Jan 14, 2007

Frankenstein (1931): A-

1931 was a banner year for American horror films, the genre jump-started by the near-simultaneous release of Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein, the popularity of which would spawn dozens of sequels, imitators, and rip-offs in years to come (the pattern only to be replicated with the emergence of Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, and Jason Voorhees nearly a half-century later). Both are regularly considered classics, but while Dracula was seemingly filmed so as to recreate its stage play source material rather than adapting it to the screen (resulting in meandering, lethargic production, Lugosi’s presence notwithstanding), Frankenstein is truly tour-de-force cinema, tremendously flexing the newfound opportunities available to the medium (such as basic editing, camera tracking, use of close up and long shots, etc.), so commonplace now that they are unfortunately taken for granted. To watch Frankenstein is to relive a time when the sound picture was still young, but it is a grand work regardless of its innovative technical mastery.

Frankenstein opens with a warning to the audience, advising them that the faint of heart may want to consider leaving before the shocking and horrifying story gets underway (an ironic precaution, considering that even PG-13 films of the genre today regularly feature dismemberment and gore in levels inconceivable at the time). While its ability to cause audience members to faint in their seats has certainly diminished, in contrast to the upped gore quotient now commonplace (not to mention Mel Gibson’s recent religious contribution to the cinematic world), Frankenstein’s psychological inquiries remain both striking and potent, its morality-lined narrative brimming with existential hurdles on both ends of the scale. Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive), driven by his pursuit of greater truth, bestows life upon a body created from dead corpses; the result is quickly dubbed a “monster” and rejected by all around it, the unmerited hardships it so quickly encounters earning scornful retribution. The formers God complex certainly raises questions as to how far man should go in the name of science, but the film makes no suggestion that a higher being exists to judge the unfolding events. Man and his creation must instead judge themselves compared to each other, their ability or inability to coexist the ultimate test they must wage with each other.

Culture often lends itself to misinterpretations, one of the more egregious examples in both literature and cinema being the association of the title Frankenstein not to the scientist from whom the name is drawn, but instead to the monster he creates. While this wrongful association most likely arose out of sheer laziness, the confusion also reflects the fact that the creator and his creation are, in many ways, two sides of the same coin (exhibited no better than the intimidating cutting between the two while trapped in the windmill). Dr. Frankenstein strives to validate his existence through conquering the impossible, while his creation, the result of said impossibility, is unable to find fulfillment for even the most basic of human needs. No scene in the film is more tragic than the monster’s first (and only) pleasant human encounter. Having escaped from captivity into the countryside, he comes upon a young girl playing by a river. Here, Karloff’s childlike nuances are most soulful, having finally found a companion who sees him as a fellow, rather than sometime to be scorned. The two briefly enjoy tossing buoyant flowers into the water, his sewn-together hands awkwardly grasping their tiny petals, but his eyes in complete wonder as to their beauty. The fun is cut short, however, when the monster mistakenly assumes that the young girl shares the same ability to float; immediately after tossing her off of the bank, he realizes his mistake, and stumbles fearfully away from the scene of the crime.

Karloff is deservingly remembered for his moving portrayal of the childlike monster, but it would appear that the wrongful association of him to the film’s title has also slighted the work of Colin Clive as the monster’s creator. Brimming with flawed ambition and strung out beyond delusion, his performance may very well be the ultimate portrayal of the mad scientist, every line of dialogue delivered as if his very sanity hangs in the balance. After the infamous storm sequence in which life is bestowed on the lifeless body – a miniature masterpiece of crackling scientific instruments, thundering sound effects and fearful onlookers – his half-manic screams of “It’s alive!” are enough to send trembles throughout all five senses. Nearly the entire film is pitched at such a level, marred only by the occasionally overdrawn expository sequence, as well as a closing scene that doesn’t provide much closure (a forgivable trait, for it left the door open for what would become one of the greatest sequels ever made).

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