SP Review: 'Frankenstein' (1931) remains a classic 80 years later

Arts and culture reporter Brandon King gives the movie 'Frankenstein' 8.5/10

Even after 200 years, Frankenstein is aliveeee. 

The landmark horror novel that has inspired and haunted for generations,Mary Shelley’s "Frankenstein," is 200 years old this year. 

Two centuries after Shelley’s tale of a mad scientist who attempts to create life from death was published, Frankenstein is alive and well in pop culture, music, television and of course, plenty of films.

These have ranged from J. Searle Dawley’s 1910 silent film to Mel Brooks’ comedy "Young Frankenstein" (1974) to more recent adaptations like Paul McGuigan’s "Victor Frankenstein" (2015).

Arguably, none of these films have kept more of an image in the popular consciousness than James Whale’s 1931 film simply titled "Frankenstein.

A result of Universal Pictures’ attempts to turn more of their properties into horror films, Whale’s Frankenstein interpretation is widely considered one of the best horror films every made.  

Recently, I had the chance to watch "Frankenstein" for the first time, and at a perfect time too with both the 200th anniversary and the proximity to Halloween. 

I have to say it was incredible, mostly because "Frankenstein" takes the themes, style and emotion inspired by Shelley’s novel and concentrates them into a film. 

Henry Frankenstein, played by Colin Clive, is a scientist studying in rural Germany with his assistant Fritz, played by Dwight Frye. Frankenstein is determined to reanimate a being constructed out of recently deceased body parts which he and Fritz steal from local graveyards, and a brain he steals from his former professor, Dr. Waldman, played by Edward Van Sloan

Concerned over Frankenstein's well-being, Henry’s fiance Elizabeth, played by Mae Clarke, and friend Victor, played by John Boles, enlist the help of Dr. Waldman to bring Frankenstein home. With the three of them as witnesses, Frankenstein’s experiment is a success in bringing a creature of his own design to life. 

The creature, played by Boris Karloff, though dimwitted, clearly has a mind of its own, leaving Frankenstein to wonder what he should do with his new creation. 

The true star of this movie is its director, James Whale, who directs everything in this movie to an inch. Every word, movement and color is precisely timed to the beats of the story. In addition, visual subtleties in the framing of different characters in specific environments add to the overall tone of the film.  

The lighting and camera angles only enhance the already fantastic production design to evoke an eerie sense of dread in the viewer. By the time the climax comes around, the film ends up almost feeling like a depiction of Frankensteins’s mind: stable and with a purpose but susceptible to its own chaos and obsessions.

Just as crucial as the visual design, the acting is mostly exceptional, especially by Clive and Karloff. Clive drives home the point that he’s gone mad but he brings his dialogue to life with such vigorous conviction that you start to believe in his goal to do the impossible and attain power over life. 

As for Karloff, he gives depth to a character without much dialogue or motivation. The creature is very much the focal point in the last two thirds of the movie, and Karloff gives us plenty of reason to care about this creature who is arguably created against his own will; the reason Karloff’s incarnation has inspired dozens of imitators in the same vein. 

There’s nothing truly bad I can say about this movie, but it does feel like something's missing. There’s a side plot involving Frankenstein and Elizabeth’s wedding and Frankenstein's father which is highly uninteresting. 

This version of "Frankenstein" is rightfully a classic and is one of the biggest reasons this character has endured for so long. What Shelley’s original novel describes, Whale beautifully brings to life through his directing makes the film an icon of its genre. 

Will the movie scare people as thoroughly as it did 80 years ago or as the book did 200 years ago? Maybe not. But there’s more than enough else to make it worth watching this Halloween season.

Overall, I give "Frankenstein" a rating of 8.5 out of 10 stars.


Reach the reporter at brandon.D.King@asu.edu or follow @TheMovieKing45 on Twitter.

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