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Frankenstein (1931)

by on 2011/10/01

“Frankenstein was interested only in human life. First to destroy it, then recreate it.”

* * *

I decided to kick off October’s horror movie month with the oldest creature feature in the stack, Universal Horror’s Frankenstein. Produced in 1931, and directed by James Whale, it stars Colin Clive as the title character, and the uncredited — yet inimitable — Boris Karloff as the monster.

I’ve seen it several times before, but remember only the same broad strokes everybody knows. Aside from those common points, however, I found it unmemorable.  My latest viewing demonstrated why. Though it might have resonated several generations ago, today it strikes me as somewhat flawed and uneven.

Sequestered in a German castle, Dr. Henry Frankenstein and his unstable assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) reanimate the monster they have assembled from parts of other corpses. Using a lightning-powered ray even higher in the colour spectrum than ultraviolet — you lunatics! — they effect a godlike power of endowing the dead with life. Suddenly Fritz has a new underling to torment.

Meanwhile, Henry’s forgotten his wedding plans. In the nearby town of Goldstadt, his fiancee Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) is distraught, his father the Baron (Frederick Kerr) is sputtering, and the Burgomaster Vogel (Lionel Belmore) is fretting about scheduling. Fortunately the monster’s escape and subsequent rampage gives them — and us — a bit of excitement at last.

Perhaps it was the lack of excitement that had me nitpicking early on. I wondered why Henry was hiding from his mentor, Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan). The elder professor is already familiar with the experiment. Is Henry possessive, paranoid, or forgetful? It isn’t made clear, unless “insane” is a catch-all for various oversights.

While the monster is shown to be fearful of fire, in other instances it’s drawn toward light. Seems counterintuitive — religious subtext notwithstanding — so what’s the concrete explanation? And speaking of matters spiritual, what’s with Elizabeth predicting the wedding day attack? At no point before or after are her psychic abilities established.

Okay, I admit, I’m being slightly facetious there.

Still, for all the minor reservations, my most serious is with the monster. Karloff does well in suggesting pathos. The story has him expressing fear and, at one point, he even smiles. Later, in the midst of attack, his face becomes fleetingly lecherous. However, these hints at depth are no more than passing flickers. The monster’s actions always revert to violence.

(I should note a bias here which not everyone will agree with. I have a long-standing difficulty accepting characters as being good if they are not doing good. A grin is not redemptive to me if it’s followed by killing someone.)

Couple the relentless tragedy with superfluous slapstick bits, and I felt less comic relief than genre whiplash. Any sequence with the Baron or Vogel appeared cut in from a different piece. The wedding subplot not only compromises Henry’s character, but is completely mismatched to the main attraction, a failure of counterpoint and, perhaps worst of all, uninteresting on its own.

Not to mention an ending so goofy I’ll try to forget it.

Production-wise, I was mostly impressed, especially for the time. I feel more confident critiquing story, script, and characters. These aspects have had centuries to evolve. But visual effects in the 1930s were in their infancy.

So, let’s ignore the windmill scene, with its ghosting and variable speed, as well as the obvious indoor reverb echoing through the “outdoor” sets. Instead, let’s appreciate the castle sets, the mad science lab, and the town. Appropriately, everything’s shown through a lens borrowed from the German Expressionists. Grainy, high-contrast black and white shows off the stark angles and shadows, Gothic and medieval all at once.

I’m trying to find as much good in this film as I can, despite my disappointment. The opening prologue may have over-heightened my expectations. The actor who played Waldman stands up onstage, warning us about what’s to follow. With all his talk of thrills, shocks, and horrors, the rest seemed anticlimactic.

It’s no fun knocking Frankenstein. It’s influential, popular, and critically acclaimed, in its own time, and all the years since then. Nothing I say will change the fact it’s an acknowledged classic. It not being without flaws, however, is a valid observation.

Watching it reminded me of “The Scorpion and the Frog”. In this fable, a scorpion drowns itself by stinging the frog which agreed to ferry it across the water. Frankenstein’s monster may be violent; Frankenstein, the movie, may be flawed. I recognize these imperfections are part of the natures of both but, although I might sympathize, that doesn’t make them right.

* * *

Rated PG

70 minutes

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