Thursday, October 15, 2009

“The neck's broken. The brain is useless. We must find another brain.”

1931 was a big year for movie monsters. Not long after Dracula stunned audiences, Universal took another classic horror novel and translated it to the screen. This time it was Frankenstein, and its star would become one of the biggest names in horror ever.

Dr. Henry Frankenstein wants to do great things in the name of science, like reanimating dead tissue to give it life. He’s got a hunchbacked henchman to help him out and has a hands-on approach to getting bodies for his experiments. He also has a fiancée that is very worried about where he’s been for the last few months and, along with one of his old professors, tries to find Henry and bring him home. They do find him, just as he’s putting the final touches on his grand experiment and witness his reanimation of a patched together body through SCIENCE. Well, sort of. It takes a while for the body to really be able to get up and move around. And then the Monster gets mad and starts killin’ people because he got a bad brain.

Dr. Henry Frankenstein: Colin Clive is our good doctor (oddly enough named Henry instead of Victor), torn between his ambition as a scientist and his devotion as a future husband. Well, at first science wins out and he gives life to a creature that proves to be…flawed. Then he turns his attention to arranging his wedding, but well, the Monster kind of puts a damper on that. What’s fun is that when the villagers grab their torches and pitchforks, Henry here is at the forefront of one of the (surprisingly well organized) mobs. Clive himself gives a good moody performance, especially when he hams it up during the “activation scene.”

Elizabeth: Mae Clarke is Frankenstein’s fiancée, a kind, rather naïve woman, she does get a bad feeling about things before the wedding, and boy was she right.

Victor Moritz: John Boles is Henry & Elizabeth’s concerned friend. He’s also there for Elizabeth while Henry’s off in his lab playing with Jacob’s ladders and Erlenmeyer flasks, a fact that is not lost on Victor, too bad he never gets the girl. He doesn’t even get a death scene.

Dr. Waldman: Edward Van Sloan plays a professor, except instead of Van Helsing, he’s Frankenstein’s former teacher/mentor. A fairly nice guy, he’s worried when he sees Henry’s work come to life, but he’s also curious about it. He urges Henry to go home and get married and he will personally take care of disposing of the creature. This does not end well.

Baron Frankenstein: Frederick Kerr is our comic relief. Henry’s dad, he’s also the ruler of the area and a blustering, grumpy, amusing curmudgeon who likes a drink now and then.

Fritz: Dwight Frye is Henry’s hunchbacked henchman and completely unrecognizable from his role as Renfield in Dracula. Fritz runs errands for the doc, like trying to fetch a good brain from the university, but there’s an accident and he’s forced to get an abnormal one. Now, Fritz is also more or less the film’s bad guy since he A) gets a bad brain for the creature, and B) once the creature’s alive, he starts tormenting the poor guy by waving a torch in his face a lot and then later getting a whip from somewhere and taking it to the monster, essentially triggering the monster’s violent response. He’s not in the movie much, as he gets hoisted by his own petard (well, he gets hung with his own whip), but damn does he leave an impression.

The Monster: Boris Karloff turns in a stellar performance as the unfortunate monster. Sure, the square head and electrode neck are cliché now, but his performance as the Monster is sublime. Childlike in its innocence, but capable of incredible rage that is difficult to stop, he’s a monster by circumstance, not choice. Getting a bad brain has stacked the deck against him from the start. He’s so badass as the monster that for the opening credits, Karloff’s name wasn’t listed as the actor, but ‘?’

James Whale, who made a string of hits for Universal in the 1930s, was directing his first horror movie here. He goes on full Expressionist here, with asymmetrical angles, shadows and camera angles, and it works great. The movie looks iconic, even though its “just” a horror movie. The visual pacing is rocket fast and we get the monster activated in the first 15-20 minutes. The makeup effects by special effects guru Jack Pierce were fantastic on the Monster.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote the novel, Peggy Webling adapted it to a play, and John L. Balderston, Francis Edward Faragoh, Garrett Fort, Robert Florey and John Russell worked on adapting it to the screen. Liberties are, of course, taken from the book version, but the movie becomes its own entity. Pacing is great, and there are some truly outstanding moments, like where the Monster bonds with the little girl Maria and you see his desire for happiness come through, and then you see him pick her up and toss her into the lake only to realize that he’s done something bad and he runs off. Later, during the pre-wedding party in the village, we next see Maria’s body being carried through the town by her shell shocked father. Its very moving.

Original score by Bernhard Kaun, this was in ‘31, and sound was still a new thing for movies, so there isn’t all that much in terms of musical score. Most of the film is silent musically.

Frankenstein is a classic for a reason, absolutely. Strong performances from Karloff, Clive, Frye and Van Sloan, along with some outstanding camera work make this movie a benchmark for the horror genre.

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