Frankenstein (1931) was the second of the Universal monster movies and arguably the best. It was hugely, hugely influential on the popular image of monsters and mad scientists, and that influence is still evident in media today.
The film opens with a man on a stage giving a warning. The Simpsons parodied this brilliantly in the early Treehouse of Horror instalments!
The opening credits list ‘?’ as playing the Monster, which is a bit strange – did they expect viewers to think it was a real monster?
The main action of the film starts with a funeral scene, then immediately moves onto a sequence of Henry Frankenstein and his assistant Fritz graverobbing. ‘He’s just resting, waiting for new life to come,’ says Henry of the stolen corpse, coming across as obviously unhinged. They also come across a hanged corpse and grab that too, but ‘the brain is useless’, according to Henry.
Cut to some students in Dr Waldman’s anatomy lecture, which is conveniently about brains. It’s nice to see some female students in the class during this era, and especially nice to see all the students in smart suits! (Nowadays they’d probably show up to the lecture in pyjamas. Have I mentioned that I hate this century?) Once the lecture theatre is empty, Fritz shows up, hilariously accidentally smashes the jar with the normal brain and steals the abnormal one instead.
Henry has a fiancée called Elizabeth. How? Who’d be interested in that level of creepy? It’s especially baffling given that Elizabeth’s nice, normal friend Victor has a crush on her and wishes she was engaged to him instead. Anyway, Elizabeth is getting fed up of Henry locking himself away with his experiments in a spooky windmill, and recruits Victor and Dr Waldman to help her confront him. Henry is just about to throw the switch on his experiment, and does not appreciate being visited in the slightest.
(A moral that I probably wasn’t meant to take from this story: never get engaged if you want to be left alone to get on with your work.)
However, for some reason, Henry switches from wanting to be left alone to wanting an audience very quickly. He’s so creepy, ordering the others around in the lab! When he throws the switch, the table with the inanimate Monster rises into the air, which is an effect I recognise from the Frankenstein pub in Edinburgh (they do a silly special effect with a dummy monster at midnight every night, or at least they did when I used to go there in my student days).
The electricity subsides, the Monster’s hand moves, and we get the most iconic line in the film. ‘It’s alive, it’s alive…now I know what it feels like to be God!’ screams Henry. (I felt a bit like this when I built my first PC and it actually worked, which is why that PC is named ‘Frankenstein’.)
Henry’s father, Baron Frankenstein, thinks Henry’s cheating on Elizabeth, so he clearly doesn’t know his son very well. The town burgomaster is impatient for a wedding, apparently ’cause the town is so boring that the townspeople don’t have anything else to do but hang around watching it. ‘Such a fine young man, the very image of his father,’ says the burgomaster about Henry. ‘Heaven forbid,’ retorts the Baron, who’s the best character in the whole film. The Baron has no patience at all for the burgomaster, which is very funny.
Dr Waldman, visiting Henry in the windmill again, is concerned about the Monster being dangerous. Henry, meanwhile, is totally brazen about having stolen the brain from Waldman’s laboratory! Waldman, rather than getting angry about this, just points out that the brain was a criminal one.
At this point, the Monster walks backwards into the room solely for a more dramatic reveal of Karloff’s face. The Monster is scared of fire, even though there’s not really any reason for this. I suppose it’s to make him look more primitive. For some reason, they decide to chain him up, and Fritz starts threatening him with a whip. Fritz is an idiot bully where the Monster is concerned, and so the Monster understandably kills him.
Dr Waldman wants to kill the Monster as a result. Henry reluctantly agrees and brings a hypodermic needle to subdue his creation. There’s a comedy sequence when Elizabeth and the Baron arrive, with Victor, who has arrived ahead, having to help Waldman drag the unconscious Monster into the dungeon before Elizabeth can see it (wouldn’t want to frighten the female character *eyeroll*). Meanwhile, Henry has fainted upstairs. The Baron and Elizabeth decide to take him back to town.
Dr Waldman continues Henry’s experiments, intending to destroy the Monster. Instead, the Monster wakes up and kills him first, then escapes from the windmill.
Henry and Elizabeth are out in the garden having a cigarette, with a not-very-alive-looking dog twitching at their feet. They decide to get married ASAP, and we cut to the wedding day, with some more comedy relief from the Baron. ‘Here’s to the health of a son of the House of Frankenstein!’ he toasts, then drops a quiet aside to the butler: ‘Give the servants some champagne – this stuff’s wasted on them.’
I find the scene with the Monster accidentally drowning Maria odd from a modern perspective. The first time I watched it, I didn’t realise she was supposed to have drowned – the water’s not deep or fierce, and I come from a time when all children were taught to swim.
Elizabeth comes to see Henry before the ceremony, clearly not superstitious about Henry seeing her in her dress. She has a premonition, but Henry brushes it away. He then locks her into the room when he doesn’t want her listening to his conversation with Victor, which is not a good sign for the marriage!
The scene with the Monster menacing Elizabeth is great – her wedding dress looks so dramatic when she’s moving around the room.
Henry decides he can’t get married until the Monster is dead, so we get a very slow, dull sequence with a torch-carrying mob running around a mountain, which is quite a difficult thing to make slow and dull. The Monster eventually subdues Henry, and takes him back to the windmill. After a chase around the top level, the Monster chucks Henry off the tower, and Henry is conveniently caught by one of the windmill blades, which deposits him gently on the ground. The rioting mob are now free to burn the windmill down with the Monster inside.
We then get a slightly silly ending with more comedy between the Baron, a glass of wine, and his household staff, and an odd repetition of the line ‘Here’s to a son to the House of Frankenstein!’ We then get another caption listing the cast, and so Boris Karloff finally gets his credit.
A trip to the cinema for a new film tomorrow!