I hope to one day write two words as iconic as, “IT’S ALIVE!!!”
The first time I watched Dracula (1931) with my brother and cousin, we were so petrified with fear that we had to all sleep in the same room with crucifixes hanging around our necks. I’m not making that up. The three of us were scarred for life and it was years before I was able to muster enough courage to see another Universal monster movie. Granted, we were all under 13 at the time so scaring us wasn’t very difficult, but those fake as hell bats and cheesy effects still did a number on me. So, knowing my history with classic monster movies, what was I thinking when I decided to watch Frankenstein (1931) alone in the dark? Honestly, I was spooked just from watching the DVD set up screen.
Loosely based on Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, “Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus,” Frankenstein follows Dr. Henry Frankenstein and his experiments to create life. Sewing together the parts of dead bodies, Frankenstein creates a new human but mistakenly inserts the brain of an abnormal murderer. Frankenstein must then deal with the consequences of the violent creature he has unleashed on the world.
Movies from the 1930s were badass. Frankenstein literally starts with a message from the movie’s producer warning viewers that what they’re about to see is utterly horrifying and we should leave now. Looking back, I should have listened to his warning because I’m here to tell you, Frankenstein is a legitimately scary movie. It may sound hard to believe because with a lot of these horror movies from the 30s and 40s, what once frightened audiences decades ago doesn’t hold up today. Surprisingly though, Frankenstein does. Is it a “wet your pants, have nightmares for years, need to sleep with the lights on,” kind of horror movie? Absolutely not. It’s much more of a subtle horror, one that you have to pay attention to but I promise it’s worth it. The true fright of Frankenstein lies in the unsettling dialogue and disturbing visuals. That opening scene of Henry and his assistant Fritz grave robbing in that creepy graveyard made me audibly gasp! It might not sound that scary but I swear it’s just as effective as any jump scare or masked serial killer. There’s an old school spookiness to this movie that is genuinely haunting.
Speaking of old school spookiness, can we just take a minute to appreciate the fucking incredible make-up job used to transform Boris Karloff into the Monster? It’s amazing. There are so many things about Frankenstein that are iconic, but Jack Pierce’s imagining of the Monster is the most memorable. It’s wild to think that without knowing it, Pierce gave us this look that is now widely recognized as THE Frankenstein look. As an honest to goodness, legendary monster movie from the Golden Age of Hollywood, Frankenstein gave us so many tropes that Hollywood still uses in movies today. The grungy laboratory, mob of angry villagers and mad scientist are all horror archetypes that we have Frankenstein to thank for. Ah, the classics. You know, just once I’d like to be part of an angry mob of villagers for no other reason than using it as an excuse to carry a torch and a pitchfork. If it meant chasing down someone like Dr. Frankenstein, I would happily join that mob tomorrow. Talk about a plot twist! Deranged, overly ambitious and filled with hubris, it’s Dr. Frankenstein who is the true villain of this movie, not the Monster. It’s a done deal: You try to play God and you’re automatically the villain.
Think about it. All the Monster did was scare Henry’s fiancée Elizabeth, kidnap Henry and accidentally drown one little girl. Alright, admittedly that last one is a pretty damning piece of evidence. Oh my God, I’m a terrible person but when it was made abundantly clear that the Monster was going to drown little Maria, all I could think was, “He better not touch her kitten though!” Thankfully, the kitten was luckier than Maria. I’m a horrible person, I know.
That scene where the Monster plays with Maria, though it ends tragically, is bizarrely sweet as it shows off his human side. It adds a touch of humanity to this grim monstrous story and helps you see things from the point of view of the Monster. He can’t help that he was born with the brain of a killer and as he struggles to make sense in a world he’ll never belong, he is wrongly turned into a menace for the villagers to pursue. Except for the murder which again, is horribly unforgivable. Still, the way that Frankenstein is able to cultivate a sense of sympathy for its monster is an impressive feat for a movie so old, and probably one of the reasons why it’s stood the test of time. How often do you watch a horror movie and genuinely go, “awww, that poor monster?”
A true classic, as well as being a quick hour and 10 minutes, what’s most enjoyable about Frankenstein is its simplicity. It’s a straightforward and frighteningly captivating story about the price one man pays for playing God and it succeeds at telling that story immensely. Speaking of simplicity, God, I love how old movies didn’t bother coming up with clever transitions. They literally just cross dissolve or fade to black to set up the next scene and I love it. This horrific and famous movie is the perfect pick if you’re looking to get into the Halloween mood. It certainly did so for me. It also made me want to watch Bride of Frankenstein (1935). And, if we’re being honest, Young Frankenstein (1974). Are you officially sick of reading the word “Frankenstein,” yet?
What are you favourite monster movies?
Let me know in the comments or on social media!