Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 9, 2015

That abnormal brain that Fritz stole is an unfortunate betrayal of the grand original. It consigns Mary Shelley’s complex notions about noble savagery and the abandonment of children to the margins, makes the creature a mere monster, and is somehow supposed to justify Victor’s obscene abandonment of his own creation, or excuse the film’s mobocratic conclusion. After that initial error the movie is inconsistent to the point of not making sense. It flips and flops between monstrosity and the poignancy/artistry provided by Karloff and all of those expressionist trappings. Which will it be?  He did kill the child, after all. It was an accident, and he’s a child too, after all. He menaced the bride, after all. She’s so boring and annoying that you half want to kill her too, after all. Anyway, shades of Browning’s Dracula, meaning that someone wrote a silly play, keyed on the more risible elements of the source, and mostly ignored its substance.

Still, maybe we can cut the movie some slack. It’s 1931. The horror genre wasn’t fully established. The property must have been pretty risky undertaking/investment, and Depression audiences might not have been interested in a philosophical narrative derived from the works of John Milton and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Technical considerations are also important. Film sound wasn’t fully figured out either—we get music during the titles only, because Max Steiner was over at RKO, and they hadn’t made King Kong (with Steiner’s wall-to-wall score) yet. The design is so outlandishly outstanding, so aggressively unrealistic, that you can really sympathize when they hedge their bets a little.

In sum, Frankenstein is a crazy muddled horror movie, and a great one too. It’s a silly concoction, intersected frequently by wonder and astonishment. Shelley is nearly jettisoned, but the epoch-shifting core of her work does remain in place. It’s in that properly, undeniably iconic animation sequence, catalyzed by that bolt of lightning and climaxing in that subtle, almost imperceptible movement of the hand beneath the sheet. What a moment: Religion and Science, God and Man, the Medieval and the Modern all hanging in the balance. Colin Clive (quite good as Victor, for all the silly things they make him do) gets to the heart of things with that stunning, long censored bit of blasphemy: “Now by God I know what it is like to be God!” Now the trouble begins.

I wonder about director James Whale, who strikes me as being somewhat over-vaunted. Poetry yes, but ham hands with the actors (some admittedly terrible) as well, and a seeming disregard for how people, even in stylized stories, actually behave and interact. An heir to the house of Frankenstein indeed.

In the end, though, Boris Karloff cuts right through the confusion, even when he’s only supposed to be menacing. That’s partly because of how he is framed, not just in individual film compositions, but by the movie’s entire, beautifully integrated visual strategy. The sets are so stupendous, as are the poignantly, indexically bumpy camera movements (especially when they go laterally, from room/set to room/set). The actor is more stupendous than that. Conceptual confusion notwithstanding, he created a character/performance that is utterly for the ages. Very moving!