Should I even be putting my paltry thoughts out to the world about this ground-breaking, masterful film? There must be countless essays or reviews out there about James Whale's classic horror film. Well, time to hit the back button, boys and ghouls, here comes another one, so send those letters of litigation my way!
I won't bother with the story. Send me an email if you're from a different galaxy and I'll send you a plot summary. Why is it such a good film? I'll work my way up to the high points. The film's production history was quite chaotic - Bela Lugosi (not a relative, incidentally) was slated to play the monster, Robert Florey to direct. However, creative egoes intervened and personalities clashed. James Whale was assigned to direct and he subsequently hired an unknown extra, Boris Karloff, to play the nameless creature. I wonder what sort of film it would have been with Bela as the monster? Robert Florey went on to direct "Murders in the Rue Morgue" with Bela in the lead. It's a fun old horror film, but hardly has the overall gravitas this one has.
What a fantastic looking film. I love black and white photography, and it's rarely better used here. The skies are leaden and portentious, even though in reality just painted backdrops. Colour would have washed away the morbid gloom, and brought in too much life. The sets, particularly Henry Frankenstein's laboratory, are similar to Doctor Rotwang's in "Metropolis", but still, this is the clincher for laboratories in horror films. Go no further for electrical wizardry, courtesy of gadget whiz, Kenneth Strickfadden. The graveyards and Bavarian villages are also splendid gothic creations.
There's an interesting lack of musical score. I'm not film historian enough to know if this was standard, but it's effective here - it feels even more stark and dreadful in this barren, treeless, music-less world. We don't need manipulative music to feel horror here.
The script is adequate, with the odd classic quote indispersed. The monster is brought to life, as Frankenstein hysterically rants, "In the name of God,, now I know what it's like to be God!" It's a line that was originally cut, only to be restored recently by a more secular society. I've never heard it uttered, one day I'll see the restored version. There are plenty of other great pieces of dialogue. Hear them for yourself! Whale directs in a fairly humorless tone, but the sequel, "Bride of Frankenstein" would address this lack in a memorable way. But the support cast in this film give great, verging on comic performances. Fritz, the hunchbacked assistant played by Dwight Frye, is a wonderful, gleefully sadistic goblin. Frankenstein's father is a wonderful old English duffer, strangely transported to a quaint Bavarian village.
The "straighter" performances are excellent, especially Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein. He's an obsessed hysteric, given to nervous faints and reveries that alienate his best friend and fiancee. For most of the film he seems on the brink of complete collapse. All in the name of science.
Let me talk about Boris Karloff. He wears amazing and original makeup - you all know the look - but it's his acting that lifts the film up to classic status. He can only snarl or grunt, but though he kills, he's a brutalized innocent. You can see it in his wax-lidded, dead-alive eyes. The power of speech diluted his character in the sequel. In his infant-wordless state, he evokes more chills and sympathy at the same time. He should have won an Oscar - regardless, any actor should watch this for an example of evocation without words.
Try to catch this one, kiddiewinkies - it's where so much of the magical horror all started. Perhaps a bit dated in some ways, but still very intense viewing. Picture yourself as part of the naive viewing audience of 1931. People fainted or fled the theatre. Some of the terror is still in there, decades later.
© Boris Lugosi, 2001.