Sunday, April 10, 2011

#247. Frankenstein (1931)

Directed By: James Whale

Starring: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, Boris Karloff, Dwight Frye

Tag line: "The Man Who made a Monster"

Trivia:  John Carradine turned down the role of The Monster because he felt the part was beneath him

Frankenstein opens with a warning. 

Actor Edward Van Sloan (who also plays Dr. Waldman in the film) appears suddenly from behind a curtain, and speaks directly to the audience about the film they are about to see. 

I think it will thrill you”, he says, “It may shock you. It might even horrify you”. 

Today, this caveat seems a bit silly. Over the years, Frankenstein has lost most of its ability to frighten an audience. But even back in 1931, there was more to this film than the horror it generated. Thanks to director James Whale, Frankenstein also has an air of agitation about it, a sort of chaotic imbalance that, at the very least, still manages to unnerve you.

Noted scientist Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is about to uncover the secret to creating new life. Having re-assembled body parts he amassed by robbing graves, Frankenstein needs only the perfect brain to complete his creation. 

But when Frankenstein’s assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye), accidentally destroys the healthy brain while stealing it from a nearby laboratory, he instead grabs one that belonged to a psychotic criminal. 

Frankenstein’s experiment is successful, and his creation is, indeed, brought to life. However, the doctor's joy soon turns to horror when he realizes that his creation (Boris Karloff) is a monster. 

Locked away in Frankenstein's lab, the monster eventually escapes, and begins wreaking havoc all across the countryside.

It doesn’t matter how old the film is; Frankenstein can still give its audience the creeps. The opening scene, which takes place in a dark, foreboding cemetery, sees Frankenstein and his assistant, Fritz, digging up a freshly buried body, and it is positively chilling. Even today, this opening is enough to start your skin to crawling; just imagine how it must have played in 1931! 

Then, of course, there's the now-infamous scene where the monster inadvertently drowns a young girl named Maria (Marilyn Harris). While many were surely stunned by the drowning itself, it’s the image that follows it, that of Maria’s distraught father (Michael Mark) carrying his daughter's lifeless form through the village, that really got to me. As he's carrying her limp body, Whale keeps the camera squarely on him, following his journey by way of an impressive tracking shot. The effect is magnificent, resulting in a sequence that shows the tragedy of death, and concludes with an almost fanatical sense of outrage building among the villagers. It is still very powerful to watch.

While the screams may have gone silent, the unsettling atmosphere of Frankenstein has survived, and will most likely continue to do so for many years to come.