Some people might balk at the idea of a horror movie being "comfort food". But to some extent that's exactly what Universal's "Frankenstein" is to me. It's the perfect thing to watch once in a great while during the spring, summer and autumn months when it's raining at night. If you're brave enough, watch this during a thunderstorm during the "It's Alive, IT'S ALIVE" scene to get the whole effect.
There's something cozy about this film. I know much of the story almost by heart, watching it again reminds me of the little nuggets that I've forgotten. There are nuances to this film that are easily overlooked because of the over-all iconic mark it's left on pop culture, such as "The Monster," the mad scientists lab in an abandoned castle, the hunchback assistant/lacky.
There's a lot about this movie to love if you're a vintage aficionado or just a classic movie fan. It's wonderful schmaltz from Hollywood, hoak played straight with make-up and special effects that were top-notch in the day but look extremely quaint and cheesy by our advanced yet jaded culture. This movie had effects that were state-of-art back then with the sparks, Tesla devices and Jaccob's Ladder (the two wires or conductors that point up into the air and electricity sparks climb upward...) that seem extremly primitive and dated by our standards while (in my opinion) still work in the context with-in the story and this version of Mary Shelly's story and the time when this movie was made.
This is also a horrible film in the sense that it perfectly illustrates man's cruelty to his own creation, our own "children," and is the perfect metaphor for how modern science and society quickly discards discoveries and inventions for the next best thing.
First, let me explain something to everyone and clear up a misnomer: Boris Karloff does NOT play Frankenstein. Nor does he play the monster.
Colin Clive plays Dr. Henry Frankenstein, (In the book by Mary Shelly, Frankenstein's name is Victor - it's not clear why Dr. Frankenstein's name is "Henry" in this cinematic version,) a man of noble birth which is obviously in Germany... He's man obviously obsessed with playing God and recreating life using ever-day energy that's all around us through a spectrum of light beyond ultra-violet or infra-red. In an effort to prove that this wave-length exists, he concocts the now famous experiment by piecing together a new man by using pieces of others found in grave-yards or the hang-mans gallows. [Did they still hang people in Germany in the 1930's? Ooooh... sorry!] Once his creation comes to life, Frankenstein quickly discards him and wants to move on the next thing with his new found discovery. For that reason, Dr. Henry Frankenstein is one of the monsters in this film.
His accomplice "Fritz" played by Dwight Frye - Fritz is mistakenly referred to as "Igor" by the general public, but none-the-less is the archetype hunchback half-witted assistant. I also regard Fritz as one of the monsters in this movie, who has no sense of sympathy or empathy towards another living being. As someone with a severe handicap and an outcast from society, I would think Fritz would think twice about showing cruelty. But there's at least one scene here where Fritz torments and even tortures the creator created by Dr. Frankenstein with a torch and a whip as the creature is chained to a wall in the dungeon in the basement of the castle where Frankenstein worked. Fritz's cruelty is paid-back 10 fold by the creature and loses his life.
The creature, played lovingly and compassionately by the consummate actor Boris Karloff, is shown no love, no compassion or mercy by any one. He is an oddity for Frankenstein and his collogues to study briefly before his escape. Not taught any concept of right or wrong or any of the basics such as speech or basic skills to just exist, Frankenstein's creature wonders the country side after his escape. How he learned to survive would have been wonderful to see, but is one of the movies failings at meeting it's full potential. The Creature stumbles upon a lonely girl who is bored and doesn't see him as ugly - just as big child who wants to play. She makes a game of throwing daises into the river. He accidently kills her after tossing her into the river thinking that was part of the game. Even underneath that make-up, Mr. Karloff is able to convey horror, shock, grief and panic. His acting in that one scene is worthy of an Oscar.
Which brings me to the final monster: Mob mentality. There is no trial for the monster, no jury -only the make-shift execution squad that sets out to exterminate the creature. Dr. Frankenstein is not charged with any crime, he is one of the leaders of the mob who sets out to hunt the creature. After being captured by his creation, the two are surrounded. Either our of compassion or frustration, the creature throws his creator out the window before the windmill they were hiding in is burned down.
Dr. Frankenstein, absolved of any wrong doing is then able to marry his girlfriend as his father proposes a toast, hoping that a grandson won't be too far into the future...
In Context In A Post World War II World...
What is fascinating about this movie is what's not on the screen. The motion picture was made during the 1930's, and this version takes place in Germany in that same decade, (obviously we can tell because of the over-abundance of fedoras and style of clothes.) This was the decade that saw the rise of Adolph Hitler's Nazi ragime, a totalitarian dictator who openly supported the concept of Eugenics and attempted to practice that through the genocide of the Jewish people and others deemed "undesirable." In that context, the film that was released in 1931 simply stopped being a mere horror movie (regardless of how it's revered as being one of the first, best ones) and became a metaphor about the years to come.
The idea behind Eugenics was to use science and breeding practices to create a race of supermen; Dr. Frankenstein's goal is similar, perfect on what God already started and prove his theories about life-giving energy in every-day light or electricity. Germany of the 1930's and this cinematic version of Mrs. Shelly's story have one obvious thing in common - the unintentional consequences that occur when someone perverts science and morality to achieve what ever can be done in the name of progress. As both the real-world Germany and Dr. Frankenstein chose to ignore is the consequences of their actions. For the country; it led to ruin and the death of millions of people, not just those who died in death camps or in the cruel labs where people where subjected to unimaginable tortures that were falsely labeled as experiments by uncompassionate scientists. For the man, Dr. Frankenstein it lead to chaos, destruction, unleashing of the base instincts of the locals turned into a mob, and the supposed death of something he brought to live with his own hands and ingenuity.
Much like many of the scientists who worked with The Nazi's in Germany who were of value to the western world and their contributions to the German atrocities were forgiven or over looked; Dr. Henry Frankenstein is allowed to live out his life in peace, untried and unconvinced by a court of law or a medical peer review. The only people who suffered is the creature, and those who got in the creatures way. [This might exactly be what Dutch director Richard Raaphorst has in mind with the recently announced "Army Of Frankenstein"]
Much of Mary Shelly's cautionary tale from her book is missing in this movie. And in many ways, the creature played by Boris Karloff is just as much of a victim of Dr. Frankenstein's, discarded forever after his brief moment of usefulness is over. This reminds me of the issues we face today such as embryonic stem-cell research, a single mother artificially inseminated with enough embryos to earn her a reality TV show, the rising cost of health care and the dilemmas we face when we prolong life with out returning meaning into it. I think of the "Frankenstein's monsters" that we create as we fill dumps and populate land-fills with last years fads today - and today's fads tomorrow.
Much of Mary Shelly's book is missing in this interpretation written by a team hired by Universal. (Peggy Webling, John L. Balderston, Francis Edward and Faragoh Garrett Fort.) While trying too hard to give this movie a happy ending, the cautionary aspect of this is almost non-existent. There's no real guilt or regret from Dr. Frankenstein, questioning him self or what he's done. There is no angst or desire to go back and udo the past which was such a huge theme in the novel. Nor is there There is no regret at the loss of life because of his actions, he pays no price for his hap-hazard blundering into the scientific realm of the unknown. This is also a commentary on the attitudes that humanity has towards new discoveries - focusing only on the fact that something new can be achieved and if there are any negative results or problems, it'll be a challenge for future generations to over come!
Mary Shelly's Frankenstein (the original novel, not the motion picture of the same name that was made decades later) is perhaps one of the most important novels written and it's influence is still felt and experienced today. Think about "Jurassic Park," "Blade Runner," the recently re-imaged "Battlestar Galactica" (humans created the first Cylons) Edward Scissorhands, Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" (and even the now obscure "Saturn 3" starting Kurt Douglas, Farah Fawcett and Harvey Keitel,) are all in retrospect variations on the same theme, if not out-right remakes.
All of these are reasons why "Frankenstein" is such an essential 'Flick To Hold You Over." Not dispite some of it's flaws, but because of some of them that clearly demonstrate the restraints and restrictions put on movie makers back in The Golden Era and how a movie could still thrive and be successful. This motion picture is also the epitome of atmospheric motion pictures of that era, spawning a new breed of cliche's and stereotypes from the mad scientist and his hunch-back assistants to misunderstood creatures and angry mobs with pitchforks.. If you're looking for an early classic movie that's full of suspense (not so much 'horror' any more) and has an eerie noir cinematic feel down cold - you can't get much better then "Frankenstein." Just be sure you get around to reading the original book someday.