Thursday, 9 June 2011

Review of 'Frankenstein' (James Whale, 1931)

SYNOPSIS: Man creates monster by stitching together body parts of the recently deceased and giving it the brain of a criminal.

James Whale’s original film version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein story is an undisputed classic of the horror genre. While lacking in the scares and gore of more contemporary entries into the genre, the ideas and themes played out here are smarter than many a modern day science fiction/horror mash-up. The film is unlikely to make a young audience of today scream with terror but it still manages to muster sympathy for the hopeless story of the victimized monster. Watching the film now conjures memories of many films it has influenced.

Sympathetic, misunderstood monsters, crazed arrogant scientists and a screaming damsel in distress all feel overly familiar now but this film would have served up a powerful and original telling of an original tale back in the 1930s. More modern films that spring to mind while watching Frankenstein included ‘28 Days Later’ with its chained monster being provoked by an unsympathetic captor, ‘Edward Scissorhands’ with its misunderstood protagonist chased out of town by angry villagers/suburbanites and ‘The Terminator’ with its unstoppable man-made monster on the rampage (to name just a few!) The influence of this film on contemporary cinema is immeasurable. The less said about recent rip-off ‘Splice’, the better.

The story is tightly structured and the script has its faults but keeps the action rattling along at a brusque pace. The opening scenes of body-snatching are intriguing and followed by some grating scenes of exposition. However this is soon forgotten as the creation of the monster becomes a great set-piece that builds suspense and climaxes with the iconic cry of ‘It’s Alive!’ The supporting cast is lumbered with a fair share of exposition-spouting, theatrically-staged scenes and the tone of the film veers wildly between moments of dread and horror and moments of comic relief with Frankenstein’s father but the progression of the narrative is overall logical, well-crafted and fast-paced (particularly for a film of this age).

Frederick Kerr plays the Baron Frankenstein with an easy comic touch, mumbling and bumbling like a grumpy but amiable old git. Colin Clive delivers a performance that is far from subtle and contains far too much of the familiar theatrical style of acting from so many classic old movies where the character stares just off camera into the distance when thinking. However the award for really over doing this has to go to Mae Clarke playing Elizabeth whose performance would be ridiculed if it was in a modern film. Karloff plays the monster perfectly, inviting sympathy with his tragic mix of innocence and rage.

The actors work well together and despite some overly theatrical thesping, the cast is generally believable and carry the narrative convincingly. Whale never allows the pace to slow and there are some moments of interesting cinematography. However the majority of the camerawork is simple and functional, restricted as they were with the technology of the time. There is a distinct lack of musical soundtrack and this is a blessing as overly powerful orchestral scores can be a distraction in many classics from the thirties.

The special effects and set design are also worth mentioning as the interior of the windmill is an iconic construction filled with convincing contraptions that create memorable, iconic moments of the (re)birth of the monster. Karloff’s scars and screws add to this to ensure the monster is one of the most enduring and recognizable images of horror cinema.

The idea that God must not be challenged and that scientific progress will KILL US ALL is persistent but not forced down throats with quotes from the Bible. The arrogance and madness of the scientist is punished. However the innocence of the monster and the guilt of the aristocratic protagonists are not fully explored. The manipulation of the masses by the aristocrats is touched on but not overtly dealt with as a major theme.
At barely over an hour long the film is over before anyone could possibly have a chance to get bored of it. In fact the climax feels rushed and could have been more drawn out. More sympathy could have been created for the monster and the connection between creator and creation could have been explored further with a longer third act.

Frankenstein is very enjoyable and clearly a hugely influential work in the cinematic horror genre. It is an easy watch even for viewers raised on blood, guts, slashers and torture porn. Iconic, sympathetic and deserving of its classic status.

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