Frankenstein

1931, Movie, NR, 71 mins

Review

FRANKENSTEIN
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Six decades since its premiere, this early sound chiller is still a great film of its genre. Immeasurably superior to Tod Browning's DRACULA, which preceded it by a mere ten months, it shows how quickly Hollywood mastered the art of sound. FRANKENSTEIN also illustrates why James Whale is still--Cronenberg notwithstanding--the greatest director of horror films.

The story doesn't quite follow Mary Shelley's original, but it still milks the tragic tale of the inspired doctor and his piecemeal creation for all it's worth. Dr. Frankenstein (Clive) and the hunchbacked Fritz (Frye) steal bodies from their graves to assemble a "man" (Karloff) breathed into life with electricity. Unfortunately, Fritz's mistreatment of the bewildered being and the criminal brain mistakenly implanted in its skull combine to produce a killer, with grim consequences for all involved.

Still new to films, Whale displays astonishing technical mastery of the medium, as well as the imagination to break rules where appropriate. His innate theatricality makes a memorable moment of the monster's introduction. Karloff backs in from a doorway as our curiosity peaks. He slowly turns and Whale brilliantly cuts along an unchanging axis to increasingly tight close-ups of Karloff's face. Jack Pierce's marvelous make-up perfectly suits the film's blend of fantasy and science, and still manages to highlight Karloff's beautifully expressive face. This role made the gentle British character actor a star and a legend almost instantly. At once terrifying and pathetic, his monster is a moving study of alienation and primitive anger.

The film lacks the campy humor of later Whale; except for the delightful doddering of Kerr as Frankenstein's father, the wit is subdued in favor of a stark, dank tone. The result is a touching, cathartic sobriety seen at its best in the monster's encounter with an eight-year-old girl (Harris) who sees no reason to be afraid of the scarred creature before her. Universal backed down from including Clive's line, "Now I know what it feels like to be God," and they added a rather quaint disclaimer (featuring Van Sloan) warning viewers of the terror to follow, but nothing can detract from the power of the most influential monster movie ever made. leave a comment

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