Yes, we’ve seen this story over and over again. But all those goofy Halloween costumes, cartoon specials, parodies and cheap renditions skimped on the shadowy, black and white, nightmarish tone featured here, almost crude in its plainness — the normal/criminal brains in jars, for example, were made into a joke in Young Frankenstein, but here they remain a serious part of how Dr. Frankenstein put his monster together. Somewhat harsh scenes of grave robbing, and cutting a hanged body loose from a gallows are also depicted, perhaps because its original 1931 audience would have been less familiar with the tale than we are now; showing, rather than implying, takes precedence.
All of this is done with Golden Age Hollywood techniques of character actors and painted backdrops. The tools are basic but the thrilling nature is as great as it’ll ever be — we get backgrounds of swirling mist and vague landscapes, plus a castle of slanted hallways, cavernous spaces and textured bricks, reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
And then there are the people within it: Dr. Frankenstein, determined to see his experiment through to the end, and icily polite enough to make watching him work a fascinating pleasure. There’s also his assistant Fritz (not yet called Igor), and the doctor’s dutifully moralistic professor, wife and friend — in a film like this, personalities are basically stacked against each other, with their conversation serving a similar purpose to the lines traded before a fight in a superhero movie: of course the villain isn’t going to back down, but the insults (or pleas to stop) make the action which follows much more savory. Frankenstein provides one such appealing spectacle after another — you may find yourself enjoying the proceedings quite a bit even before hearing “It’s alive!”
The film does more than present a classic moment or archetypal element every few minutes: it knowingly handles its material quite gracefully. There’s a sense of space in the way it lets you find your own way through the story and around the frame; its lack of a musical score and editing style which favors wide master shots tend to present the material without calling judgments upon it.
The monster especially benefits from this treatment: he barely gets a few minutes as a simple foreboding presence before the film leapfrogs to a different consideration: evil, mistreated or misunderstood? — which is a kind of dignity for this much-used and abused stock villain. Watch for the tragic melodrama the film creates later on for both the “monster” and the father of his accidental victim (an excellent position for any film to be in). And look for shots which present the themes of creator vs. creation and even creation-as-creator; objectively speaking, none of this is exceptionally deep, but two dimensions are always an improvement over one.
The sense of finality at its conclusion is somewhat ironic: Universal Studios began considering plans for a sequel during the preview screenings, and released Bride of Frankenstein four years later. In any case, the idea at the film’s heart is far too rich to be satisfied with a single interpretation; the film is not an ending, but it is a very good beginning.
Frankenstein at IMDb
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at IMDb
Young Frankenstein at IMDb
The Bride of Frankenstein at IMDb
Victor Frankenstein (character) at Wikipedia
Mary Shelley at Wikipedia
Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus (novel) at Wikipedia