Well, after my review of the original “Godzilla” a couple of weeks ago, you must think that I hate old monster movies; well, I don’t, because I haven’t seen enough of them to have an opinion one way or the other. After I reviewed Mel Brooks’ hilarious masterpiece “Young Frankenstein” in my most recent review, I figured I should probably share my thoughts on the movie that Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder were playfully poking fun at. That film, of course, is the 1931 classic monster movie “Frankenstein.” And here’s what I think: it’s not scary in the typical way we’d think of scary nowadays, but it’s still tense, well acted, wonderfully shot, and serves as the benchmark for all monster movies to come to reach and exceed. It’s a very good film.
The film opens with a warning that the movie we are about to witness may be too scary for us, and that if we want to turn it off, do so now. Spoiler alert: the movie’s not that scary, at least not in the typical sense. This movie was made back in the 1930s, when people were still wondering what technology and science could do, so the idea of bringing life to a dead body using science was probably a scary prospect at the time, as the theme of mankind meddling too much with nature was a central idea of the original Mary Shelley novel. What makes the movie more nerve-racking is the way the atmosphere of it all lingers over the characters and the set; you feel the weight of what Dr. Frankenstein is doing and the ramifications that the characters face because of his experiments.
The plot follows Doctor Henry Frankenstein (not Victor, Henry) and his hunchbacked assistant Fritz (not Igor, not Eye-gore, Fritz), as they steal body parts from various corpses to create life out of dead tissue. Meanwhile, Henry’s fiancée Elizabeth is concerned that her future husband’s experiments are driving him insane, and asks a friend, Victor, and Henry’s former professor, Dr. Waldman, to help bring Dr. Frankenstein home. Using a ray beyond ultraviolet rays, that he believes created life in the beginning, along with using lightning and a machine that has since become iconic in its own right, Dr. Frankenstein creates a creature, played by Boris Karloff, out of the body parts he and Fritz have collected and using an “abnormal” brain stolen from a local university. Elizabeth, Victor, and Dr. Waldman are there to witness the creation, and all work to snap
Frankenstein out of his fixation on his experiment to bring him home for his wedding. The film is a lot shorter than I thought it was going to be, and every frame is used to serve the story, making for a very tightly written and cohesive monster film. It gives you just as much information as you need, no more, no less, and all of the information adds to the plot in some way or another. Setting the film just days before Henry and Elizabeth are to get married adds to the characters’ motivations even more, as they are trying to start a new chapter in their lives, with this monstrous experiment that Frankenstein has created getting in the way.
The actors do a very good job in their roles. Colin Clive, who portrays Henry Frankenstein, starts out the movie as the typical mad scientist of popular culture, but not one so detached from the world that he forgets what’s truly important in his life; later in the film, he grows to detest the monster that he’s created, wanting nothing more than to rid to world of it, even at the cost of his own life. It’s nice to see the traits that would become synonymous with the term “mad scientist” in Clive’s performance, but not to the extent that it’s distracting to modern audiences. Mae Clarke portrays Elizabeth well, as she’s not entirely a damsel in distress, and it is nice to see her take an active role in her fiancé’s redemption. John Boles as Victor Moritz isn’t boring in any sense, as he helps out Frankenstein with keeping the monster under control, but he just seems needlessly tacked on, not providing too much to the overall plot. The other actors in this movie, from Frankenstein’s father to the various villagers, all do a great job of portraying their parts.
For the most iconic role in this movie, Boris Karloff as the Monster, I had to talk about him separately from the other characters. Frankenstein’s monster is iconic, and it’s clear to see why; the makeup, the personality, and the way he moves and commands a presence onscreen, it’s all recorded in the annals of movie history, and for good reason. But here’s the thing, and this thing is not a bad thing: Frankenstein’s Monster is not scary; at no point was I truly afraid of him, I found myself more feeling sorry for him. What I found scary were the possibilities of what the monster would do in his innocence; an action that he thought was harmless may actually be fatal to a normal human being. The worst part of his “life” is that not even his creator wants to take the time to teach him to be calmer; at one point in the film, he’s trying to get away from a flaming torch that Fritz has, and they immediately think he’s trying to attack them. After this, they don’t try to teach him how to do anything; they just chain him up in the cellar like a wild beast. Of the movies that I’ve seen recently, the only character I can think of who had a similar experience to the Monster was Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes:” he’s not a monster; he’s just misunderstood by the people around him. So in the climax, when the villagers go out to try and kill the monster, I found myself mostly rooting for the monster, a creature who only wanted to live and be loved (God, that sounds so clichéd nowadays).
“Frankenstein” is a staple of monster movies, and while it’s not scary in the “Paranormal Activity” or “Friday the 13th” definition of the word, it will still leave you on the edge of your seat, wary of what the monster will do next. Great acting, great set designs, and a great atmosphere all add to this movie’s iconic status. It’s a great way to reanimate your love of classic films.
By Joey Sack