Frankenstein – 1931
Director – James Whale
Starring – Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, Edward Van Sloan, Dwight Frye, and Boris Karloff
The original version of the movie Frankenstein shares a lot with the original version of the movie Dracula. Aside from being released in the same year, featuring a number of the same actors (Van Sloan, and Frye were in both movies), and being flagship movies for Universal, they share quite a bit in terms of visual style and atmosphere. Frankenstein is a bit less concerned with the rules and set up of it’s world than Dracula was, but it does have something over Dracula…Boris Karloff.
Bela Lugosi was really very good as the halting, stilted, seductive monster, but Boris Karloff seems, for lack of a better term, real. Movies of this time period never seem to have very naturalistic acting. Everything usually seems just a little off, like when you watch old Super 8 movies, they seem a little sped up and the physicality of the people seems off. Boris Karloff on the other hand, displays very realistic acting. When the Frankenstein monster is being accosted by fire, you can see how terrified of it he is. Karloff manages to imbue this monster, this thing to be afraid of with a naturalism that isn’t even wasted on the main characters. I don’t know if this was done on purpose to create an almost subconcious sympathy for the creature, but if it was, it works beautifully. Where Lugosi’s performance was helped by the un-natural quality, strange timing of his delivery, Karloff’s performance gives us a similar uneasiness thanks to his being the most natural in the entirety of the movie. I see echoes of this juxtaposition in the work of David Lynch, put to equally good effect.
Dracula was also limited by it’s temporal setting. While the characters were always safe the threat of the vampire during the day, in Frankenstein there is no safe time of day. When the Frankenstein monster escapes his bonds at the strange castle (Frankenstein and Dracula both lead me to believe that evil is associated very closely with wealth), he runs rampant into the village in the middle of the day. To see a monster in broad daylight would, you’d think, take away a lot of it’s power to scare, but not so. In various discussions that I’ve had with friends and fellow fans of horror movies, we have talked numerous times about the creepy nature of a monster or other danger hiding in plain sight. When everything else is normal, it amplifies the unsettling nature of whatever doesn’t fit (think, Michael Myers outside the window in Halloween, or that creepy man in a dog costume in the Shining). Seeing the Frankenstein monster interact with the little girl near the lake, or creep just outside the Elizabeth’s window before the wedding ceremony, intensifies the tension in the scene.
Another thing that Frankenstein provides that Dracula didn’t, was the death scene of our monster. Van Helsing took a stake to Count Dracula, and all the while we are watching the effects of his death on Mina, as she is being released from his spell. In Frankenstein we see the monster trapped in the windmill with a burning beam pinning him to the floor. He is confronted with death by fire, his worst fear, and his terror is palpable.
What Frankenstein lacks in story (the story isn’t bad, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense) it more than makes up for in atmosphere. It holds up well and is still suprisingly effective.