The movie begins with a man stepping out from behind curtains, warning the audience that the movie there about to see might be really frightening, which is hilariously outdated, even the actor seems to be holding back a laugh. We then segue into one of the best opening title screens of all the Universal monster movies, the visuals and imagery on display give it a hypnotic, dream like quality that always puts me in the right mind set. A common staple in these movies is that they won’t reveal the name of the actor who plays the monster during the opening credits, just to give it a little more mystery.
The overall story goes like this, Dr. Henry Frankenstein is a scientist determined to go above and beyond the boundaries of ordinary lab work, and actually go so far as to creating life itself. Not just reviving people that once lived, but constructing a being out of the parts of different people, and giving it new life. At first he succeeds in giving a creation life, unfortunately, an abnormal brain that originally belonged to a mass murderer was put in the creatures head, instead of a healthy, normal brain. As a result, Frankenstein’s creature displays a hostile tendency, kills people without mercy, and after escaping Frankenstein’s castle, the creature terrorizes a local village.
Common audiences refer to the monster as Frankenstein, even though that was only the name of the doctor. Regardless, I also like to call the monster Frankenstein, because it’s really hard to separate that name from the creature, but for the sake of this review, I’ll just call him the Frankenstein monster. Sense both Vampires and Werewolf’s have Dracula and the Wolf Man as their immortal mascots, I always liked to believe that the Frankenstein monster was the immortal mascot for zombies. Obviously he doesn’t do any of the usual things that we associate with zombies, he doesn’t eat guts, he doesn’t bite anyone, spreading a disease that turns other people into the living dead, he just has bruit strength that he uses to overpower his victims. Never the less, he’s a reanimated corps, and that’s exactly what a zombie is, so I’d still like to make the argument that the Frankenstein monster is the most iconic zombie of all time. For the most part, it behaves like a mindless monster, attacking people and killing others with no regrets. The only time we sympathies with the best is the famous scene with him by the pond with the little girl. Here, the creature comes off like a curious being that means no real harm, and when he’s responsible for drowning the pore girl, it clearly wasn’t what the monster wanted. In fact you see in its face how sad he feels about her dying, and it just breaks your heart.
The overall design for the monster in this film is so famous, that it’s become a staple in our pop culture. The makeup man is Jack Pierce, who actually designed the look and makeup for all the classic universal monsters. I love the scene when the creature is first reveled, it’s actually one of my all time favorite monster or villain reveals ever in a motion picture. Of course, the doctor brings him to life in his laboratory, thanks to a bolt of lightning, but we never actually see the creature get off the table, instead he’s kept off screen for a number of scenes, allowing the movie to build on your anticipation for when we finally see him. The doctor is in the middle of a heated argument with a friend, who’s delivering a warning about the monster he’s created, and then it’s suddenly interrupted by the sound of loud footsteps, which keep getting louder and louder. A door slowly opens, the monster turns into frame, and through some slick editing, the film give us a close up of the monster, it’s awesome. The creature is played by Boris Karloff, who would go on to become one of the most legendary horror stars of all time, and play in more Universal monster movies than any other actor. He just has the perfect face for this creature, and his performance is great. I honestly don’t think he has much to work with in this film, it’s a simple creature to portray, but he just conveys so much in this role.
In a rare case, the character who steals the show isn’t the monster, instead it’s our lead performer Colin Clive in the role of Dr. Henry Frankenstein. He commands the screen with an electrifying performance, and I really like that the character isn’t really a bad guy. While he’s misguided, and dose bad things, he certainly isn’t evil. He really has honest intentions and does everything in his power to properly take care of the monster, but when he realizes how dangerous the creature is, he doesn’t hesitate to try and destroy it. I also like that he’s mostly respected by the towns folk, most versions would have the villagers turning on him out of hatred, but in this film, Dr. Frankenstein is another respected member of the community.
Our girl friend in this movie is named Elizabeth, who's actually one of the least cliché of the Universal Monster girls. While she does get attacked by the monster on her wedding day, she never gets carried away by the monster like all the others, and it doesn’t have any real interest in her. However, while she comes off as smarter, she really isn’t that memorable either, serviceable about sums her up. Dr. Frankenstein also has a hunchbacked assistant, which is a common cliché now, however, his name isn’t Igor, instead it’s Fritz, isn’t that an odd name? He’s played by Dwight Frye, who also played the crazy Renfield in “Dracula”. Speaking of actors from “Dracula”, this movie once again features Edward Van Sloan, who previously played Van Helsing in that movie. This time he isn’t the lead hero, he’s a supporting character named Waldman, but he still delivers a good performance as he warns Doctor Frankenstein about the monster he’s created.
For an old movie from 1931, it’s got a surprisingly big size and scope. From beginning to end, it’s just incredible to look at. I think this film has the most memorable imagery of all the classic Universal monster movies. There’s the opening scene in the cemetery, the mob of angry villagers, the science lab with all the crazy gizmos, and of cores Dr. Frankenstein shouting “It’s Alive!” The pacing is also really good, everything holds your attention, the mood is strong and there’s never a dull, quiet moment. Now there isn’t a whole lot of music, but you hardly notice, thanks to all the sounds of thunder, heavy rain, and angry villagers.
The climax is also a riveting spectacle, as Dr. Frankenstein faces his creation head on. The monster gains the upper hand at first and drags him to a windmill, where they have their final fight. The villagers soon ketchup and set the mill on fire, and the monster is presumed dead. This finally may seem a little tame by today’s standards, but it’s actually quite exciting, and back in the 1930’s it must have had the audience leaping out of their seats. Unlike all the other Universal monster movies, this one actually has an epilogue at the end, we see that Dr. Frankenstein survived, and that he’ll soon get married to his girl friend. It may seem a little tacked on, but I find it a breath a fresh air considering most of the other movies end the second the monster dies.
Overall, “Frankenstein” has held up very well over the years, it’s still engaging to watch, the performances are great, the imagery just pops before your eyes, and Boris Karloff as the monster is just as iconic as ever. It’s just a classic, old school monster movie that doesn’t rely on gore or obvious jump scares, which is really a dying art. The movies only real problem is that it looms in the shadow of its superior sequel, but I’ll talk about that later. Even with that said, this is still one of the best movies of the eight Universal classics, and highly recommendable to old school horror fans.
I give the 1931 “Frankenstein” 4 stars
NEXT TIME: We’ll be looking at another re-animated corps, except it’ll be unearthed from the sands of Egypt.