Frankenstein (1931) — A monster who made a man

“It’s alive, it’s alive, IT’S ALIVE!”

Justin’s rating: This one may have a screw loose…

Justin’s review: It is a singularly strange sensation to be incredibly well-acquainted with a particular work from all of the subsequent pop culture references, parodies, knock-offs, and dollar store decorations — and only later in life come, for the first time, to the original. It’s like listening to a Weird Al Yankovic parody for years, only after which actually hearing the song he was riffing.

So it is with Frankenstein. It’s such a fixture in our media landscape that everyone knows the story, the figure, and even some of the classic lines, yet maybe not as many these days have actually seen the 1931 source. My son and I sat down this past week to give it a whirl, consoling ourselves that even if it was the worst movie ever, it would only take 70 minutes out of our day. These old movies weren’t that long, at all!

Happily, Frankenstein isn’t that bad, even if it does take a while to ramp up to the actual monster. After a very strange introduction to the movie itself by some smirking host, we meet crazed ex-medical student Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his grave-robbing assistant Igor. No, wait, it’s “Fritz.” Fritz? Fine, we’ll go with Fritz. Anyway, the two are assembling their own do-it-yourself-zombie from the mail away kit, and all they need for the final ingredient is a usable brain.

Clearly, they give political institutions a wide berth.

Fritz-not-Igor accidentally nabs an “abnormal” brain from the medical college, which Frankenstein plugs into his massive 300-pound murder machine of a zombie. After a few bolts of electricity, “it’s aliiiiiiive” and kicking. The monster in question — no, I don’t mind if you call it “Frankenstein,” I’m not that anal — roams around with a social disorder that quickly manifests into outright manslaughter.

Forget all of the incredibly dull stuff with Henry’s family and his wedding and little picnics with his fiancé; the monster is where it’s at. Boris Karloff played the towering figure, and boy does both he and the makeup department sell this as one of the creepiest zombies ever. He just looks and moves so incredibly wrong, never quite graduating past groans to the level of speech so that we know what’s going on in his head. The monster is angry and miserable, lurching about while being mistreated by his “father” and other humans from almost the first moments of his unlife.

So naturally he escapes and starts terrorizing the Bavarian countryside. This includes a poignant scene where he makes friends with a little girl who isn’t actually scared of him. This friendship lasts all of two-point-three minutes before the monster up and drowns her, so I guess there’s a good argument to be made for teaching your kids to fear anything with a head that’s obviously bolted on.

Even though Frankie is a murdering monster, he’s a sympathetic and tragic figure. It’s not his fault he was made, nor does anyone really try to befriend or teach him. Heck, if people kept waving fire in front of my face and jamming hypodermic needles into my spine, I might become a tad grumpy as well.

It’s not the most entertaining Frankenstein adaptation I’ve ever seen, but it was kind of thrilling to see where it began. Now, if someone would only make this poor guy a girlfriend.

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