Friday, 20 April 2018

Dead By Dawn 2018: Frankenstein (1931)

I'll be reviewing most, not all, of the films shown at Dead By Dawn this year. The reviews won't be in order. Because my schedule doesn't allow for that. Deal with it. Anyway . . .

Although it was not the first of the classic Universal monster movies, and not even the first to be released in 1931 (Dracula beat it by a few months), Frankenstein, or his monster as portrayed by Boris Karloff, certainly deserves to stand as one of carved faces on any Mount Rushmore of the horror genre.

Based on the book by Mary Shelley, there seems little point in going over the plot, or any of the factors that make the film so memorable. But I will anyway, because this would be a very short review otherwise. Colin Clive plays Henry Frankenstein, a scientist obsessed with the idea of creating human life from dead flesh. He has the body all stitched together, he just needs to procure a brain, a task which he entrusts to his hunchback assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye). It’s unfortunate that Fritz ends up dropping the healthy brain he was asked to acquire and so instead heads back to his boss with an abnormal brain. One atmospheric, lightning-filled, night later and the creature is alive, although not of the sound mind that Henry had hoped he would be. Things go from bad to worse, so Henry entrusts a friend (Dr Waldman, played by Edward Van Sloan) to take care of the creature and he heads home to busy himself with preparations for his wedding to the lovely Elizabeth (Mae Clarke). But his troubles are far from over.

A script written (by Garrett Fort and Francis Edward Faragoh) from an adaptation of a play (by Peggy Webling) from the source novel, Frankenstein is a masterpiece that stands tall today thanks to a perfect storm - no pun intended - of performances, direction, and writing (not just from those mentioned here, but also other credited and uncredited contributors). With certain moments and passages that still hold a magical power today, it's almost impossible to fathom how audiences would have felt when faced with this maelstrom of horror, blasphemy, and murky morality back in 1931.

Clive remains on of the best Frankensteins we've ever had onscreen, a man so driven by his obsession that he takes himself to a state of physical exhaustion. Frye is fun as Fritz, Van Sloan does just fine with his role, and Clarke is suitably lovely and poised to be a damsel in distress. But it is, of course, Karloff who owns the film, helped in no small part by the superb make-up work from Jack Pierce. There's a saying nowadays that goes something like this; intelligence is knowing that Frankenstein is not the monster, wisdom is knowing that Frankenstein is the monster. That idea may have been muddled by sequels and reworkings of the material, but it's clear as day here, largely because of the sweet and lumbering performance from Karloff.

Some might say that director James Whale does a great job here and then betters himself in the sequel. I am not sure about that. I think both films stand alongside one another as fantastic pieces of work, brought to the screen by a team determined to thrill and entertain, and yes even shock, audiences of the time. Deftly working within, and right to the edge, of what was allowed at the time (even going over the line, certain dialogue was excised from the film for many years when it was re-released, due to the blasphemous nature of it), everyone involved managed to craft part of Hollywood horror history. Some modern viewers may scoff at the melodrama and the tame nature of the content. That's their loss. I know many horror film fans who love this one as much as I do, and rightly so.


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