Halloween Retrospective: Universal Frankenstein (As Played by Karloff)

I know quite a bit about Universal Horror. I wrote my Masters dissertation on it a few years back. This Halloween, I thought I’d look back at my favourite series within this cycle, FRANKENSTEIN. I know they made more than three, but I’ve limited myself to the ones where Boris Karloff played the Monster, otherwise we’d be here all day.

frankenstein-movie-poster-1931-1020141499

Universal

FRANKENSTEIN (1931) The Gothic sideshow tone is set straight away by a pre-credits flourish that speaks straight to the audience (“Well, we did warn you…”). Colin Clive really did sell the “It’s alive!” didn’t he?Back in old Hollywoodland your wife couldn’t follow you on a monster hunt but it was A-OK to lock her in a ground floor room with a wide open window. Henry was chosen over Victor Frankenstein as the less Germanic-sounding male lead, and yet the dashing alternative All-American romantic interest is still called Victor. They clarified later in the series that he was really called Heinrich anyway. The use of “normal” and “criminal” brains as a plot device hasn’t aged all that well, but director James Whale makes the very best use of the early motion picture technology (have you ever seen how technically inept Tod Browning’s DRACULA actually is ?) the lighting, framing, camera setup is really damned effective, and Karloff is perfect in his every moment.

the-bride-of-frankenstein-movie-poster-1935-1010141458

Universal

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) The bring us back with a clever little framing device acknowledging the Monster’s literary origins and handy plot recap for those in the cheap seats. There’s a certain casual disregard for how definitively the last film ended, but I doubt many entertainment-hungry audiences cared. The Monster kills more excessively this time seemingly just because he’s had enough with our crap. The camp humour is liberally scattered throughout at Whale’s behest and the script is much sharper overall. It’s almost a shame we first think of Gene Hackman’s lethal blind man in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, because the scene it is so affectionately ribbing here is just so earnest and touching. The Monster climbs through another window to get at Elizabeth. I agree with Karloff; having the Monster speak broken English throughout much of the film removes much of his power. His final (should have been only) line, “We belong dead!” still really works though.

sonoffrankenstein

Universal

SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) They’re not even trying to maintain continuity any more. The never-European town is renamed and remodelled, the previously contemporary(ish) events are pushed further back into time to provide a big of distance between the Monster’s creator and his not particularly reluctant heir to mad science-dom (Basil Rathbone). They would have probably just used Henry Frankenstein again if Colin Clive hadn’t been dead at the time. The Monster is silent again as well, but that’s probably for the best. This is the one Mel Brooks seems to have drawn most heavily on for his spoof, especially with the prominent scene of playing darts with a wooden-armed policeman. Ygor is a fine addition to the mythology and unusually nuanced, detestable yet tragic in Bela Lugosi’s hands, but in the other extreme Karloff and Rathbone clearly aren’t having much fun and there’s no reason for this to be twenty minutes longer than all the others. Don’t even get me started on the most irritating, attention-seeking child actor in screen history (“Well heeellooo!”).

Happy Halloween, gods and monsters all. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Sam Mendes, Guillermo del Toro, Bong Joon-ho, Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle, Edgar Wright, Taika Waititi and the Coen Brothers. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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