"Frankenstein" (1931) Film Review
By: Nathaniel Simpson
"Dracula" may have started the classic Universal Monsters series, but Boris Karloff's Frankenstein character is perhaps the most famous monster character on film. There have been numerous attempts to remake Dracula, with Gary Oldman also being up there as one of the most famous, but I don't think anyone could ever knock off Karloff as the king of this role. James Whale's 1931 film, which is simply titled "Frankenstein", not only does a great job of introducing the classic monster to audiences, but it also uses social commentary to show the true nature of the monster, which is still very relevant to this day and age.
Victor Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is a very successful scientist with a prosperous life. He is loved by many, including his beautiful fiancé Elizabeth (Mae Clarke). However, he doesn't feel like he is very successful unless he does the unthinkable - play God. With his trusty assistant named Fritz (Dwight Frye), he becomes a grave robber to steal human remains for his science project.
He finally assembles everything he need to bring a man back to life from the dead. Miraculously, he succeeds at his goal, bringing forth a new monster-like man that is assembled from multiple deceased people. Titled Frankenstein's monster (Karloff), he uses him to run tests and see how else he can recreate human life, with each experiment becoming more successful. However, angry and confused at being locked up and tortured, the monster breaks out of his chains, and starts to go around the town, unintentionally wrecking havoc and putting others at risk.
I think this is perhaps one of the most beautiful Universal Monster films that has been released; I would even say the movie is ahead of its time in respect to the cinematography. From the beautiful scenery to the horrific images of the classic monster, the cinematography by Arthur Edeson is really able to set the tone and the vibe for the movie, which is then led in the right direction by the screenplay.
The screenplay is able to tell this story very quickly, with only an hour and eleven minute runtime, but is able to successfully display everything the filmmakers want to show. None of the plot elements seem rushed, nor does it seem dragged on. It serves as a film with perfect pacing, and fantastic story and character development. From the beginning of the film to the end, our perceptions and viewpoints of these characters change, and you are no longer wishing for the scientist to be successful but rather want the monster to be in a safe place.
Karloff gives a fantastic performance as the titular monster. He completely embodies this role, and it doesn't even seem like you are watching an actor play a role. This seems like the viewer is actually watching this terrifying monster wreak havoc on the town, and it is easy to feel the fear that the townspeople feel throughout the entire movie. I honestly would say he gives the best performance in the entire Universal Monsters collection, and I can't even imagine a different actor playing him. At the same time, the other actors do a very good job at playing their respective roles, especially Clive. He is the perfect embodiment of a mad scientist, and the other mad scientist roles that have come after this film all owe something to Clive.
The one thing I absolutely love about this movie is the social commentary that takes place. The whole lesson is how looks can be deceiving, as the scientist is the true bad guy here while the Monster is simply scared and trying to find someone to love him. Victor is praised and is considered a successful scientist, while the Monster is judged to be the antagonist. It is depressing as this happens everyday, and this film shows how it can affect a person, even if they have been brought back from the dead.
I applaud James Whale for making this film, and I think he does everything almost perfectly. For a film being released in 1931, it is able to bring terror and characters development in a way that seems both modern and classic. This film, from beginning to end, is such a joy to watch, and is one of the best classic Monster films.