Frankenstein. 1931. Dir. James Whale. Screenplay by Garrett Fort & Francis Edward Faragoh.
Starring Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, and Boris Karloff. Universal Pictures.
Unrated. 70 minutes.
★★★★★ (Blu ray release)
For my review of the excellent sequel, 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein, click here.
I won’t bore anyone by recounting the plot of Frankenstein because, not to sound snobbish or anything, if you haven’t seen it by now then that’s ridiculous. This really is one of the classic horrors of the film world. Regardless, everyone knows the story of Frankenstein because it’s one of those tales that really stood the test of time; in fact when Mary Shelley wrote the book it was ahead of its time. And if you haven’t seen it you’ve probably seen some other work which had its primary influence developed due to Shelley’s novel.
That being said the film is excellent. My personal problem with this version of Frankenstein is mainly a subjective thing. I try not to negatively judge the film adaptation of a novel of which I’m a fan. It isn’t fair. Film and novels are two entirely separate universes. While reading a novel you have no choice but to use your imagination, guided by the words of an author. However, while watching a film you’re essentially subjected to the imagination of the filmmakers. You have no choice but to shut off your imagination, for the most part (depending on what sort of film you’re watching – avant garde film, for instance, usually requires the imagination to be in full gear). Either way, I can’t help but feel as if James Whale’s adaptation of the Shelly novel missed out on some spectacular opportunities.
Now, of course, this was made in 1931. Though at the time I’m sure it was a lot of money, the film only cost a little over $250,000 to make (it would go on to make $12-million in domestic box office and who knows how much in video sales, and continues to make). I can forgive them to a certain extent for not fully going along with the entire story. There’s also the fact portions of Shelley’s novel are written in epistolary pieces, which frame the story; letters to and from characters. These, which occur right at the beginning of Frankenstein, are set on an expedition near the North Pole. My first thought as to why the screenwriters (the credits for the writing are actually a mess, as far as I’m concerned) decided not to start the film the way in which the novel begins is because maybe they felt audiences at the time might not respond to Henry Frankenstein (another change I just didn’t like) the same way. In the novel, we meet Victor Frankenstein through the eyes of Captain Robert Walton (who is writing the letters); he is near the North Pole, in the freezing cold, disturbed, lost, all sorts of a mess. Before he recounts the story of his terror-filled life, we already know he has suffered the consequences of whatever he’s done. I just feel as if the novel’s opening works perfectly for the characters. But of course, Henry Frankenstein is quite a different sort than Victor.
The monster looks great for 1931. Not to mention Boris Karloff does an incredible job of acting as Frankenstein’s monster. The performance isn’t overdone. Some of the subtleties in Karloff’s Monster are amazing. The first time we actually see him it’s brilliance. Everything moves so slow. And of course there’s the famous scene of the Monster befriending a little girl; you almost well up with fear beforehand, wondering exactly what will happen, and the Monster goes right ahead subverting our expectations. Until things go a little bit too far. It’s a really wonderful moment.
However, all that being said, I still prefer the descriptions of the monster in Shelley’s novel to the visualization in film. You can’t simply pass that off as this being done in 1931, either. It’s not the problem. They simply toned it down. Yes, that has to do with audiences in 1931, but that didn’t totally limit them. The make-up effects didn’t have to be terribly gruesome. I just imagine Frankenstein’s monster looking less like a man in a lot of regards. Karloff looks great, and actually does appear creepy a lot of times, mostly in his facial expressions. But the Monster in the novel is far more terrifying. I know, again, this is a very subjective line of critiquing. Whale’s film did a fine job enough with the horror, but that there were a lot of other opportunities he could have mined to really horrify audiences. I can only imagine seeing this at the time – I would’ve shit myself. Still, this movie does a great job even today of being highly creepy. There are just a lot of missed chances I wish Whale had taken.
Aside from my problems with the translation into film, it’s still a classic, as I mentioned in the beginning. The iconic status of Frankenstein’s Monster is unparalleled. He is parodied in countless other films and television shows (I think of, more recently, a skit on Chappelle’s Show involving African-Americanized versions of Frankenstein’s monster, as well as the Mummy and the Wolf-Man). The core of the story about Frankenstein and his Monster has been used in various other novels, films, and so on; the idea of playing god, making a man, et cetera. It is something that endures on and on. It’ll continue to do so, as every Halloween you no doubt see at least one kid walking around with a Frankenstein’s Monster costume on (although everybody mistakenly calls the Monster Frankenstein when really he has no name, and is Frankenstein’s Monster… but whatever). It’s one of those tales we cannot forget. And film adaptations help these novels extend their lives further into new generations.
The Blu ray release by Universal Pictures is absolutely magnificent. The picture was digitally restored, and it’s shocking how great the film looks in such beautiful high definition. I’d seen Frankenstein countless times before. Once I watched this I couldn’t believe my eyes. Not only is the picture worth the price, but there are a bunch of really interesting special features. One such extra is a short film called Boo! which is a comedy lampooning Universal’s own horrors such as The Cat Creeps and Frankenstein, as well as their own Dracula; however, instead of using footage from their own version they used the German Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. It’s actually a riot. You can imagine this being done today, honestly. A few jokes about cosmetic surgery and congress, a couple more using quick reverse-fast forward sequences, and hilarity ensues.
Other extras include a fun little bit called Monster Tracks: basically at various points throughout the film bits of trivia will pop up on the screen. For instance, there are some fun pieces concerning the scene where Frankenstein ‘plays’ with the girl by the lake (such as how Whale wanted Karloff to throw the girl in insisting “You see it’s all part of the ritual”). Furthermore, you’ve got some little documentaries & featurettes like “Karloff: The Gentle Monster” (including interviews with everyone from several Karloff biographers to the likes of Joe Dante, Ramsey Campbell and Richard Gordon) and “The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster”. These are some awesome little bits to fill in the release. We got a lot of great insight behind the film itself, as well as its star, the Monster himself Boris Karloff.
As a film, I give Whale’s Frankenstein a 4 out of 5. It’s classic, it’s amazing, yes, but I really do feel they missed opportunities here. If they were able to adapt Shelley’s actual novel they should have used some of the best bits, which unfortunately they did not. It doesn’t ruin the film at all. Look at this as a much more subjective review than I would normally do. I only do it this way because I think the novel is an absolute masterpiece. Some say different, and think it’s overrated. I think not. It’s near perfect as a horror novel can be.
The Blu ray release gets a flawless 5 out of 5 star rating. How can it not? The picture alone is enough to justify buying the Blu ray. I can’t get over it. Everything looks so wonderful for a film that was done over 80 years ago now. Plus, all the features included on Universal’s restored version are a blast. You can spend hours going through this disc just to get through all the wonderful material they’ve added.
I highly recommend anyone who hasn’t seen this film, please, go do it. Especially if you’re a horror fan, or consider yourself a horror buff. Your viewing isn’t done until you’ve seen this. And also, if you have yet to read the novel, go get a copy. Shelley is an absolute master. A really wonderful read. And just like a film, it will grip you, and shock you at times. One of my all-time favourites.