Film #7 on Doctor Gash’s Top 10 Greatest Horror Movies… Ever! is a classic that was censored and scrutinized in its day for scenes of blasphemy and violence against children.
That’s right, today we may think of Frankenstein as just an old black and white monster movie, but upon its release in 1931, this movie was shocking.
Henry Frankenstein: Look! It’s moving. It’s alive. It’s alive…It’s alive, it’s moving, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, IT’S ALIVE!
Victor Moritz: Henry – In the name of God!
Henry Frankenstein: Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God! “
We’ve been completely numbed to the power of Frankenstein. We’re hyper-exposed to The Monster as a cute, smiling Halloween staple, a clown (Herman Munster) and a character in children’s books (Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich by Adam Rex, for instance) and kids’ movies (Kevin James’ character in Hotel Transylvania and Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas is a female version of The Monster…and that is just two off the top of my head). But let’s consider how this film was received when it was released over 80 years ago.
We can’t be swayed by what The Monster has become but rather simply remember what he is. He is a jigsaw corpse pieced together from random bodies, driven by a demented criminal brain, and reanimated by a mad scientist. The Monster is completely lost in a world that is foreign to him. He’s tortured and cast aside by his creators…and then the monstrosity is unleashed upon the public with horrific results.
Although society’s main image of the Frankenstein Monster is undoubtedly cartoonish and fun, we must remember that upon its release, this film was considered so extreme it was actually censored in some parts. You have to remember this was 80 years ago and the sections that were removed from some prints of the film could air on prime time network television these days, but at the time, they were intense. Fans of the film will not be surprised to learn that the most scrutinized scene was the one involving The Monster throwing young Maria into the lake when he misunderstood the game they were playing together. On some prints of the film the entire second half of the of that scene, from when The Monster realized he no longer had flowers to throw into the water, through the end was cut.
More surprising is the scene when Henry Frankenstein actually brought the creature to life. He became extremely excited and proclaimed, “Now I know what it feels like to be God.” As John Lennon learned, comparing oneself to a popular deity usually doesn’t go over very well with the general public. There was an uproar over that line in the film and in many prints it was drown out with a large thunderclap. Other scenes that were cut at times were Fritz’s sadistic glee while torturing The Monster with a torch and the actual needle injecting The Monster while the doctor was subduing him. Pretty tame stuff by today’s standards, but at the time some places considered too much for the public to handle.
As for the main characters, the maniacal nature of Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) fuels the emotion of the film, but the true strength is in the performance of Boris Karloff as The Monster. Rarely in the history of cinema has anyone delivered such a memorable performance without ever uttering a single intelligible word. Karloff does a brilliant job of conveying anger, fear, confusion and hate, without verbally expressing anything more than grunts and growls. And director James Whale did a legendary job directing the iconic film.
Perhaps the most thrilling moment in the film comes when the doctor pulls the cover away and reveals his creation underneath. Remember, all of us were already very familiar with the Frankenstein Monster before viewing this film, but can you imagine the reaction of audiences originally seeing Frankenstein who had no idea what to expect. You have to envy them. Certainly make-up artist Jack Pierce needs to be credited here, as he was the one who designed the ‘flat-head’ look to The Monster (Pierce also worked on Karloff’s Mummy and Lon Chaney’s Wolfman. Certainly an impressive pedigree).
As far as influential horror films go, perhaps no movie can claim a bigger role than Frankenstein. With shocking imagery and brilliant performances this classic no doubt deserves its place among the greatest horror films of all time.
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