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Reviews

Retro Review: Frankenstein (1931)

October 19, 2020
frankenstein 1931 [Soruce: Letterboxd]

This Halloween season we are looking at James Whale’s Frankenstein. A movie so recognisable that many may think of this film adaptation before Mary Shelley’s original novel. But after almost 90 years does it still hold up?

Synopsis

Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) has lately been walled up in his laboratory. So, his fiancé Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), her friend Victor (John Boles), and Henry’s former mentor Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) decide to investigate. Upon confronting him they find that Frankenstein aims to give life to a monster. Made by stitching together dead body parts and inserting an abnormal brain stolen from Dr. Waldman’s classroom. Ultimately Frankenstein succeeds. But can “The Monster” (Boris Karloff) be controlled?

What did I like?

Frankenstein works well for many reasons. First being its tight and well-paced script. In a short time-space, the script intrigues us with the mystery of Frankenstein. And then emotionally invests us through exploring Frankenstein’s motivations and how his various relationships affect him, and consequently the Monster. And because the film is full of interesting, now iconic, scenarios like the grave robbery, the monster’s introduction, the windmill finale, and more, it’s never boring.

Secondly, the cast is almost uniformly excellent. Mae Clarke, Edward Van Sloan, Frederick Kerr, and Dwight Frye particularly stand out, investing heart, humour, and discomfort where needed.

But the film also features two truly legendary performances. First being Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein. Clive really sells us on Frankenstein’s drive and ambition through his stern; occasionally frantic manner, without making him unlikable. But when The Monster enters the picture, Clive makes us empathise with his emotional vulnerability. As he takes responsibility for The Monster. And Boris Karloff’s portrayal of The Monster is unforgettable. Not only is he immediately frightening and imposing thanks to his tall frame and Jack Pierce’s iconic makeup design. But Karloff’s performance engenders a lot of sympathy. He feels like a vulnerable animal. Causing pain because he’s unfairly victimised or doesn’t know better. This makes us want to see him nurtured not persecuted. Because otherwise, the consequences could be deadly.

Frankenstein-Source-Movie-Monster-Wiki-Fandom
Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster [Source: Movie Monster Wiki – Fandom]

And there’s some brilliant technical work on display. The set and production design are fantastic. The classic romantic feeling of the period costumes and picturesque Victorian decorated sets and backlots greatly contrast with sets like Frankenstein’s gothic laboratory and the expressionistic graveyard. Which when combined with the inventive direction that has cameras gliding through rooms, interesting camera angles, and a lack of music creates a uniquely horrific and disquieting atmosphere.

What did I not like?

There are some flaws that prevent Frankenstein from being perfect. For one Henry’s emotional recovery and wedding seemingly happen only a few days after he decides to kill the monster. As it’s hard to believe that Dr. Waldman’s disappearance and discovery would take more than a few days to happen. And this short time frame does somewhat lessen the emotional impact of Frankenstein’s decision to destroy the creation he cared about.

The character of Victor also doesn’t contribute much to the story. His use as emotional support could easily have been filled by a more prominent character and the film would remain the same. Which isn’t helped by John Boles’ wooden performance. A shame as everyone else does such great work.

And the film has a fair amount of editing choices that can pull one out of the movie. As this is an older film before modern film language was perfected this is expected. But the breaking of the 180-degree rule in some sections as well as some imperfect matches between cuts and a sped-up crucial moment are unintentionally jarring.

Verdict

The script’s limited timeframe undersells some moments. Victor doesn’t add much to the story. And the bizarre editing choices can be nit-picked. But they pale in comparison to Frankenstein’s strengths. With stellar performances from most of the cast including iconic turns from Clive and Karloff, brilliant atmosphere thanks to inventive direction; beautiful set and production design and a well-structured script packed with iconic moments that keep you riveted till the end, love for Frankenstein will remain alive for years to come.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

Also Read: Horrors On Horror Sets

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Josh Greally
Writer and filmmaker from Chesterfield. I have a masters in directing film and television and have written film reviews for several smaller sites in the past. Films are my life, but I also enjoy writing, reading, listening to music and debating.