Frankenstein screenshot

Frankenstein (1931)

A mad scientist gives life to a being of his own creation, unwittingly unleashing a monster that's not fit for this world.

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Frankenstein is not the first in what we now call the Universal Monsters series (following Dracula from earlier in the same year), but it is the most important. The film established director James Whale as Universal's premiere horror director (going on to direct both Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man) and actor Boris Karloff as Universal's go-to monster (reprising this role multiple times and appearing as the titular monster in The Mummy). Most importantly, Karloff's appearance in Jack Pierce's iconic makeup design has become the symbol of the entire Universal Monsters franchise.

Henry Frankenstein is a mad scientist determined to play god and create life from scratch. His obsession concerns Elizabeth, his betrothed, as he spends all his time locked away with his experiment. Eventually, he successfully animates the being he created, but almost immediately regrets it and decides to destroy the monster. Instead, it escapes and is able to briefly experience life. Knowing nothing of the world causes the creature to become an inadvertent murderer, and the entire village sets out to destroy it.

Frankenstein screenshot

An oft-repeated bit of trivia is that the name Frankenstein refers to the man who created the monster, but not the monster itself. While the propriety of referring to the creation by the name of its progenitor is debatable, those people are missing the point: the real monster in this story is Henry Frankenstein. He creates life, calls himself a god, and abandons his creation at the first hardship. He doesn't even stick around to make sure the monster is destroyed, leaving the task to his colleague Doctor Waldman instead. After Henry's creation is ultimately defeated, his father hopes for "a son to the house of Frankenstein," obliviously to the fact that Henry has failed once as a father already.

Universal's Frankenstein gave us the definitive version of the monster, and it has influenced later adaptations even more than Mary Shelley's novel itself. It's impossible to depict the monster without using some element of Universal's version; his flat head, the electrodes in his neck, his outfit (from the jacket to the platform boots), and the fact that he's mute all originated in this film, not the original story.

While the look of the monster is entirely unique, the film's overall style was heavily influenced by silent German Expressionist horror films, such as Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The stylistic approach to lighting and set design set Frankenstein apart from Dracula and set the bar for future Universal Monsters movies. The movie's success allowed other filmmakers to experiment with different stylistic approaches to their films, which resulted in numerous unforgettable Universal Monsters films and characters. The horror genre continues to be one of the safest place for filmmakers to experiment creatively to this day.

Frankenstein poster Frankenstein title screen

Director

  • James Whale

Cast

  • Boris Karloff as The Monster
  • Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein
  • Mae Clarke as Elizabeth
  • Edward Van Sloan as Doctor Waldman
  • Dwight Frye as Fritz