Sunday, May 31, 2015

AFI Top 100, #87: "Frankenstein" (1931)

I’m issuing a general SPOILER ALERT for this review, although I find it difficult to believe you didn’t read Frankenstein in HS or college, or that you haven’t gleaned the entirety of the story from the numerous references to it popular culture.

Movie Stats:
Released 1931 (USA)
American, in English
Director - James Whale
Stars - Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clarke

Plot Summary:
It’s the classic tale of Frankenstein (Clive), a doctor who builds a man (Karloff) out of spare body parts and animates him. Clarke co-stars as Frankenstein’s fiancee, Elizabeth.

Violence, some of it fairly graphic.

Bad Stuff:
My biggest problem with horror stories is that people typically have to behave in incredibly stupid, uncharacteristic ways to move the plot forward. For example, Frankenstein’s assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) is clearly either very low IQ and/or mentally disturbed. So why would you send that guy to steal a brain for you (thus ending up with the “criminal” brain)? Why would you leave him alone with the monster you created when you know he likes to torment the monster? Why, when the monster then kills Fritz and nearly kills you and your friend, would you leave your friend alone with the monster? I mean, I know you just collapsed and all, but you were able to walk back to town on your own, why couldn’t you spare five seconds to give the monster the lethal injection? Why, when the monster is loose in your home, would you leave your fiancee alone, lock the door from the outside, and take the key with you, so she can’t escape and no one can enter to help her? And so on. Obviously, I find the stupidity of horror story characters exasperating. It’s not limited to this film.

The fight scenes are terrible, in the way that they often were back in the day.

Frankenstein’s father, the Baron (Frederick Kerr), has one of the most annoying speaking voices on the planet. Not sure if it was the actor’s natural voice (God forbid) or if it was an affectation for the film, but it made it very difficult for me to like his character.

Good Stuff:
In my opinion, sci fi is at its best when it asks difficult moral questions. That’s the thing I’ve always liked about the Frankenstein story: it’s a morality tale. “What is the nature of man?” It asks. “Can he become God? If he can, should he?” Ultimately, Frankenstein, in his hubris, becomes a bad father (as opposed to his own father who, on the surface, seems bad but is the driving force behind saving his son from himself), and both the child he creates and innocent bystanders suffer for it.

At first, I wasn’t particularly impressed by Karloff’s acting. Mostly he does a lot of what my subtitles insisted was “growling” but what I would call “groaning.” However, I spent a couple of days thinking about it and realized how good he was. He imbues the monster with a lot of humanity. The monster, despite his criminal brain, never seems like a bad man. Rather, he seems confused, upset, and frustrated, as you might be if you were brought to life only to spend your few short days with people yelling at you, imprisoning you, tormenting you, doing nothing to help you figure out what was going on, and trying to kill you.

Shallow moment: Elizabeth’s wedding dress is gorgeous. I wish it was my wedding dress.

The Verdict:
Despite my long rant in “Bad Stuff,” I did actually like this movie. It took me a few days to figure out how to articulate why. It’s not one of those movies where I can easily say something like “the acting/cinematography/soundtrack/dialogue/etc. was amazing.” I don’t think any of those things. It’s about the story itself. Of course, the Frankenstein story isn’t original to this screenwriter, but it is a good adaptation (I can’t say how faithful it is because it’s been too long since I’ve read the book). This is a film to make you think, and having watched it after just getting home from San Andreas, it was nice to put my thinking cap on for a while. 

I give it 3.75 stars.


Patricia said...

Adding to your long list of "why". Why does this version stray so very far from the book?

I think we know the answer already.

I think a movie is a success if it makes you think over a few days and come to a conclusion. So that's good.

Also, I had to find out what the dress looked like and you are right. It's gorgeous. Here's a link:

Do you often watch movies with subtitles? I always do, because Matt needs them. They used to bug me, but I got used to them and now I miss them when they are not there. Plus, you can watch the entire movie at a lower volume, which is nice, especially if you have neighbors living above you.

balyien said...

I thought I remembered a lot more death in the book. I was actually a bit annoyed by the end of the movie because there were no true consequences for Frankenstein (Who's called Henry in the movie. Wasn't he Victor in the book?). He caused at least three deaths but once the monster he created was dead, everyone was like, "Well, that's that then." I was like, "Huh?" I could have sworn the ending was more fitting in the book.

I haven't typically been a big subtitle user, but a lot of these older films, the sound quality for dialogue is really bad. I'll have the volume turned up to 40 or 50 and still can't hear what they're saying! (For reference, I typically listen to the TV in the 14-20 range, depending on the show.) So I've started using subtitles more often.