Friday, April 07, 2006


Universal Pictures
Director: James Whale
Length: 69 min.
Country: USA
Format: DVD
Date Viewed: 26 March, 2006

Here is an opening disclaimer to potential annoybots. I know what movies were like 1931, and I know full well how the techniques, standards and technology differed in this era from what we have now. I know that I shouldn't expect car chases in Gone With the Wind (thanks for the heads up, man in video store!), and that All Quiet on the Western Front will not feature Saving Private Ryan-style battle realism (as well as knowing the former war film is superior on all counts to the latter dummy moneymaker). So, before I get yet another lecture on how I "don't understand that movies were different in the past," please understand that I don't dislike James Whale's Frankenstein because I'm some dumb 25 year-old expecting a horror film like The Thing; I dislike Frankenstein because it's not a very good film for any time period.

One of my major complaints revolves around the script. The film works far too often on credibility-destroying coincidences and plot holes, such as the monster just happening to enter Elizabeth's room through the window, the villagers somehow finding Dr. Waldman's body in the bell tower, and Maria's father somehow knowing how his daughter died, to name a couple. These are especially distracting and help weaken the film more than they would in most other horror films because Whale takes everything so incredibly seriously and yet is poorly written at the same time. In a film that's a little more fun, plot holes are somewhat inconsequential, but here, with a pretentious introduction and a sense that the filmmakers were dealing with an important moral lesson, the writing must be taut to back it all up. Francis Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort's script, on this point, does not deliver.

[Spoiler Alert]
The tacked-on ending is another major flaw despite its brief length. My problem with it is two-fold, the first being the fact that the film's ego-mad producer and then-President of Universal Pictures, Carl Laemmle, Jr. (not only is his name dropped in the aforementioned introduction, it appears three times on the film's title card alone!), added the intro to the film to warn of us how dark and scary the film will be, but then cops out and gives us hastily created (apparently after principal photography) and poorly written happy ending in which the mad doctor somehow survives his fall off the windmill and will soon be married as initially planned. Looking through the lens of a film that claims to bring up dark subject matter and discuss it in an adult-like fashion, the ending is insulting to the audience. My second issue with ending is how weak it is in a storytelling sense. For such a moralistic tale, it only makes sense that the doctor should die in the end, be as one character says, "destroyed by his creation." Sure, bad guys get away with crimes all the time in real life, but this type of story demands a certain type of resolution, and it's simply bad storytelling to end Frankenstein with a "happily-ever after" conclusion.
[End Spoiler Alert]

My other problem with the film is how sloppy the production was. For as much effort as the crew put into art design, you think they'd make sure the set backdrop during the climactic chase across the mountain would be smoothed out, so major, distracting wrinkles wouldn't appear all the way down it. Further, the crew's complete disregard for continuity was astounding. From cut to cut the actors are standing and looking in completely different places and directions throughout the film. This gives a feeling that the production was rushed and that little overall care was put into its creation. No other film from this period that I've seen suffers nearly as bad or at all from this sloppiness, so I know it's not symptomatic of this era, just an inferior crew - strange for a major studio picture.

The film does some things right, though. Karloff's performance as the monster is amazing, and though all his movements consist of shuffling and his dialogue of grunting, he expresses emotion better than any of the other actors in the film. He is deft at making the monster likeable and sympathetic, and is one of two reasons that the monster is so memorable.

The other major reason is the outstanding make-up design by Jack Pierce, beautiful in its grotesque nature. Pierce's work on the monster far outdoes make-up work on most modern horror films.

The film is also rightfully well-known for its sinister yet gorgeous atmosphere, the result of overall strong cinematography and production design (wrinkled backdrops notwithstanding), notably in the opening cemetery sequence and the scenes in the mad doctor's laboratory.

The mood of the film is fantastic, as is the monster. But the story and script, the ending, and the rushed feel to the film bring Frankenstein down just too much. This is by and large considered a horror classic, but I can't recommend it. If you want to see a good, older horror film, save your time and check out The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the 1925 The Phantom of the Opera, or Vampyr instead.


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