Frankenstein (3 of 4)

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Long time no posts. Life is, well acting like itself. And that’s all there is to it. To the point at hand. I’m undertaking a four-month genre study project. I am viewing many movies from early/classic stages to more modern revisionist films. I’m excited to get started. And as you may have noticed the first genre I am tackling is horror.

To begin I chose James Whale’s 1931 movie Frankenstein. Staring Boris Karloff, Colin Clive and Mae Clarke. Interestingly to me the opening credits do not mention Karloff as “The Monster” but rather leave his name off in favor of a large question mark. I found this actually rather interesting. That a man who became so famous for his monster portrayals was originally introduced to the world as a ?.

Also I’d like to say now before going to deep, that I understand many of the films I’m reviewing and critiquing are indeed “classics” and most if not all probably deserve a 4 of 4 from anyone–especially obscure bloggers. However, to separate the films I relish from those I’d rather spit out I’ll rate them as I please.

Frankenstein begins wonderfully. Before the film even roles its title credits, a humble Edward Van Sloan walks in front of a curtain to issue a warning on behalf of all audience members that what they are about to see may “horrify” them. I was smiling ear to ear.

The movie is short, which I always like. (“Time is of the essence, seize the day boys. Seize the day!”) It quickly jumps into Dr. Frankenstein digging up graves with not Igor but Fritz, his deformed assistant. They must assemble pieces of bodies from graves and lynchings to create a body that was never alive. The last piece of flesh is a brain–which is, apparently,  hard to come by.

Fritz being the deformed imbecile that he is, steals a murders brain from a science lab instead of the “normal” brain he intended. The crazy Dr. installs the brain into his enormous hand-made specimen of a person add in a bit of “color beyond ultra-violet light” power beam and bing-botta-monster.

Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancé, her other boyfriend and the doctor’s mentor are all present at the moment of life. Wherein Dr. Frankenstein mutters and then screams the famous line: “It’s alive!” About eighty-hundred-million times. His mentor warns him about the dangers of doing such experiments and they are completely disregarded (Funny I ignored his warning not to watch the movie too…).

When Frankenstein’s monster kills Fritz everyone realizes, “Woops, we’ve gone too far!” Frankenstein goes back to town to get hitched everyone is happy. Except the boyfriend. The boyfriend is bummed. Also Frankenstein’s mentor Doctor Waldman stays behind at the tower-laboratory (LA-BORE-I-TOREE) to dissect the monster. The monster wakes up before the dissection can begin and Waldman is murdered as well.

Frankenstein’s monster escapes and chaos ensues. The finale is when Frankenstein and the father of a murdered child form a giant mob of torch-bearing citizens to kill the beast. The confrontation ends with the monster being killed and everyone being happy again.

Horror movies frustrate me. I struggle to see significance in them. To me horror films often entertain but don’t educate. Which is not a bad thing, but for a genre that has literally been around since the very beginnings of film (even thriving in the silent era) it makes me wonder if I’m missing something.

There is a real significance in this film found in what it gave cinema. Karloff famously offered his body to the role setting an example for many actors worldwide. Wearing all sorts of prosthetic pieces and even taking out dental bridges to get that iconic sour-puss look in his cheeks. This film has been recreated and picked apart in everything from Beauty and the Beast to Lord of the Rings. According to IMDB trivia John Carradine turned down the role because he was too “highly trained” to play monsters. Mistake.

Honestly, it’s an incredible film. The cinematography is indisputable. Close up screams and canted angles and claustrophobic mise en scène all combine with incredible sets, light and shadow work, acting and specific thoughtful direction to make this movie an honest classic as well as a defining style of movie making and genre.

My favorite moment is Dr. Frankenstein’s confession or brag about why he did it after having already said he knows now what it feels like to be God: “Have you never wanted to do anything that was dangerous? Where should we be if nobody tried to find out what lies beyond? Have you never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars or to know what causes the trees to bud and what changes the darkness into light? But if you talk like that, people call you crazy. But if I could discover just one of these things, what eternity is, for example, I wouldn’t care if they did think I was crazy!”

  1. Good to see you back on line. This should be a fun series to read.

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