The classics are called “classics” for a reason. The original Frankenstein from 1931 is a cinematic achievement, and while the character of Frankenstein’s Monster may have tumbled into the realm of self-parody decades ago, the original film remains one of the strongest works of cinematic horror fiction of its time. Frankenstein is layered with a sympathetic “villain”, a strong story, a powerful ending and a Hell of a lot of risks. It’s amazing the things they were able to get away with in this film, considering it was the 1930’s.
Dr. Henry Frankenstein, a wealthy and obsessed scientist, is determined to discover the means to bring the dead back to life. Robbing grave after grave with his diminuitive servent, Fritz, Frankenstein assembles a collection of human body parts and manages to cobble them together into a form mimicking a man’s. With the power of raw electricity, he summons the creature to life, unaware that its brain is abnormal and its ability to cope with reality is dangerously unstable at best. Soon, Frankenstein’s Monster becomes impossible to control and escapes from Castle Frankenstein, terrorizing the townsfolk below.
What makes Frankenstein such an engrossing film is that it’s difficult to determine who the real badguy is. Is it Frankenstein? Yes, he created the monster, but he was only working so obsessively as a means to benefit mankind. Is it the monster? He is more like a naïve mentally-challenged person, unaware that what he’s doing is wrong and unable to understand the world he’s been thrust into. You don’t feel satisfied or happy when the monster dies at the end, unlike with other Universal classics like Dracula or The Creature from the Black Lagoon, where the villain is so simply cut-and-dry.
Zombies have always been one of my favorite subgenres of horror cinema, and that’s how I like to classify Frankenstein. He’s pretty much like a “super zombie”, if you think about it. A dozen different body parts all sewn together and brought back from the dead: he’s the ultimate zombie. Boris Karloff couldn’t be more imposing or endearing as the monster, able to shift from fearsome to innocent at the drop of a hat. The ending at the windmill, where the monster is running around screaming, terrified of the flames closing in on him is just tragic.
It’s really quite amazing some of the violence they got away with in this movie, most notably, the death of a child. While playing with a little girl by a pond, the monster accidentally kills her by tossing her in the water, unaware of the consequences his actions would have. It’s the earliest instance I can think of in which a child is killed on screen in a movie. It shows just how naïve and innocent the monster is, but how dangerous he can be at the same time.
There are countless classic moments in the film which have become the stuff of instinctual pop culture knowledge. “It’s alive!” remains one of the stronger moments, never getting old despite how many other films and television shows parody it. The climax at the windmill is still my favorite sequence in the film, as it’s a great showcase of special effects as well as a tremendous character piece for the monster.
Of all the classic Universal horror films, Frankenstein remains my undisputed favorite. It’s the one everybody should watch at least once in their life and certainly one of the strongest examples of gothic horror.