When I decided that I was going to embrace the Halloween spirit and watch “Halloween-ish” movies during the month of October, I knew that Frankenstein (1931) had to be somewhere on that list. This film, to me, is essential viewing for the Halloween season, as I consider it to be the most iconic film ever made about Frankenstein and his Monster (here portrayed brilliantly by Boris Karloff).
As you might expect, Frankenstein sets out to tell the story of Henry Frankenstein (renamed from Victor for some reason and also played brilliantly by Colin Clive), and his quest to imbue a body of his own creation (Boris Karloff) with life. While the experiment works, things quickly go sideways and soon the Monster is terrorizing the countryside (though whether or not he’s aware that he’s doing so is something I’ll address later). At the same time, Frankenstein is also hoping to get married to his long-suffering sweetheart Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) to ease the mind of his equally long-suffering father (Frederick Kerr).
Truthfully, having read the original Frankenstein novel, I can tell you that this film only bears a superficial resemblance to Mary Shelley’s story about “the modern Prometheus.” Most of the book’s plot, in fact, is excised to allow the film to center around the Monster being given life and the chaos that follows. Possibly the biggest difference between book and film is that the loquacious Monster in the book is almost completely silent in the film, his speech being limited to grunts and cries of pain and anger. It’s somewhat disappointing, as Karloff had a beautiful voice and I believe would’ve done justice to the Monster’s lines in the book. However, I understand what director James Whale was going for in this film, and also support the notion of a Monster that cannot talk, at least at the beginning (this changes in the sequel film The Bride of Frankenstein).
However, despite all these differences from the source novel, Frankenstein is a wonderful film and remains an iconic take on the story of Frankenstein and his Monster. While bearing a different name, Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein remains for me the iconic take on the titular character. He’s filled with a nervous energy that becomes especially palpable during the scene of the Monster’s creation. I’ve yet to see anyone else play the role of Frankenstein and top this performance.
I think my favorite scene in the film is the Monster’s creation scene. This is what I always imagined the creation scene looked like in the Frankenstein story (and I was so disappointed to discover the book does NOT tell you how Frankenstein brought the Monster to life) and it’s spine-tingling to hear Frankenstein howling with joy “It’s alive….IT’S ALIVE!!!” Surrounded by the crackling electricity, it’s an exciting moment that’s just pure in its intentions.
The biggest element the film gets right is the doubt it sows throughout about the Monster’s intentions. While the Monster of the book is undoubtedly a cunning creature inclined to villainy once it experiences rejection on multiple levels, the Monster of this film is another matter entirely. While the story almost immediately sets up the idea that the Monster will be and MUST be evil because an abnormal brain was used in its creation, the Monster’s action throughout the film suggest something else. Think about it…what evil did the Monster do and in what context? Yes, he did kill Frankenstein’s assistant Fritz but only after the latter tormented him with fire (the thing he hates above all else) even after being told to stop. True, he also killed Dr. Waldman but to be fair the latter was about to euthanize him and the Monster, being a living being, naturally wanted to continue living. Waldman somewhat brought his fate on itself by not being open at any time to the idea that the Monster was anything but evil. And after that, the scene with little Maria, anyone can see that her death was a tragic accident. The Monster was clearly enjoying playing with the little girl, and only threw her into the pond because he’d run out of things to throw and thought she would float like the pretty flower boats. This version of the Monster, I believe, is not inherently evil at all, but is only acting the best way he knows how, and it’s only through a series of errors that the entire village is stirred up against him.
Speaking of getting stirred up, I find it so interesting that no one in the village ever finds out that the monster Frankenstein is helping to hunt down was created by Frankenstein himself. You’ll notice Frankenstein never publicly volunteers the information that he created this monster that he’s working to destroy. Sure, he feels guilty about what he’s done, but not enough to publicly confess. I’m not sure if that’s hypocritical or selfish on Frankenstein’s part (or maybe both), but it is interesting.
And I think the biggest clue of all that the Monster in this film is not evil is how he reacts when the mill is set on fire. Fearing fire above all else, the Monster is clearly afraid, in pain, and just wanting to be left alone. It’s heartrending to watch, and it makes me wonder how the story could’ve been so different if Frankenstein had taken more care with his creation instead of immediately chaining him up the instant he wasn’t 100% obedient to him.
One more interesting detail I wanted to point out is that there’s really no music in this film except for the opening and closing titles of the film. In some scenes (like the Monster’s creation), this could probably be argued as a creative decision. However, I also know that in 1931 many films didn’t have proper musical soundtracks as we understand them today. This is largely because, while the technology of making a “talking film” had largely been figured out, the technology of making a “talking film with music in the background” had not. Hence, except for the village celebration scenes (and the opening/closing titles), there is no background music in Frankenstein. You’ll note, however, that this issue was corrected by the time of The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935.
I know it’s an older film, but I highly recommend adding Frankenstein (1931) to your Halloween viewing list. It’s classic horror in every sense of the word and really you should watch it for Boris Karloff’s performance alone.
Let me know what you think about Frankenstein (1931) in the comments below and have a great day!
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