The undisputed cornerstone of the horror genre, Frankenstein is an absolute must to add to your viewing list. The original 1931 incarnation of Mary Shelley’s gothic tale starring Boris Karloff as the Monster is considered to be the single most important film of the genre, and should go right alongside The Nightmare Before Christmas as a holiday perennial necessary to celebrate the spooky day in the proper manner.
Frankenstein is a fine example of the creative collaborative process borne of the early days of Hollywood as it struggled through the transition from silent films to talkies. The pressure to come up with something new and amazing was ever present. The constant slew of mindless backstage musicals was initially impressive to audiences, but with the constant volume of production in those fledgling years, hundreds of movies were generated annually, causing creative competition to be very demanding. Thus, a new genre was born.
The movie’s longevity and everlasting popularity is owed in part to the stunning impact it made upon its initial release. Never before had there been such a screen adaptation of a literary classic, replete with special effects make up that paved the way for a new kind of cinematic experience. There had been earlier examples of the yet-to-be-categorized horror genre, beginning in the silent era with the German impressionistic films The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, both dealing with the well-established vampire myth. However, no previous film had dealt with the character of Frankenstein’s monster, let alone the concept of reanimation by an obsessed scientist who assembles a living being from parts of exhumed corpses. This was an astonishing plot to the audiences of the day, as opposed to today’s over-stimulated movie-goers raised on the likes of Freddy Kruger and violently graphic video games.
Of course, due to the limitations of the era’s special effects, the story itself is far more gruesome in concept than in execution, and the really scary stuff is left to the much more frightening imagination of the viewer. After all, you never actually see the process of assembling the various body parts, and in Shelly’s novel the process is never discussed, nor is the method of animating the creature. Mary Shelly dodged this explanation in the book by having Dr. Frankenstein refuse to divulge how he did it, ostensibly so that no one could recreate his ungodly actions. This was a lucky break for the filmmakers, for even if there had been some kind of description, it's unlikely it would have been replicated by 1931 filmmakers. The audiences of the time simply would not have been prepared for such grisly details.
It was director James Whale (Show Boat, The Man in the Iron Mask), working with special effects pioneer Ken Strickfaden (he doubled Karloff for the voltage sequences that had sparks playing over his body), who came up with the cinematic use of lightning to resurrect the monster, developing the methodology accepted to this day (the very same machines were used years later in Mel Brooks’ comic homage Young Frankenstein). And it was make-up artist Jack P. Pierce who came up with the idea of the monster's flat head, electrodes on the neck (commonly called bolts), the droopy eyelids, and the ill-fitting suit. Any Frankenstein film that features these physical attributes takes inspiration from Pierce's original make-up work, which is in fact under copyright to Universal through the year 2026!
Whale himself is today a little-remembered and under-appreciated director. Ironic, considering that in the day, Whale's status as a director at Universal under the Laemmle regime grew until he was given total control over his films; many carrying the credit "A James Whale Production", a rare honor reserved at the time for producers only. If it weren’t for the 1998 independent film, Gods and Monsters, about Whale’s later years and his haunting memories of his most famous endeavor, he might be completely forgotten today. That would be one of cinema history’s more tragic twists of fate, since he’s responsible for one of the better-known films in cinematic history.
As iconic as Frankenstein’s monster is today, it was not a well sought-after role for the character actors of 1931. Bela Lugosi (fresh off his success as Dracula earlier the same year) was the initial obvious choice to play the role. Although eager to take on the challenge, he ultimately refused because the character would have no actual lines of dialogue. Even the versatile John Carradine (best remembered for his supporting roles in Stagecoach and The Grapes of Wrath) turned down the part because he considered his training too superior to condescend to playing a mere monster. Lon Chaney, the man of a thousand faces, had died just the year before. So, the part fell to the then-unknown Karloff who was personally selected by Whale for his “fascinating” face.
Frankenstein, the icon of gruesome frights and spine-tingling terror, is more than seven decades old, yet still has a profound and lasting impression on the public. The film is so well known that it has become a part of the collective consciousness, and the namesake (misidentified as the monster rather than the creator, Dr. Frankenstein) has become a cult icon for a uniquely American celebration. Every Halloween there are countless Frankenstein’s Monsters trick-or-treating from door to door. In fact, the “Monster” is possibly the most identifiable character ever to come out of Hollywood, vying for the number one position with Mickey Mouse and Marilyn Monroe.
With many, modern, so-called horror films resorting to cheap and unimaginative tricks, such as manipulative music cues and multiple fake outs, this grandfather of the genre will tickle an audience’s “scary bone” better than any of the pale comparisons that have come across the screen since, or likely, ever.