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Release Year: 1931
Genre: Drama, Horror, Sci-Fi
Director: James Whale
Monstrous human makes humane monster. Hilarity—if you define hilarity as "lots of growling, low-grade torture, throwing children into lakes, and windmill fires" ensues.
That's Frankenstein's plot in a nutshell. But here's the thing: Frankenstein, like Frankenstein's monster, is more than the sum of its parts.
Frankenstein's monster is made of corpses, the heart of a criminal, and some seriously life-giving lightning power (Thor would be proud). But Mr. Monster is actually a pitiable, yearning, totally lovable presence—he has the kind of character you'd get if you crossed a Labradoodle puppy and the Peanut Butter Baby. Unfortunately, he also has the strength of ten men…which leads to more than a few deaths.
And Frankenstein is, on its surface, just another horror movie adapted from a canonical novel. But there's a reason we still not only know, but also quote, a movie made in 1931—it's a genre-defining classic that's about way more than spills n' chills.
Here's the plot, in case you've been hiding under a rock since 1930:
Mad scientist Henry Frankenstein gets all wrapped up in his experiments and the pursuit of science and forgets the difference between "cool inventions" and "playing God." He makes a monster, shouts "It's aliiiiive!" and then almost immediately begins to regret his decision.
Because the monster turns out to be dangerous—he kills Frankenstein's assistant, his mentor, a little girl, and almost kills Frankenstein's fiancée, and Frankenstein himself. So good old Henry decides to help a bunch of villagers track down the monster and kill him dead.
But director James Whale made sure that Frankenstein's monster was the most sympathetic creature in the entire movie. This is a monster with a desire to go out into the sunshine, which contrasts absolutely with Dr. Frankenstein's desire to go perform sicko experiments in a dank, dark castle. This is a monster who has fun playing with a little girl, which contrasts absolutely with Dr. Frankenstein's desire to create a "child" out of corpse bits instead of creating a baby by, you know, baby-making.
In fact, the monster's innate sweetness (along with his iconic makeup: neck bolts are so metal) is one of the reasons that we often forget the presence of Mad Scientist Frankenstein and call "Frankenstein's monster" simply "Frankenstein." He's the star of the show.
And the monster's presence is still felt in movies today. You can see his signature neck bolts echo through in horror movie villains like Hellraiser's Pinhead, and you can see the legacy of his green skin in characters from The Incredible Hulk to The Wicked Witch of the West.
Most importantly, though, is the fact that Frankenstein's monster's likeability had a profound impact on deepening the characterization of movie monsters—The Fly's titular fly is as pitiable as he is disgusting, and The Nightmare Before Christmas' Jack Skellington's reckless naivety is a total hat-tip to his cinematic ancestor.
So while the scare-factor of this classic B movie is totally diminished (the shark scene in Finding Nemo is scarier than the entirety of Frankenstein put together), the awesomeness of its monster is still alive and well. Or should we say it's aliiiiiiive and well?
Google Frankenstein and you'll be rewarded with a movie list thirty-six films deep. Thirty-six. That means that Frankenstein flicks have been being made approximately every two and a half years since 1931. (And we're not even counting foreign language films, btw.)
We think that's proof positive that not only you, but the entirety of the film-going world, cares about Frankenstein. Hollywood isn't known for producing movies that have zero audience appeal, after all.
But why? Why do people care so much about the legacy of a film made back when Prohibition was still alive and kicking and when the Empire State Building was the tallest structure on earth? And why should you skip all those Frankenstein sequels/remakes and go straight to the original black and white film?
One word: brains.
Frankenstein has a couple of brains. It has, according to Dr. Waldman "one of the most perfect specimens of the human brain" kept in a jar in the university. That's the brain Frankenstein's assistant Fritz's supposed to steal…but he drops it.
Oops. Instead he gets (again in Waldman's words) "the abnormal brain of the typical criminal" which lacks "convolutions on the frontal lobe."
And what happens when you get a bad brain? You end up with a bad monster—one who kills people, just like a common criminal.
So, Frankenstein thinks (with its brain) that brains make you bad or good. If you've got convolutions in your frontal lobe, you'll be a good sort who goes into the office every day and pats kittens on the head and doesn't throw little girls into the lake. If you lack convolutions, you'll be a monster who goes "Arggggh!" and kills people.
But hold on to your brain for just a second. Because…who's the first person the monster kills? It's Fritz. And why does he kill Fritz? Not because of convolutions on the frontal lobe, but because, Frankenstein says, "Fritz always tormented him."
It isn't the faulty brain that provokes violence here; it's the way the poor monster is treated. Lock him in darkness, threaten him with fire—and he lashes out against his tormentors.
Frankenstein is posing the good old nature vs. nurture debate: are you born with your convoluted brain, and doomed to a life of evil or friendliness? Or, alternately, are you born a blank slate, one who can be evil or friendly, depending on how you're treated?
No one really knows the answer to those questions. How much of you comes from your brain, and how much of you comes from how your brain was fertilized and tended by your parents?
As the monster would say, "Grrrr?"
Frankenstein's smart (with its brain) because it doesn't answer those questions either. Instead, it poses them in such a way that you can pick either answer. Maybe it's the monster's brain that causes all the ruckus. Or maybe it's the fact that Henry's a jerk and treats his monster badly. Even when you stitch it together yourself, life's a mystery.
Frankenstein knows that…which is why it's worth caring about, and why it's spawned thirty-six-and-counting baby Frankenstein-related movies.
The film staffers on Frankenstein were worried that Marilyn Harris, the 7-year-old who played the girl the monster throws in the lake, would be terrified by Boris Karloff's make-up. Instead she loved it, and ran up to him in delight as soon as she saw him. (Karloff did not throw her in a lake.) (Source)
Boris Karloff was so unknown he wasn't even credited at the beginning of Frankenstein. But the film made him so famous that in Bride of Frankenstein he's simply credited as "Karloff" because everyone knew who he was. Good career move, Boris. (Source)
Two famous actors, Bela Lugosi and John Carradine, both turned down the role of the monster because the monster doesn't talk. What actor wants a role where they just say, "Arrggggh! Grrr!" (Boris Karloff did, that's who.) (Source)
Whale of Horror
The Turner Classic Movies page on James Whale includes a lengthy biography and a filmography with links to whales and whales of info on his film (see what we did there?).
One Billion Frankenstein Films
Okay, there aren't quite one billion Frankenstein films, but there are a lot of them, and this site talks about them all (plus Frankenstein comics, Frankenstein plays, and other monstrosities).
The First Monster Is the Best Monster
Lots of mad scientists have built lots of imitations, but the most monstrous monster remains Mary Shelley's original novel—which is analyzed, vivisected, and reassembled in our handy study guide.
Bride of Frankenstein
The 1935 sequel was also directed by James Whale, and once against starred Karloff as the monster, with Elsa Lanchester as his female monster counterpart. The film is even more famous and critically acclaimed than the original.
Son of Frankenstein
Son of Frankenstein is no Bride of Frankenstein; James Whale doesn't direct, and no one thinks that highly of this 1939 film. Still, it's notable as Boris Karloff's last stint as the monster (though there would be other Universal sequels. Frankenstein's critter is hard to kill).
This is a 1974 parody of the first three Universal Frankenstein films, directed by Mel Brooks. It's extremely silly.
What's the Big Deal About the Big Monster?
Film critic Eric D. Snider explains why the Frankenstein monster still matters.
Man of a Million Mad Scientists
Encyclopedia Britannica's biography of James Whale tells about his roots and all his movies with mad scientists.
"A Morbid, Gruesome Affair"
The original New York Times review of Frankenstein. The reviewer sounds like he got a little over-excited.
"Millions Are Waiting to Be Thrilled!"
This is the original trailer for the 1931 film. They use the bit where Frankenstein screams, "It's alive!" because of course they do.
"She's Alive! Alive!"
This is a famous clip from James Whale's sequel to Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein. It looks familiar, huh?
"I Was Merely the Director"
The 1998 film Gods and Monsters focuses on director James Whale's later years, especially his relationship with his (much younger) gardener (the gardener never existed, though Whale did have a relationship with a younger man late in his life). This trailer gives you a taste of the plot.
Frankenstein Was Misunderstood
A National Public Radio segment on how all those horrible monsters like Dracula and the Wolf Man aren't so bad after all. The difference between Frankenstein's monster in the original book and in the movie is discussed.
The Man Who Made a Monster and Also a Goofy Looking Poster
A mad scientist creates a monster baseball pitcher. At least that's what it looks like in this oddly awkward and un-scary 1931 poster for the original film.
In one of the many famous stills from the film, Frankenstein's evil henchman torments Frankenstein's evil monster. Poor evil monster.
This Man, This Monster
Do you wonder what Karloff looked like without his makeup? Well, wonder no more; here he is (and he's very dapper, too).