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You gotta feel for Mary Shelley. Poor girl wrote a brilliant work of art—a gothic horror novel—that was widely celebrated in her lifetime. Then in the twentieth century, the film industry chewed it up, spit it out, chewed it up some more, and spit it out again numerous times—turning it into so much over-over-overused drive-in fodder. Now Frankenstein and his monster are two of the biggest clichés on the silver screen (rent Van Helsing for proof of this—although any film post-1960 with the word “Frankenstein” in the title will do). Shelley would probably be rolling over in her grave if, you know, she had been reanimated with the power of lightning. Or something.
That said, there are still some adaptations of Shelley’s novel that are worth seeing, and forunately, the best of them are also the best-remembered. The definitive of these is Universal’s 1931 adaptation, which set the pattern for all future adaptations. While it’s not particularly faithful to the novel in plot (Shelley’s globe-trotting storyline is reduced to one that takes place in a single town over the course of a few days—indeed, the opening titles credit the play just as prominently as the novel), it is relatively faithful to it thematically, and effectively condenses an epic treatise on mankind’s place in the universe into a short meditation on it. This is appropriate, as it allows the film to be a fast, economical horror picture, without going over the top, either in budget or philosophy.
Colin Clive stars as the title character, a scientist obsessed with creating life, and Dwight Frye plays his assistant Fritz (not Igor—sorry). Mae Clark is his fiancée Elizabeth, and of course, the inimitable Boris Karloff appears as the Monster. We all know the plot, of course: Frankenstein creates a being out of corpses, and then gives life to it by harnessing the power of electricity. When he finds that the monster is unintelligent and potentially dangerous, he abandons it, leaving it lonely and desperate.
This is all done brilliantly, with director Whale’s sets and lighting evoking an appropriate gothic mood, but the film is still difficult to recommend unequivocally to modern audiences for one simple reason: it will all look incredibly clichéd to them. It’s not, of course: Whale’s version invented the mad scientist’s lab, the hunchbacked assistant, the lumbering monster, and nearly every other set piece. Modern viewers, however, are not likely to be aware of this, and nearly every second of the movie has been co-opted, and made an integral part of horror film grammar (it’s difficult to think of a single horror film that hasn’t stolen something from Frankenstein). The result is that a modern audience is likely to find the film downright funny, and probably not at all scary. This is okay if your crowd is looking for a laugh, but don’t expect to be kept up at night much.
Still, the film is an undeniable classic, with Karloff putting in a sinister but sympathetic performance as the Monster—a creature abandoned by his creator, who is simply looking for a friend and doesn’t know his own destructive power. Frye is upstaged a bit by his creation, but still performs well in his role, making Frankenstein clearly unstable, but still sympathetic. Clark is a bit disappointing—alas, horror heroines wouldn’t be given anything to do other than scream and run until the slasher fad of the 80’s (in which they would scream and run—and die—until there was only one of them left)—but does her part. The film builds to an effective climax that is both horrifying and heartrending.
Still, I should stress that anyone who’s ever seen a horror movie (or Young Frankenstein, for that matter) will have trouble taking this one seriously. Those looking for a fun night of horror should probably supplement this one (or replace it entirely) with its sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, widely regarded as the better of the two, and also intentionally comedic—making you feel less awful for laughing at it.