece together a human body, the parts of which have been collected from various sources. Frankenstein desires to create human life through electrical devices which he has perfected.
Elizabeth, his fiancée, is worried over his peculiar actions. She cannot understand why he secludes himself in an abandoned watch tower, which he has equipped as a laboratory, refusing to see anyone. She and a friend, Victor Moritz, go to Dr. Waldman, Henry’s old medical professor, and ask Waldman’s help in reclaiming the young scientist from his experiments.
Waldman tells them that Frankenstein has been working on creating life. Elizabeth, intent on rescuing Frankenstein, arrives just as Henry is making his final tests. He tells them to watch, claiming to have discovered the ray that brought life into the world. They watch Frankenstein and the hunchback as they raise the dead creature on an operating table, high into the room, toward an opening at the top of the laboratory. Then a terrific crash of thunder, the crackling of Frankenstein’s electric machines, and the hand of Frankenstein’s monster begins to move, prompting Frankenstein to shout ‘It’s alive!’.
Through the incompetence of Fritz, a criminal brain was secured for Frankenstein’s experiments instead of the desired normal one. The manufactured monster, despite its grotesque form, initially appears to be a simple, innocent creation. Frankenstein welcomes it into his laboratory and asks his creation to sit, which it does. He then opens up the roof, causing the monster to reach out towards the sunlight. Fritz enters with a flaming torch, which frightens the monster. Its fright is mistaken by Frankenstein and Waldman as an attempt to attack them, and it is chained in the dungeon. Thinking that it is not fit for society and will wreak havoc at any chance, they leave the monster locked up, where Fritz antagonizes it with a torch.
As Henry and Waldman consider the monster’s fate, they hear a shriek from the dungeon. Frankenstein and Waldman find the monster has strangled Fritz. The monster lunges at the two but they escape, locking the monster inside. Realizing that the creature must be destroyed, Henry prepares an injection of a powerful drug and the two conspire to release the monster and inject it as it attacks. When the door is unlocked the creature lunges at Frankenstein as Waldman injects the drug into the creature’s back. The monster falls to the floor unconscious.
Henry leaves to prepare for his wedding while Waldman examines the creature. As he is preparing to dissect it, the creature awakens and strangles him. It escapes from the tower and wanders through the landscape. It has a short encounter with a farmer’s young daughter, Maria, who asks him to play a game with her in which they toss flowers into a lake and watch them float. The monster enjoys the game, but when they run out of flowers the monster thinks Maria will float as well, so he throws her into the lake and she drowns. Upset by this outcome, the monster runs away.
With preparations for the wedding completed, Frankenstein is serenely happy with Elizabeth. They are to marry as soon as Waldman arrives. Victor rushes in, saying that the Doctor has been found strangled in his operating room. Frankenstein suspects the monster. A chilling scream convinces him that the monster is in the house. When the searchers arrive, they find Elizabeth unconscious on the bed. The monster has escaped.
Maria’s father arrives, carrying his daughter’s body. He says she was murdered, and a band of peasants form a search party to capture the monster, and bring it to justice. In order to search the whole country for the monster, they are split into three groups, Frankenstein leading one into the mountains. He becomes separated from the band and is discovered by the monster, who attacks him. The monster knocks Frankenstein unconscious and carries him off to an old mill. The peasants hear his cries and follow. They find the monster has climbed to the top, dragging Frankenstein with him. The monster hurls the scientist to the ground. His fall is broken by the vanes of the windmill, saving his life. Some of the villagers hurry him to his home while the others burn the mill to destroy the entrapped monster.
At Castle Frankenstein, Frankenstein’s father, Baron Frankenstein celebrates the wedding of his recovered son with a toast to a future grandchild.
The next sequel, 1939’s Son of Frankenstein, was made, like all those that followed, without Whale or Clive (who had died in 1937). This film also featured Karloff’s last full film performance as the Monster. Son of Frankenstein featured Basil Rathbone as Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, and Lionel Atwill as Inspector Krogh.
The Ghost of Frankenstein was released in 1942. The movie features Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Monster, taking over from Boris Karloff, who played the role in the first three films of the series, and Bela Lugosi in his second appearance as the demented Ygor.
The fifth installment, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was released in 1943, directed by Roy William Neill, and starring Bela Lugosi as Frankenstein’s monster. This is also the sequel to The Wolf Man, with Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolf Man. Karloff returned to the series, but not the role, in the 1944 followup, House of Frankenstein, which also featured Chaney, and adds Dracula and a Hunchback for good measure. 1945’sHouse of Dracula continued the theme of combining Universal’s three most popular monsters.
Many of the subsequent films which featured Frankenstein’s monster demote the creature to a robotic henchman in someone else’s plots, such as in its final Universal film appearance in the deliberately farcicalAbbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).
Karloff would return to the wearing of the makeup and to the role of the monster one last time in an episode of the TV show Route 66 in the early 1960s.
The popular 1960s TV show, The Munsters, depicts the family’s father Herman as Frankenstein’s monster, who married Count Dracula‘s daughter. The make-up for Herman is based on the make-up of Boris Karloff.
A live-action parody film, Frankenweenie, depicting Victor Frankenstein as a modern American boy and his deceased pet dog as the monster, was made by Tim Burton in 1984. Burton remade it as a full-length animated film in 2012.
Mordaunt Hall gave Frankenstein a very positive review and said that the film “aroused so much excitement at the Mayfair yesterday that many in the audience laughed to cover their true feelings.” “[T]here is no denying that it is far and away the most effective thing of its kind. Beside it Dracula is tame and, incidentally, Dracula was produced by the same firm”.
Film Daily also lauded the picture, calling it a “gruesome, chill-producing and exciting drama” that was “produced intelligently and lavishly and with a grade of photography that is superb.”
Variety reported that it “Looks like a Dracula plus, touching a new peak in horror plays,” and described Karloff’s performance as “a fascinating acting bit of mesmerism.” Its review also singled out the look of the film as uniquely praiseworthy, calling the photography “splendid” and the lighting “the last word in ingenuity, since much of the footage calls for dim or night effect and the manipulation of shadows to intensify the ghostly atmosphere.”
John Mosher of The New Yorker was less enthused, calling the film only a “moderate success” and writing that “The makeup department has a triumph to its credit in the monster and there lie the thrills of the picture, but the general fantasy lacks the vitality which that little Mrs. P.B. Shelley was able to give her book.”
I just wonder in awe at the uniqueness and charm of this movie, the atmospherics, sets, backgrounds, lighting, effects, sound and visuals etc. Even by watching you just get a totally uncanny sense of being part of and being real-time witness of a magnificent period of cinematic history.
You can almost taste the 1930’s. It’s the nearest thing you’ll ever experience of whats its actually like to get in a time machine. Just switch off the lights and you can even imagine yourself being a 1930’s cinema goer. Beautiful experience!
This film is nothing less than a classic! It just encapsulates the best of everything involved in movie making!