Horror Is Universal: “Frankenstein” (1931)

Our last installment of this series was a big one: we covered Universal’s first proper horror film and met the first of our Canonical Six, as well as the first of the great actors made famous by Universal Horror. Now it’s time to meet both another great actor and another member of the Six. Possibly its most famous and beloved member of all.

Frankenstein was the second of the two horror films released by Universal in 1931. Building on the momentum started by Dracula in February of that year, it was an instant critical and commercial hit. And in some ways, it’s an even greater film than Dracula is. Their origins as movies are quite similar, but where I feel they differ is in their executions. Dracula, as I detailed in the previous article, is a grim and quiet movie. Frankenstein, on the other hand, chooses to lean into its most outlandish moments and embrace the idea of a heightened, over-the-top reality. The result is a truly classic film: engaging characters, great performances, a moody atmosphere, shocking twists and one hell of an emotional punch.

The Plot: Disgraced medical student Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) doesn’t care that the world thinks he’s crazy. He’s too obsessed with his secret experiments and his dream to uncover the ultimate scientific mystery: the origin of life and how to create life himself. Together with his hunchbacked assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye), he’s holed up in his remote laboratory, assembling pieces of dead bodies into an entirely new being. His fiancee Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) and his former teacher Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) implore him to abandon his experiments and come home, but he won’t listen. When they show up to confront Henry in person, he decides to let them witness the culmination of his research. One thunderstorm later, and his grotesque creation is brought to life. But the creature (Boris Karloff) soon turns unstable and violent, thanks to the addition of an abnormal brain procured by Fritz. It doesn’t take long for Henry to realize he’s created a monster, and he resolves to destroy it with Dr. Waldman’s help. But the consequences of playing God can’t be undone so easily, and the creature may end up destroying its creator first…

Like Dracula before it, Frankenstein is based on a stage adaptation rather than directly following its literary source material. Inspired by the success of the Dracula play, British playwright Peggy Webling wrote a stage version of Mary Shelley’s novel in 1927. It had mixed/negative reviews at the time, but it is notable for being the first instance in which the name “Frankenstein” is given to both the scientist and the monster. John L. Balderston did a rewrite of the play for American audiences like he did with Dracula, and while this version was never officially produced, it’s the one that became the basis for the Universal film.

Producer Carl Laemmle Jr. (the first Laemmle’s son and the one running the studio at this point) originally intended to have Bela Lugosi star as the Creature and have up-and-coming filmmaker Robert Florey direct, but both wound up leaving the project. The new director was James Whale, a British filmmaker who up to this point was known for his plays and films about World War 1. He allegedly asked for Frankenstein because he didn’t want to just be known as a guy who made war movies, which in hindsight has something of a “be careful what you wish for” air to it. For the role of the Creature, Whale took a risk and chose an unknown British actor named William Henry Pratt, better known to us by his stage name Boris Karloff. Karloff had actually acted in eighty movies before this point, including the original Scarface and the 1920 version of The Last of the Mohicans. This is also the first time that makeup artist Jack Pierce becomes a major player in the Universal Horror films: the Monster was only the first of the iconic characters he would design for the studio.

One of the key aspects of Frankenstein which makes it work is this: it’s a film which is aware of its theatrical roots and wholeheartedly embraces them. In fact, you can clearly see this willingness as early as the very first shot in the film. We open on a stage and a closed curtain, which Edward Van Sloan steps out from behind — as himself, not as his character — and delivers a message to the audience.

How do you do? Mr. Carl Laemmle feels it would be unkind to present this picture without just a word of friendly warning. We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation — life and death. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even…horrify you. So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now’s your chance to…ah, well, we warned you.

This often referenced and parodied speech does so much to establish the tone of Frankenstein in just a few quick seconds. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, playing up the film’s potential for horror with sly hints rather than a straightforward portent of doom. While ostensibly a warning, it’s really daring you to come along for the ride. But the most important thing this opening does is establish the unreality of the rest of the film. By having the movie admit right off the bat that it’s a movie, it frees itself from the constraints of realism. Now it’s allowed to be as strange and dramatic as it likes. Which is good, because Frankenstein‘s strangeness and drama is at the center of its charm.

From the writing to the acting to the technical aspects, there is rarely a moment of subtlety in this movie. On the acting front, nearly the whole cast is playing up their physical/facial tics and wringing all the emotion they can out of the script. Colin Clive gives a scene-chewing performance as Henry, giving us the mad scientist by which all others are still judged. When we meet this version of Frankenstein, he’s already an egomaniac who’s dropped all pretense of working in secret or caring how other people judge his actions. There’s an air of menace to Henry in these early scenes: watch for the angry glint in his eyes when he says “Crazy, am I? We’ll see whether I’m crazy or not.” After he creates the Creature, however, he begins a journey back into humanity as he realizes the error of his ways. There’s a tenderness to him as he recovers, particularly in the scenes where he’s reconnecting with Elizabeth and his father.

Clarke and Van Sloan are great as the straight men to Henry’s crazy. We also have Dwight Frye back again, this time playing the original hunchbacked henchman (not an Igor just yet, that will come later). Fritz doesn’t have a very substantial role, especially compared to Renfield. But Frye does give an entertaining performance with what little he has. His big scene comes early in the film, when Fritz sneaks into a medical college to get a brain for Frankenstein’s creation, and there’s a lot of physicality and exaggerated reactions involved. It’s pretty fun. One actor and performance I wasn’t expecting to like was Frederick Kerr as Baron Frankenstein, Henry’s father. He’s definitely the comic relief character, whipping out sardonic insults wherever he goes. In a more serious horror film, he would have felt out of place. But here, his self-awareness and biting commentary fit right in. He was probably my second-favorite character by the end of it all.

Of course, the script is the thing enabling this over-the-top atmosphere in the first place. Unspoken ideas and context clues are, for the most part, not really this movie’s thing. When it wants you to understand something, it wastes no time getting right down to business. Case in point, what does Henry say when his creature first comes to life? “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” It’s that kind of movie, where each motivation and theme is larger than life and laid out in the open. Interesting aside: that line of Henry’s there was so controversial when the movie first came out that it was censored until the late 90s. Yes, the 90s.

Even the sound design plays into the over-the-top nature of the movie. Remember when I explained how there were long sections of Dracula with little to no sound and how the silence really contributed to the creepy tone of that film? Frankenstein goes the opposite way and uses sound to create a world that very much feels bustling and alive. Like Dracula, there’s no traditional soundtrack outside of the opening and closing credits. But unlike Dracula, there’s almost no empty space from an auditory perspective. When you’re not focusing on dialogue, you’re hearing the chatter of crowds, the rumble of machinery and thunderstorms, the lively music of an outdoor party, even just the sounds of nature. It’s a film that’s hardly ever quiet — but when it does get quiet and serious, that’s when it really commands your attention. And that brings us to the Creature.

I decided to save talking about the Creature for its own section. There’s so much about him to discuss that you can’t really squeeze it into a discussion of the other plot and technical elements: he towers over the rest of the film that much. After almost a century’s worth of great movie monsters, few are as simultaneously frightening and tragic as Frankenstein’s Creature. There are several different factors that come together to pull this off: Jack Pierce’s brilliant makeup design, Boris Karloff’s incredible performance and the rich, complex adaptation of Mary Shelley’s original character.

First, the design of the Creature itself. We all recognize it: the hulking square frame, the broad forehead, the patchwork body. Pierce’s design is remarkable not only in how creepy it looks but how it actually makes sense within the narrative. You can see, for example, how the top of the head was cut off and sealed back on so the brain could be fitted into the skull. And those little bolts on the Creature’s neck are actually electrodes, meant to conduct the critical zap that brings him to life. It’s a grotesque, imposing design that instantly sears itself into your head. The reveal of the Creature within the movie is a great scene. In a moment of complete silence, he emerges backwards from a doorway and slowly turns to show the camera his face, highlighted by a staggered zoom effect. There’s no dramatic scare chord or thunderclap: the image speaks for itself, and it’s still a bit of a shock if you aren’t prepared for it. I can only imagine how audiences in 1931 would have felt.

Next, the performance. Boris Karloff doesn’t say a word throughout the film, but he doesn’t need to. With nothing but his face and his body language, his Creature is a sympathetic and tragic figure like no other. Rather than an evil, mindless killing machine, we get a character that often comes off as gentle, curious and innocent. Right from the start, the Creature longs for a chance to understand the world and connect with others. One of his standout moments happens in his very first scene, where Frankenstein sits him in a chair and then opens a skylight above him. Wordless, with an expression of yearning, the Creature stands and stretches out his arms as though trying to grasp the sunlight. Even when Frankenstein closes the hatch and sits him back down, he’s still holding his hands out, wanting what he can’t have.

And then, of course, there’s the infamous scene where the Creature accidentally drowns a young girl. It begins rather sweetly, as we see the Creature finally meet someone who doesn’t write him off as a monster. The girl plays with him, offering the socialization that he needs and craves. The true horror of the scene doesn’t come from the killing being a malicious act, because it isn’t. It’s an act caused by misunderstanding, and the Creature doesn’t understand its consequences until it’s too late. And when he does realize that he’s hurt someone, he’s horrified. The girl’s death is what leads directly to the Creature’s downfall, but it also shows you why the Creature was doomed in the first place: the world isn’t ready for him, nor is he ready for the world, and he has no one to help prepare him.

On that note, I want to talk about the quality of the story and script here. Frankenstein is not an accurate adaptation of Mary Shelley’s book if we’re just judging by adherence to the plot and characters. Looking at themes and ideas, however, I would argue it’s actually quite a good adaptation. It takes the book’s provocative ideas of man vs. God, science vs. religion and nature vs. nurture and expands on them while giving more humanity and shades of gray to the characters involved.

Everything would have worked out fine if that dumbass Fritz hadn’t gone and stolen a dead criminal’s brain for Henry’s experiment — that’s what the characters believe, anyway. More than once they cite the abnormal brain as the reason for the Creature’s behavior. But here’s the thing: what the characters tell themselves doesn’t match up with what the film shows us. The Creature isn’t born violent, as he demonstrates during his first interactions with Henry. When he does become violent, it’s only in reaction to abuse (i.e. Fritz threatening him with a lit torch), and prolonged abuse at that. He learns by imitating what he experiences, and what he experiences is mostly violence. By the climax of the film, when he fights Henry inside a burning windmill, he’s reacting with violence first because it’s what he has come to expect. This version of the Creature doesn’t have a grand plan to systematically destroy his creator like his literary counterpart does. Nor does he finally choose to be a monster and turn his back on the world: the decision is made for him by those who judge him preemptively.

The adaptation gives an additional element of tragedy to Henry as well. The book doesn’t cast Victor Frankenstein in a very sympathetic light: his own desire for glory and a master race to rule over is what drives him to create the Creature, and he rejects it on its hideous appearance alone. Even when the Creature begins killing his family and friends, he never tries to protect anyone or take responsibility for his actions. Henry, on the other hand, is much more well-meaning. He creates the Creature not out of a single-minded desire to become a god but to prove to himself and others that such a thing can be done. Furthermore, he is initially willing to treat the Creature with respect. It’s when people who believe in its inherent evil start getting involved that he decides to disown his creation. But by bringing it into the world, he’s already accepted responsibility for him. His own downfall is set in motion when he decides to do what’s expected of him and forget about what he’s done.

In a way, Henry and the Creature both end up in the same predicament by the end of the film: the world isn’t ready to accept either of them. On the surface level, the Creature’s looks and behavior are more than enough for the human world to shun it outright. But I think there’s a deeper message to its existence, even more so than the idea that man can play God. It’s the idea that a creature with the brain of a murderous criminal can be gentle to a child and play with flowers, the idea that it’s our experiences and not just the circumstances of our birth that define who we are. And Henry, who brought that idea to life, is told by everyone that he must abandon his creation and the potential it holds. That’s why Frankenstein is a tragedy and not just a horror film. It’s not just the pain caused by the events of the story, but the rejection and the loss of what might have been.

That’s why there’s really just one aspect of the script that I don’t like, which is the studio-mandated happy ending. In the original cut, Henry is thrown from the top of a windmill and dies while the Creature is trapped inside the windmill as an angry mob burns it down. This was too dark for Universal, and a hastily added epilogue has Henry survive and marry Elizabeth. You can tell it wasn’t meant as the real ending, but its presence doesn’t detract from the film in any real way. Which, I think, is a testament to how powerful the climax is. In a movie that has been mostly tame up to that point, it stands out as a grim, tense action sequence with several harrowing moments: Henry and the Creature staring each other down, the two of them locked in combat, Henry getting thrown from the windmill. But what sticks with you most of all are the terrified shrieks of the Creature as the flames from below close in. He ends up back where he started — helpless and frightened, not understanding the cruelty of man — as he dies. At least for now.

You have to see Frankenstein to believe it. An incredible feat of storytelling and technology, it’s still a near-flawless movie all these years later. The Creature more than earns his spot in the pantheon of movie monsters, thanks to the genius of the artists and the performer who brought him to life. Surrounding him is an equally talented supporting cast and a thoughtful, nuanced screenplay that honors and explores the central themes of its source material. If you haven’t seen it yet, what are you waiting for?

Final Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

So now Universal has two unquestionable triumphs of horror cinema under its belt, adapted from two unquestionable triumphs of horror literature. What’s next? How about some home-grown scares?

Up Next: The Mummy (1932)

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