(James Whale, US, 1931)
After the smash hit of Universal's first foray into horror pictures, the studio wasted no time in putting Mary Shelley's classic novel Frankenstein into production. The result is a classic film in the truest sense and surpassed the high standards set by it predecessor. The story examines light and dark, good and evil, the two profound subjects of birth and death. Passionate (but, yes slightly mad) scientist Henry Frankenstein's obsessive experiments into rejuvenation lead him to piece together a modern Prometheus made from the body parts of robbed graves and hanged men. On a shelf in his laboratory he has two brains in glass jars labeled 'Normal Brain' and 'Abnormal Brain'. An accident caused by his insane assistant Fritz leads to the young genius unknowingly putting the brain of a former criminal into the body of his creation. When the creature is brought to life by a huge surge of electricity, it struggles to understand its reason for being and cannot help an impulse to do evil, and kill.
English director James Whale brings to life a dramatic script, displaying incredible verve and skill. It is largely due to Whale's direction that Frankenstein is a superior film to Dracula - the film that spawned the incredibly successful 'Universal horrors' series and paved the way for Frankenstein. Whale had a cast of mixed talents, both John Boles' (as Victor) and Mae Clarke's (as Elizabeth) performances are stilted and weak - Victor and Elizabeth don't bat an eyelid when they discover that Henry has built a man from stolen body parts. Yet the director overcomes the limitations of some of his actors and expertly crafts a story that transcends the low-brow horror trappings that Universal (understandably) packaged the film in. Like Dracula before it, Frankenstein has some terrific, memorable sets. Frankenstein's huge laboratory - an abandoned clock tower filled with science fiction-style electronic equipment and, in contrast, the picturesque, cavernous set of Elizabeth's glamorous home. James Whale's sense of humour comes through most notably through the character of Baron Frankenstein, Henry's brusk father. His dialogue is particularly entertaining thanks largely to Frederick Kerr's amusing performance. Dwight Frye, again playing an insane sidekick, is super as usual, but the most memorable performance belongs, of course, to another Englishman, Boris Karloff as the creature. Injecting the role with a real sense of pathos, his non-speaking role dominates almost every scene in which he appears. Whilst Jack Pierce's astounding make up (still impressive even in close up today) plays a crucial part in making the creature believable, it's Karloff's thoughtful performance that makes the part the cinematic legend it is now. Whale portrays the creature with a sensitivity that has rarely been matched since (until Tim Burton's modern spin on the creation fairytale in Edward Scissorhands).
Despite the studio's best efforts to sell Frankenstein as a straight-forward monster on the loose movie, both Whale and Karloff make it impossible not to sympathise with the creature and feel anything but pity for him. This is most notable in the poignant scene when, believing she would float like the flowers they play with, the creature throws a little girl into a lake, accidentally killing her. But Whale also provides a few opportunities for the creature to be seen as the darker side of Henry Frankenstein's mind. When the creature comes face to face with his creator in the mountain sequence, he is like Frankenstein's guilty conscience staring back at him. Whale, having had extensive experience of directing stage plays, has no problem with directing dialogue. Indeed, it is one of the film's most outstanding features. Often delicately balanced just the right side of excess, the dialogue and its delivery are a delight time and time again. The famous creation sequence that has Frankenstein screaming "It's alive, it's a-live!" has just the right mix of insane hysteria and obsessive genius. In the scenes between Colin Clive and Edward van Sloane as the scientist's university mentor, the dialogue is so tightly written (Whale is known to have worked continuously during production on the dialogue even whilst shooting the scenes he was rewriting) that in the exchanges between Doctor and student are like listening to poetry they flow so beautifully between the characters. Frankenstein is rightly regarded, not just as a classic horror film, but as a classic film period. Even after all these years, it is incredibly inventive, entertaining and creepy. Everything a great horror movie should be. 9/10
A-Z of Film Reviews