Thursday, October 15, 2009

Halloween Horrors- Frankenstein (1931)

Off to a late start, but my first Halloween film post is on a personal favorite, Frankenstein. The story, for those of you who have lived an incredibly sheltered life, is based on the 1818 novel written by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who was a teen when she wrote it, though the film is merely based on it, and not a direct adaptation.

The film, directed by James Whale, is about the efforts of Dr. Henry Frankenstein (played admirably by Colin Clive), who strives to make a living being using parts of dead bodies, literally creating life from death. Assisted by his huncbacked employee Fritz (Dwight frye), he assembles enough pieces to make his creation. However, Fritz manages to destroy the brain Henry had designs on during his fumble-fingered scavanger hunt, and brings another brain of not exactly equal but definately lesser value. When he realizes that his creation isn't of the caliber he had hoped for, he decides to wash his hands of him, but the Monster (portrayed by Boris Karloff, in a stellar performance) has other ideas, and escapes. Murder, chaos, and fear lead up to a final confrontation in a burning windmill in one of the all-time classic horror films ever made.

Frankenstein is a classic, and after a recent viewing, it does still hold up well today. The plot moves along at a decent pace. It starts right off in the graveyard, with the good Doctor and Fritz gathering parts for Henry's big science project, and goes along from there. The creation scene in the lab is great, with all those crazy , pseudo-scientific contraptions ( created by master propman Kenneth Strickfaden) crackilng , whirring, and blazing. The sets are mostly of the studio-standing-in-for -outdoors type, but it gives the film a kind of storybook feel, albiet a dark storybook. The acting is well done, too, and not as 'stagey' as some films of the era. Clive does an excellent job as the Doctor, giving an intense performance of Henry Frankenstein as a basicaly good guy who is obsessed with his pursuits, and perhaps a bit insane as well. Frye sets the standard for hunchbacked, morally depraved lackeys as Fritz, and Karloff knocks it out of the park as The Monster, billed in the opening credits as '?'. His Monster is indeed scary, but he manages to also give him a sense of innocence, almost like an unwanted child...a big, scary, undead child, who can be violent when provoked, but a child nonetheless. When Fritz is tormenting the Monster with fire, I know I wanted to see him grab that hunchbacked bastard and let him have it( which he does later). The famous scene with the little girl also illustrates the child-like nature of the Monster. Wandering the countryside, the Monster finds a litle girl playing by a lake. She is unafraid of him, and invites him to play. The towering brute is joyful at making a friend. They play at tossing flowers in the lake. When they run out of flowers, the monster, with his less-than-adequate mental capacities, decides since the flowers were pretty, it'd be Ok to toss the little girl in the lake, too. As she drowns, we see the the Monster visibly upset at his mistake...far from a mindless murder machine, he didn't mean to hurt the little girl, but is unequipped to let the villagers know it was a mistake, as he is mute, communicating only with growls, grunts, and whimpers...not that the villagers would probably listen, anyway.

I don't know how it is for generations younger than mine, but Frankenstein is one of those characters that is universally known (pun intended). Frankenstein set the bar for monster movies...the mad scientist, the hunchbacked assistant, the monster, the angry villagers, the dark castle, the stormy night, the graveyards to creep around all started here, although I believe Dracula(1931) was made first, it's Frankenstein that , to me, that remains the gold standard of horror film mythology. Frankenstein(the monster), as a character, has become immortal, like other literary characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, James Bond, and Conan. Also like these characters, Frankenstein is better known through movies featuring him than the original source novel. He has also, like the aforementioned examples, gone on in countless other media, like comics, TV shows, toys, and in spoofs such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and the brilliant and hilarious Young Frankenstein(1974), done by Mel Brooks. Even folks who don't watch horror movies know who you mean when you mention Frankenstein. Something about him has etched itself onto our popular culture psyche. It may have to do with the fact that he's both monster and innocent, or maybe it's because most of us have grown up with these movies, and they've left their mark on us in one way or another...or maybe it's a bit of both. I often wonder , just how I wonder what Robert E. Howard would think of his characters still being popular today, what Shelley would think of her creation being such a part of the horror ( if not cultural) landscape...I think she would probably like it.

If you've never seen Frankenstein, I humbly suggest you do so ...and this is the perfect season for it. And if it's been a long time since you've watched it, get a copy and revisit and old classic...and an old friend of mine.

"Here's to a new world of Gods and Monsters"-
Dr. Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger), Bride of Frankenstein,


Michelle's Spell said...

Hey Scott,

Love the new witch at the top -- are you a good witch or a bad witch? :) LOVE Frankenstein. Going as Bride of this year. Thanks for the great review and reminder.

Scott said...


Thanks-that's Veronica Lake...and I would hope she's a bad witch. :)

I think you'll make a lovely Bride, Darlin'. I'm still trying to figure out my costume for this year.

Lana Gramlich said...

Did you know that many of the buzzing, whirring contraptions in Frankenstein's lab were reused in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein? I thought that was pretty cool.

Scott said...


I think I read that any rate, that's very cool!