Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Frankenstein (1931)

This is a film I have seen many times over the years (including three times with an audience) and a film whose reputation as an influential classic of its genre has always seemed justified to me on the basis of Karloff's iconic performance. He achieves a combination of almost childlike innocence and fear which make his actions and responses to the world around him all the more tragic.

If I have one criticism of the film, it's that Whale's sometimes campy approach to the material too often undercuts the power of Karloff's incredibly poignant and haunting performance for me. There are a number of scenes -- such as the hunchback stealing the wrong brain, the inopportune arrival of Frankenstein's fiancée and company at his laboratory, and the Monster showing up at Frankenstein's wedding -- in which Whale seems to be actively resisting the tragic tone of the story. In my experience, seen with an audience, it unfortunately tends to provoke distracting laughter throughout, in part a reflection of the audience's over-familiarity with the situations through countless imitations and parody over the years, but also disconcerting in how much of the response seems intentional as a result of the direction.

For a long time, I preferred this film over Universal's other landmark horror film of the same year, DRACULA, which I found stagy and creaky in comparison to FRANKENSTEIN's stylish direction and fluid cinematography. Now, I find DRACULA more effective in its dreamlike, almost ethereal atmosphere and the sense of dread that Lugosi's performance produces, but FRANKENSTEIN continues to impress me for the deep humanity Karloff achieves in playing the Monster.

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