Sunday, November 11, 2012

Frankenstein (1931) ****

Truly a masterpiece of horror, “Frankenstein” deserves its place among the classics.  Other films of the time may have played upon man’s darkest fears, but “Frankenstein” held up a dark mirror to man himself.
Colin Clive played the title role of young Henry Frankenstein, a medical student obsessed with the basic forces behind life and death.  As the well-known story goes, he assembles a creature from the parts of dead bodies, then animates it using the  power of electricity.  The creature lives, but it lacks speech or understanding, and as it gains strength it becomes increasingly uncontrollable.  Henry finally collapses from the strain of his experiments and is taken back to the Frankenstein family estate to recover.  The creature is left in the hands of Henry’s mentor, Dr. Waldman, who promises to humanely destroy it.  The doctor cannot help doing his own experiments on the creature, which ultimately escapes to terrorize the countryside in search of its creator.
“Frankenstein” is introduced as “The tale of Frankenstein, a man of science, who sought to create a man after his own image, without reckoning upon God,” but despite these pious window trappings, this is an Existentialist tale.  Frankenstein’s creature is the dark image of mankind, abandoned by his creator and left to wander a harsh world, trying to understand how to behave, but making horrible blunders.  In the end, the creature looks into the eyes of his maker and sees not understanding and compassion, but contempt and fear.
There are aspects of “Frankenstein” that are annoying.  Some parts of the story seem too perfunctory, while at other times the film loses its tone, detouring into comic relief in the form of Henry’s father, Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr).  I found the  ending particularly silly.  I was also annoyed by young Henry’s tendency to faint, a characteristic carried over from the source material, Mary Shelley’s novel.
Boris Karloff, however, is perfection in his portrayal of the monster.  His lumbering performance lends the creature both menace and pathos.  His character has no lines, but his use of facial expression and body language is reminiscent of silent film, which of course is where he got his start.
In the movie’s faults, one can see the hand of Hollywood trying to make a crowd-pleaser, which, in fact, they did.  The movie was a smashing success.  One can perhaps imagine a more satisfying movie that could be assembled from pieces of this one, but then again, have we learned nothing?  Kenneth Branagh attempted in his 1994 remake to more explicitly visit aspects of the story like the creature’s creation and his re-learning process, but as I recall, that film wound up being full of spectacle and empty chit-chat.  I prefer Boris Karloff’s speechless, heartbreaking performance.  Your imagination can fill in the rest.

4 stars

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