Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Universal Frankenstein Retrospective - Frankenstein (1931)

Director: James Whale
Starring: Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clarke, Edward Van Sloan

Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!

                ~Henry Frankenstein

While I celebrate horror year 'round, I always feel September is the time of year to start the Halloween run on Naptown Nerd.  Last year, we covered Dracula, in probably what is his most prestigious and best series, the Hammer rendition.  This time around, its his comrade Frankenstein's Monster's turn at bat.  And for me, the best films of his lie in the Universal Monsters era starting at the beginning of the 1930s.  For this grouping of horror monsters, he's seemed to be the clear leader and "face of the franchise".  Much of that is probably owed to Boris Karloff taking on the role multiple times, stealing the thunder from Bela Lugosi's Dracula (Lugosi played the role twice and the 2nd was in Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein 17 years later).
But, the role was actually Lugosi's to lose at one point.  Bela was slated to play the monster and did makeup effects and everything for it.  Heck, there's even a poster for it
Things didn't work out and I think, thankfully we then got the tandem of James Whale as a director and Boris Karloff as the monster.  Whale was a hot overseas director, coming across the pond, and chose, WANTING to do Frankenstein.
Frankenstein, to me, is an absolute work of perfection.  The film nails every possible aspect of filmmaking for either now or of its time.  One thing that has always struck me, is how beautiful this film is shot.  It captures the costuming, sets and props so masterfully.  I honestly, and have said it for years, feel that almost any random cell from the reel of this movie could be taken, blown up a bit, framed and put up on a wall in anyone's home.  From the beautiful grave robbing scenes at the begging, to the townsfolk with their torches and pitchforks hunting down the monster, its full of  greatness in almost every shot.  There's a romanticism to the gothic nature of the look in this story and its a charm and delight to sit and gaze at.  
Its kind of crazy, the yin and yang we sort of have with the performance of Colin Clive and Boris Karloff.  Henry Frankenstein (Changed from Victor in the book) is our natural human character, yet Clive gives an eccentric but harnessed over the top/camp performance.  Its a loud and colorful one at times, as he give many a cartooned look on his face.  Meanwhile, his creation, the monster boasts a somewhat real and human performance without even muttering a word.  Karloff is absolutely terrific and more impressive than Lugosi's outstanding turn as Dracula earlier in the year.  As an audience member its sort of odd that you can gather what the monster is thinking, yet the one we are more like, the human, seems such a wild card and we have no idea what he plans.
The rest of the roles shape up nicely.  But, commonly mistaken here for "Igor" is the character of Fritz, the assistant.  This is what people think of when they imagine the assistant in physicality, yet in name, such a character isn't introduced until the 3rd film and its nothing as you'd expect (And I can't wait to talk about him).  The character is a bit of a loon who seemingly is responsible for everything bad with the monster.  He takes the criminal brain after mishandling the one he was meant to take and he also torments the shit out of the monster once he's brought to life.  He's done away with very early, but man, its a wonder if this guy caused a lot of grief for the town because he was being a complete asshole.
Going back to the reveal of Frankenstein's monster for a moment, one that  is absolutely money and James Whale NAILS it.  It has to go down as one of the best character/monster/villain type introductions of all time.  And Karloff, without words and only his body brings about such a creepy, scary menace.  I can only imagine the possibility of people in theaters actually screaming or shrieking aloud when seeing it for the first time.  People only had Dracula before this as the "ultimate horror" as these Universal films, you must remember, were introducing new elements in horror and laying new groundwork.  They were taking the intensity up a notch.  And Frankenstein even takes it further from Dracula as well.
Like much of horror that would follow it, Frankenstein pushed the limits of censorship.  Upon its release, audiences/critics were a bit offended at the line in the film that I have quoted in the top of the article.  Crazy, yes, because nowadays there would be zero problem, even from some of the strictest religious pushback.  They also did not approve of the monster killing the little girl by tossing her in the water.  Going back in time, I can see where that may have been a big "no-no" in the 1930s.  Upon a rerelease years later and some subsequent home video releases early on, these two parts of the film were altered or cut.  The full version of the film actually wasn't comfortably in place on home video formats until it came out on DVD.  Not that the full version wasn't on VHS, but some releases were the censored version and you didn't really know.
Maybe I just watch movies differently than others, but I really think James Whale's Frankenstein still holds up quite well.  The film looks and plays great (Seriously, check out the Blu-rays of the Universal Monster movies, they're to die for).  For me, its better than Todd Browning's Dracula.  I think the pacing of it is quite terrific, putting in some slow burn horror and character development, taking its time but perfectly fitting in bits of action.  The film is also very short too.  You'll spend no time at all watching it.  This movie is very much a staple for me this time of year (And I usually pop it in at random occasions in the year as well).  Its worked for me my whole life.  As a kid, during my youthful days and as an adult/parent.  That's pretty impressive for a film that will be 85 years old next year.

NEXT TIME:  Its a nice day for a white wedding

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