Frankenstein (1931)

Karloff as Frankenstein

'Frankenstein', made in 1931, is the single most important horror film ever made. English director, James Whale, making his film-directing debut, hacked out of Mary Shelley's unwieldy novel a fable of an overreaching scientist and his abused childlike outcast of a monster.

Though Colin Clive's neurotic Frankenstein and Dwight Frye's hunchbacked dwarf assistant are definitive, the career break-out of the film is William Henry Pratt, a 42 year old Englishman who turned his back on a privileged upbringing and emigrated to become a truck driver in Canada and a jobbing bit-player in the States.

Universal's make-up genius Jack Pierce devised the flattop, the neck terminals, the heavy eyelids, and the elongated, scarred hands, while Whale outfitted the creature with a shabby suit like those worn by the ex-soldier hoboes then riding the rails and added the clumping asphalt-spreader's boots. But it was Pratt who turned the Monster from a snarling bogeyman into a yearning, sympathetic, classic character whose misdeeds are accidental (drowning a little girl) or justified (hanging the dwarf who has tortured him with fire.) In the opening credits, the Monster is billed as being played by'?'; only at the end of the film were audiences told it was a fellow by the name of Boris Karloff - Pratt's stage handle - who had terrified, moved, and inspired them.

'Frankenstein claims a number of wondrous theatrical set pieces: the 'creation' with lightning crackling around the tower and the Monster raised to the angry heavens on an operating table; the Monster's first appearance (seen from behind, he turns to show us his face and the camera stutters toward him); the heart-breaking sequence with the little girl who doesn't float: the primal attack on the heroine in her boudoir on her wedding day (a rare bit taken from the book); and the pursuit of the Monster by a mob of peasants with flaming torches, winding up in the old mill where creator and creation confront each other in one of the earliest horror movie inferno finales. The Universal horror cycle runs the gamut from perfection through pastiche and pulp to parody but 'Frankenstein' remains chilly and invigorating, the cornerstone of its entire genre.

The movie is a masterpiece of vintage horror. Entertaining, creepy and stylish.

Plot Outline

Dr. Henry Frankenstein has the ambition to use the body of a dead man in order to build a completely new person. He and his assistant Fritz steal a body. but realize that the brain is damaged so they decide to steal another brain from a former teacher of Frankenstein. The brain is switched when Fritz drops it and the monster is created from the dead body during a thunderstorm by means of a ray that Dr. Frankenstein has discovered.

When Dr. Frankenstein realizes the monster is aggressive, he and Fritz lock it up. The monster kills Fritz when he provokes it and escapes to freedom. A little girl is accidentally drowned by the monster and the mob demand its death. It is driven into a mill which is set on fire.

Main Cast

Boris Karloff ... The Monster
Colin Clive ... Dr. Henry Frankenstein
Frederick Kerr ... Baron Frankenstein
Edward Van Sloan ... Dr. Waldman
Mae Clarke ... Elizabeth
John Boles ... Victor Moritz
Lionel Belmore ... Herr Vogel
Dwight Frye ... Fritz
Marilyn Harris ... Little Maria


Director ... James Whale
Producer ... Carl Laemmle Jr.
Production Company ... Universal Pictures
Story ... Based on the novel by Mary W. Shelley
Screenplay ... Garrett Fort, Francis Edward Farogoh
Format ... B&W
Initial Release ... 21 November, 1931
Running Time ... 67 or 70 minutes

Academy Awards

No nominations