31 Days of Horror: Frankenstein (1931) is a classic for a reason

Kino. Frankenstein, USA, 1931, Regie: James Whale, Darsteller: Boris Karloff, Mae Clarke. (Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images)
Kino. Frankenstein, USA, 1931, Regie: James Whale, Darsteller: Boris Karloff, Mae Clarke. (Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images) /

It’s hard for me to pick a favorite Universal Monster. I’ve always been a fan of the Wolfman, Gill-man, and the Bride of Frankenstein. However, if I had to choose one Universal Monster movie, I’d go with James Whale’s  Frankenstein. While the adaptation does make drastic changes to Mary Shelley’s novel, it gets a major part of the book right. Whale’s masterful direction and Boris Karloff’s classic performance makes us empathize with the Creature. He just wants a friend but is an outcast. In that regard, the Monster becomes a metaphor for Otherness.

Other than Karloff, Frankenstein also stars Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein and Mae Clarke as his beloved Elizabeth. Like a lot of the early Universal Monster movies, this one was heavily influenced by the German Expressionist movies, like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, especially for its use of light and shadow and its strange set designs that create an uncanny feeling. This is especially true in the opening graveyard sequence, when gallows and tombstones are shown to be crooked and off-center.

The film established many of the traits of Universal Monster movies and would define the era moving forward, including a dreary castle, pounding rain, flashes of lightening, cracks of thunder, and townspeople with pitchforks eager to kill the Monster. Other than its effective setting, this feature remains so memorable largely because of the performances. Clive is fantastic as a scientist starved for fame, eager to conquer death as a means to ensure his name lasts through the ages. However, it’s Karloff that really shines, from the make-up to his nuanced performance. The very image we have of the Monster, especially the bolts in the neck and long forehead, come from this movie. Keep in mind that, until the sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, Karloff doesn’t speak at all as the Monster, another major contrast from Shelley’s novel. He grunts and groans, but he conveys his emotion through body language and to a lesser extent, facial expressions.

There are so many iconic moments in this film, from the “It’s alive” scene, which has been spoofed countless times, to that moment the Monster first stumbles out of the shadows and the camera zooms in on his dead, sunken eyes. While this movie doesn’t seem all that controversial now, it was upon its release. After the Hays Code was enacted in 1934, the scene in which the Monster accidently drowns Maria (Marilyn Harris) after tossing her in a lake was removed. This is such a consequential part of the film, mirroring the moment in Shelley’s novel when the Monster strangles Victor’s little brother, William. In both scenes, the murders represent the Creature’s loss of innocence. In Whale’s version, the Monster also gains awareness about his actions and their consequences, thus unleashing the wrath of the townspeople and their torches and pitchforks.

Kino. Frankenstein, USA, 1931, Regie: James Whale, Darsteller: Boris Karloff, Marilyn Harris. (Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images) /

Another scene was also removed post-Hays Code. After Dr. Frankenstein realizes his experiment worked, he says, “Now I know what it’s like to be god.” This was quite a statement considering the time period. While this moment, and the scene involving Maria, may seem tame now, keep in mind both shocked audiences, to the point they were removed and only added back into the film several decades later.

Whenever I teach my Horror Literature and Film class, I always start with Frankenstein as an introduction to Gothic literature and the foundations of the genre. I’ve taught other film adaptations of the story, including May and The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster this year. However, Whale’s masterpiece remains a fixture in my syllabus. While the movie may not scare younger generations anymore, I can tell you that it still fascinates my students. This is thanks to Karloff’s performance and Whale’s prowess as a director. It’s also in the way that this film, like Shelley’s novel, really conveys Otherness. That’s why Frankenstein remains my favorite Universal Monster movie.

Next. The very best Frankenstein adaptations. dark