IMDB keywords: science runs amok, drowning someone, windmill
I've written about this one at least twice in other places and you are (surely to God) all familiar with it, so let's see if we can dredge up anything new in this hoary old classic. Science fact: the monster is named "the monster", not fucking Frankenstein, jesus christ already.
FRANKENSTEIN opens with a tuxed Edward Van Sloan on a theatrical stage, saying this: "I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you! So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now's your chance to...well, we've warned you!" This is the carniest thing ever and pretty much guaranteed that no one in the audience would ask for a refund or think of leaving before watching the entire film. So well played! This is also excerpted at the top of every Night of the Living Podcast.
I laughed and cringed that the author of Frankenstein was listed as "Mrs. Percy B. Shelley" in the credits, because it sounds like how lingerie catalogs to Mary Shelley would be addressed. But, really, it's dispiriting that she'd have to play second fiddle to her husband (I didn't even think "Ozymandias" was that good, tbh). As the film opens, we see Henry Frankenstein and his assistant Fritz in this position, stealthily watching a funeral. This film has a lot of homoerotic content that we'll talk about, but I wonder if James Whale blocked this like this on purpose.
This whole scene ain't subtle about what's coming. Just after the funeral, we get a workmanlike grave digger throwing dirt on the casket and then contemptuously tossing a used match on top. This is followed by the famous exhumation, in which Frankenstein inadvertently tosses a spadeful of dirt in Death's face.
Edward Van Sloan is a good warner! He warned us about FRANKENSTEIN and now he debuts as Dr. Waldman, warning a class about the biological differences between a "normal" brain and a "diseased" criminal brain. Morality and medicine all get smushed together in a big pile. Fact: when Henry Frankenstein was in school, you only had to take one class and it taught you everything you needed to know about anything.
And that science is applied, in swollen sets which admit of German expressionist sympathies. The sets and the acting, even pre-monster, work wonders to keep the audience engaged.
Engaged, much like Henry Frankenstein, whose fiancee Elizabeth shows up with Frankenstein's former professor to stop him from hanging out with hunchbacks and doing science.
One reason that I think FRANKENSTEIN has endured is that it's a very literate film, much more so than either DRACULA or other horror films of this era. Mary Shelley's novel was subtitled The Modern Prometheus and the film definitely plays on that idea with multiple characters. Frankenstein, obviously, but also the monster. In the above scene, the monster reaches for the light or the sun to try to capture it. This scene also keeps the movie's hand motif alive and kicking.
Light and flame are also omnipresent and not always in a good, stretchy way. The monster fears fire, at least initially, and Frankenstein's hunchback Fritz preys on that fear. Their interactions bring up a lot of questions about monstrosity and otherness. Fritz is obviously deformed and outcast (nobody who could get a good job would help Henry cut down hanged corpses), but even he has this compulsion to torment outsiders.
The monstrosity/other thing arises again, in a subtler way, in Frankenstein himself. The monster can be viewed as an emblem for whatever perversions are happening in his sciency heart. We get glimpses of this in the above scene, just after Papa Frankenstein has proposed a toast about a potential grandson. UHHHHH. Plus there are all kinds of suggestions in the dialogue, like when a friend warns Henry that his fiancee is almost here and "she can't be allowed to see this!" (in this case, the monster, but it could just as likely be CDRs of a shirtless Ryan Gosling)
When people talk about actors in this film, they rightfully always mention Karloff. Boris does an amazing, standard-setting job at nailing a largely nonverbal, largely physical role. So shut up, Ed Wood's Bela Lugosi! But one could also argue that this is Colin Clive's finest hour. His Frankenstein is definitive and deftly-executed, from the toast reaction above to his drained/orgasmic joy when the monster comes to life. And everyone knows, "It's alive! Alive!", but "In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to BE God!" is woefully underrated. Edward Van Sloan and Frederick Kerr (Baron Frankenstein) also deliver knockout performances.
James Whale's directorial choices let the actors and action flourish. We get these fantastic sweeping tracking shots that float seamlessly through walls and some gorgeous design choices in sets and wardrobe. Whale's probably also responsible for the occasional hint of comedy, which is sometimes dealt in a very understated way (like the three sequential nods in answer to a Frankenstein question). Thankfully, because he was James Whale and not someone making terrible modern horror/comedy mashups, he never allowed the comedy to overwhelm the primary business. Really, the only grudge I can cite against the film would be the wisp of a love triangle that appears in Elizabeth's scenes with Frankenstein's friend Victor. It doesn't lead anywhere and seems superfluous.
Other than that teeny little thing, pure classic. Watch and worship.