a follow up to
their hit movie DRACULA,
Universal Studios released FRANKENSTEIN, loosely based on Mary
Shelley's classic horror novel. Boris Karloff, who had
been in many films but to little acclaim, skyrocketed to fame overnight
by playing the part of Dr. Frankenstein's mute, murderous
monster. The film would spawn several sequels over the next
decades, but Boris Karloff would only play the Monster three times, in
this film, THE
BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. Though
every Universal Frankenstein film has some merit, the first two Boris Karloff
films are probably the most admired of the series.
Karloff plays the Monster as a child, always holding out his hands for something, always pleading. Of course, this particular child tends to murder people if he doesn't get his way, but thanks to a well-written script and Karloff's performance, we tend not to hold it against him. In this film, the Monster kills Dr. Frankenstein's assistant Fritz, Dr. Waldman (an associate of Dr. Frankenstein), and a little child from the village. Karloff's monster remains sympathetic, however, due to the circumstances of the murders. Fritz has a nasty habit of waving a lit torch in the Monster's general direction. Needless to say, the Monster only takes so much of this before he decides to overpower Fritz and hand him a strangling he won't soon forget (beautifully shown in silhouette)! When the Monster realizes that Dr. Waldman, played by Edward Sloan, is going to put him out of everybody's misery, he really has no other choice than to strangle the doctor too. And when he meets little Maria, in the film's most tender scene, he accidentally drowns her while playing a game near the lake. The first two murders were clearly in self-defense, while the last was purely an accident. (He wanted to see if the child could float. Turns out she couldn't.)
In this first Frankenstein film, the Monster could not yet speak, but Karloff gives him a voice by using grunts, whimpers and roars to get his message across. Though parts of the film are creaky and dated, Karloff's performance remains powerful. His grunts and groans are often more effective than some of the stilted dialogue. There are so many memorable scenes in this film, including the Monster's first taste of sunlight (he likes it), his introduction to fire (he doesn't like it), and the drowning of Maria and his subsequent panic attack, two scenes that were originally cut from the movie after previews but have been restored in the video release. Karloff's interpretation of the Monster is one of the best performances of the 1930's, and perhaps the century. He is greatly aided, of course, by Jack Pierce's unforgettable makeup. Pierce would create the look for most if not all of the famous Universal monsters, and his work is still unmatched today.
The most remarkable scene, and one that is nowhere to be found in Shelley's classic novel, must be the creation scene. Special effects back in the thirties were often crude, but with a few impressive looking electrical instruments, and a platform, which rises to the very top of Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory, this scene has carved its way into film history. It is brought to a rousing conclusion by Colin Clive, playing Dr. Frankenstein, who almost has a nervous breakdown while screaming "It's alive! It's alive, it's alive!". Clive's performance as the slightly insane Doctor comes close to crossing the line from overacting to camp, but it is unforgettable.
Many good, bad and indifferent versions of Shelley's tale have been filmed over the years. James Whale's stylish, shadowy film is not only the granddaddy of them all, but still one of the most influential horror films of all time. ½ - JB