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31 Iconic Horror Films in October: Frankenstein (1931) Review

Note: This is a series of 31 iconic horror film reviews I plan on doing throughout October. See the introduction post for more information and the list of films.

Just like “Dracula” yesterday, “Frankenstein” is another classic horror film that doesn’t exactly hold up in the scare department but is still a great example of filmmaking. Even though it still isn’t scary, it feels much more like a horror film than “Dracula” and is actually pretty violent for its time (one of its most famous scenes turns out quite morbid and actual fight scenes are included).

“Frankenstein” obviously is based off the Mary Shelley novel of the same name and features a young mad scientist (Henry Frankenstein, played by Colin Clive) who is collecting body parts from graves and the gallows for his experiment. He intends to create life by piecing the body parts together and using electricity to bring it to life. His fiancee Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) worries about him and wonders why he is spending all of his time in an abandoned tower turned laboratory. Along with her friend Victor (John Boles) and Henry’s old medical professor (Dr. Waldman, portrayed by Universal Monsters regular Edward Van Sloan), she decides to visit him conveniently just as he is about to create life. They watch as Frankenstein’s monster (Boris Karloff) comes to life before their own eyes.

Unfortunately, Frankenstein learns from Dr. Waldman that his idiotic assistant Fritz took the brain of a criminal so the monster is likely to be dangerous. At first, he is relatively peaceful until Fritz angers him with a torch. He quickly becomes violent and Frankenstein and Waldman decide that the creature needs to be destroyed. However, it eventually escapes and begins to terrorize the town. The townspeople must find the monster before it does even more damage.

I liked “Dracula” quite a bit but “Frankenstein” is even better. The story is great and moves at a much faster pace than its predecessor. “Dracula” dragged at times but I never found myself bored while watching “Frankenstein.” The film is a breeze at just 71 minutes long and probably could have actually supported a slightly longer run time. “Frankenstein” also sports two great acting performances (and the others are fine as well). Not surprisingly, Boris Karloff nails it as Frankenstein’s monster. His performance in this film made him a star and rightfully so. However, Colin Clive does almost as good of a job playing Henry Frankenstein. “Dracula” basically just had the great Bela Lugosi and a couple other halfway decent performances.

Like “Dracula,” “Frankenstein” has some amazing sets, especially Henry’s tower. They probably wouldn’t be that impressive now but for their time, they look awesome. Another positive for “Frankenstein” is the inclusion of some actually funny moments. Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr) is Henry’s cranky old father who adds some humorous scenes to the film. In addition to the humor, “Frankenstein” also has way more iconic scenes than “Dracula” does. There’s the “it’s alive” scene, the scene with the little girl by the lake, the townspeople with their torches and pitchforks, and one extremely powerful scene involving a man bringing a body into town (I won’t spoil whose body). The ending is also much better than “Dracula” and “The Mummy,” though still not as dramatic as it could have been.

There are some slight problems with the film. First of all, no musical score was made for the film. Unlike “Dracula,” it doesn’t seem like Universal even commissioned a score for its home video release. This is pretty disappointing as a great score can really add some power and mood to scenes.

The other reason this film isn’t getting a perfect score is that even though its more violent than “Dracula,” it still just isn’t scary for today’s audience. The film is over 80 years old and the horror techniques just don’t resonate today. If I had watched this film back in 1931 (or if it was the first horror film I’d ever seen), I probably would have been scared and given it a perfect 5/5. However, that is not the case so it gets a very respectable 4 out of 5 from me. It’s definitely a must watch though.