No one in the horror genre can truly deny the importance or the significance of the legendary date November 21, 1931, the day that director James Whale gave life to the incredible movie Frankenstein, created from the mind of 21-year-old Mary Shelley in the year of 1818, now celebrating its 85th anniversary. Frankenstein has the full set of criteria to make it a classic, a story laced with madness and romance, great makeup, and the performance is mesmerizing of both Boris Karloff and Colin Clive, on a staggering budget of $291,000 for its era (equal to $4.5 million today). Now, to some the film doesn’t live up to a standard of the thrills, chills and gore fests that one expects from the horror cinema, however returning to yesteryears the movie covered all the essential horrific themes. It actually was the third time a film would retell the story of Frankenstein, though this one from Universal became the definite benchmark, the previous movies came from Edison Studios in 1910 and Life without Soul (1915). Many fans turn to the 1970s and 1980s for the splash of horror genre believing it relish in magnificent time, and while true, the foundation benchmark exists in the 1930s and stretching into the early 1940s, or the Universal Monsters era. Needless to say, the film earned accolades for countless years, and took a virtual unknown actor of Karloff, thrusting into the memories of many cinematic and horror fans for generations to learn about, and with a movie that continues to influence generations in various disciplines of the arts. Thereby, the movie survives to this day, whether in music, cereals, television shows, Halloween masks, figurines, statues, games, attractions and paintings, with no letup in sight, everyday one becomes more thankful for that. However, a major misconception, when one refers to Frankenstein they likely misidentify who that actually is, The Monster in the original credits, was represented by only a question mark, while Frankenstein equals the doctor’s last name, but alas time has blended the two into one.
As the horror genre keeps changing and evolving, this movie of Frankenstein stands proudly, while it doesn’t win the top 10 in horror lists, per modern fans, it remains in the shadows lurking and spreading its iconic tale of creation. The film maintains a gothic architecture from creation to delivery, but not without controversy, noting the censors’ boards of then, vastly different than those that Alfred Hitchcock encounter with his making of Psycho (1960) and those of MPAA today. Whale’s movie encountered a re-evaluation in 1934, with Hays Code then in effect, also known as Motion Picture Production Code and his flick violated two of the three rules considered blasphemy in response to the line “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” It found itself replaced with the legendary sound effect known as Castle Thunder, and used by other filmmakers with a quiet opposition to the censors over other trivia matters. The fantastic comedic horror film Young Frankenstein (1974) by director Mel Brooks, frequently used the sound effect, it has since found itself retired from usage in 1988.
One would hope everyone knows the story of Frankenstein, whether from reading Shelley’s novel or seeing at least one of the movies, but a short synopsis to assist those unsure of this creation. Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) along with his assistant Fritz (played by Dwight Frye, who had the famous performance in Dracula (1931)) digs up and steals a freshly buried corpse to use in the experiment to create life. In their fleeting reckless moment, the dear doctor, careless to the respect of the dead, shown by tossing dirt into the face of the Grim Reaper standing watch over the cemetery, takes from the dead his first act of abomination. Then the improper placement of ill-advised brain, and the chaos, ensues, mainly as the doctor lacks the fatherly abilities to comfort and teach his creation, in this to some The Monster, but actuality his child. A key note in the book, no reference in the narration of the method used for the creating the said monster, reasoning Frankenstein wanted to hold the key to life and death; hence the filmmakers choose the usage of electricity. One aspect never discussed during the movie, but frequently revisited but cinema lovers, the creation of the soul, a religious debate that varies to heighten disagreements. This corrupted science Frankenstein employs finds the continued usage in many, many horror films, always leading to madness, and death to others. One the most famous scenes in the film focuses on the Monster shuffling through the woods and meeting the innocent child Maria (Marilyn Harris), whose throwing flower petals into a pond. This scene actually has two children present, the little girl and Karloff’s character, he doesn’t understand life or death, no instructions, and his actions come from Frankenstein’s doing, his fate. As to what happens, one needs to revisit the film with all haste.
A minor subplot runs under the madness of Dr. Frankenstein’s motivations, involving a wedding, once again, the horror genre incorporates other genres into the mix, herein the romance, Elizabeth, (Mae Clark). While Karloff never utters a word, his actions, and movements, Colin delivers the infamous insane lines of screams “It’s Alive”, and Frye conjures the freakish representation for a henchman, some criticize the rest of the cast as wooden. Now this might be for the fact, the newness of sound, which started 1927, via Vitaphone, the pronunciation, became more direct and in cause over dramatic to emphasize the point. Once again, one must recall the era; the technology highly antique to us now, was to them a marvel.
Whale’s direction along with the cinematography allow for both swift movements and tight capturing of facial expression, assistance from the shadows cast by various lighting layouts, reminiscent of German stylization of F.W. Murnau’s notable film Nosferatu (1922). However, equally challenging and exception, the makeup design of The Monster, and revolutionary style, (later copyrighted by Universal), of multiple layers all from the artist and genius of Jack P. Pierce. His methodology relates to the similar path later sought of Tom Savini and in some manners to H.R. Giger, with his dedication to study surgery and anatomy along with burial customs of various styles. The weight of the makeup added to the lumbering and awkward movements of Karloff, yet this continues the design and pattern for all future generations of actors portraying the monster, with rare deviations. In addition, and perhaps an unruly insult the fantastic lab equipment creator Ken Strickfaden, received no thanks or credit, in fact the entire special and visual effects teams found themselves uncredited for movie, which typically occurred in that era. In Brook’s Young Frankenstein, finally Ken received the proper credit and thanks for usage of the original Frankenstein laboratory equipment.
The passion of fans, helped Frankenstein and his Monster generate seven sequels ending in 1945, and which perhaps the best-married part two, with James Whale at the helm, The Bride of Frankenstein in (1935), the two films often shown together, as the stories flow so evenly that some purists cannot have them parted. However, some try to include the horror spoof of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), needless to say, the original spawn over fifty-nine reincarnations of the tale, and likely many more to come in the future as newer filmmakers both directors and screenwriters tell the tales to future generations of horror fans.
Although, in the past I have mention that Grizzly (1976) was the first horror film I saw, my first introduction came from a double feature, Frankenstein (1931) and Psycho (1960), it was here the genre enthralled and hooked my entire attention, like so many other horror fans. It was not until 1999 that film fully restored to its original glory, bypassing all the censors’ objections, which plagued the movie for countless years. A bit a trivia note, in 2015 a style C movie poster (now a dying art) that measured 3 x 6.5 feet, of this 1931 classic most recently fetched $358,500 at Heritage Auctions, making it one of the rarest and expensive posters ever sold. Now with the passage of time of 85-years, the monster continues the impact in facets, and Frankenstein lives with the most influential aspect to all horror movies. The classic horror that this film is; makes and marks it as one every fan should have in their collection, and needs to see just once in their lives.