The Franchise Chronicles: Frankenstein (1931)

By Edward O'Hare

Welcome to The Franchise Chronicles, a movie-by-movie look at the development and evolution of cinema’s most enduring sagas. I am currently exploring the classic Universal Monsters and this week’s movie is Frankenstein (1931) directed by James Whale.

While Dracula can be seen as a good film for its time, Frankenstein is timeless. Even its effects and stylization hold up and it has an emotional center that is still heartbreaking and relevant today. All of the horror films Universal put out over the next quarter century were attempting to recapture what this film achieves.

Based on Mary Shelley’s novel the film tells the story of Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), a medical student who becomes obsessed with the idea of re-animating dead tissue and winds up bringing to life a Monster (Boris Karloff, credited here as “?”), made from sewn-together body parts and an abnormal brain, that escapes Henry’s castle and unwittingly terrorizes a small mountain town. It is worth noting that this, like all of the ‘30s monster films, take a story that today would be a two and a half-hour movie or a ten-part Netflix series and whittle it down to 71 minutes but still keeps the key essence of the novel intact.

Aesthetically the film definitely feels like it comes from the same universe as its Transylvanian cousin. Much of this is due to the fact that it mostly takes place at night in the mountains of Europe. However Whale and Art Director Charles D. Hall take it to the next level. We get to see the dark and stormy backgrounds and the detailed foregrounds but they throw in trees and rock formations in between them to create levels and depth. This makes the landscape look much larger than it really is. The gothic details of the architecture and interior design also add to the overall mood of the film.

The cast helps to build the cinematic universe these films are creating but the star is a stark contrast from that Vampire we discussed the last two weeks. Two actors who played major parts in Dracula show up in Frankenstein. Edward Van Sloan, who played Van Helsing, appears here as Dr. Waldman, another knowledgeable scientist who is unfortunately not as heroic in this film. Dwight Frye, who played Renfield, also shows up as Dr. Frankenstein’s deformed assistant Fritz. Frye looks very different in this part but is just as scary and intense. His wretched disdain for the Monster is so raw. He is the real villain of the piece and his hate extends through the film long after his character is killed. While today it may seem contradictory to cast the same actors in different roles, it does give us the sense that these films belong in the same family. Frye and Van Sloan are in the same company of actors, much the same way the Coen brothers re-use actors like John Goodman and Frances McDormand.

Boris Karloff’s performance is the real jewel of this film and everything he does right distinguishes him from Bela Lugosi as a completely different type of horror actor. Lugosi’s Count is a charming and menacing villain who stalks his victims in an effort to prolong his own vile existence. Karloff’s Monster is hideous with cold, dead eyes that couldn’t charm anybody. The Monster is a tragic figure with the mind of a child that did not ask to be brought into this world and only encounters hatred and pain. He only hurts people in retaliation or because he does not understand his own strength. Given his druthers, He probably prefers he had never been created in the first place. It is the juxtaposition of these two performances that has linked them in viewers’ minds for the past 87 years and it is the triumph of both of these films that allowed Universal to expand into other monster stories and eventually begin linking them together.

Next week Karloff returns to claim his second monster mantle in The Mummy.

Edward O’Hare, nickname TBD, has been poking around the deep caverns of pop culture for some years now. His hobbies include making Starfleet org charts and badgering people who haven’t seen the Adventures of Captain Marvel movie serial from 1941. He one day dreams of teaching Bill Simmons that superheroes and pro athletes are not all that different.

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