Thursday, 16 December 2010

Frankenstein (1931) - James Whale

I recently watched a three part BBC series hosted by The League Of Gentlemen's Mark Gatiss, entitled A History of Horror. It was a very selective personal look back at that most misunderstood of film genres. Being a fan of both Gatiss and the type of horror films he adores (non slasher, mainly British with a healthy dose of the original 30's classics), I loved the show. What with it being Halloween too, I slipped into a bit of a horror rut, which it seems I'm still in. Anyway Gatiss reminded me that I hadn't seen the original Frankenstein since I'd moved to Sweden (13 years and counting), which for a film like this is far too long a gap.

So onto the film itself, well let's start by saying that it's not exactly a faithful rendition of the novel. However it is deserving of the kudos that are heaped upon it. A lot of that is down to three people, first up is Jack Pierce for the make up. His design for the look of the monster is still the first image that pops into any right thinking persons head upon hearing the word Frankenstein. Second is one of Britain's most underrated character actors, Boris Karloff. It's he who made that make up work so well, anyone familiar with his work will know just how good he was at being able to transform himself, especially his face. Last up is Whale himself who does some interesting things with his camera, setting it up high looking down on the action during the monsters creation scene for example, which I took to be because of the fact that Henry Frankenstein is playing God. Likewise low angle set ups when the monster is being taught, emphasizing the innocent child like nature of the soon to be killer.

The laboratory where the monster is brought to life, is the template for every mad bastard professor that ever appeared on screen after this films premiere. The monster himself is talked about long before he is seen, building up anticipation in the audience. When he is finally revealed, he walks into a room backwards (for no apparent reason), turns around, and we get rapid edits bringing us tighter and tighter onto that face. It's as good a moment as any in the horror canon. Up there with Leatherface swinging his chain saw about, all in a tizz at the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or Sergeant Howie blubbing like a wee lassie during The Wicker Man's closing scenes.

To say I enjoyed Frankenstein would be an understatement, but at the same time it works only when put into the context of the period it is from. It doesn't deliver on the shocks or scares as much as one would expect, except during the scene where the monster throws a girl in a lake, which is by far the best sequence in the film for me. As good as Frankenstein is, it's not a patch on the following years Freaks, which is still my favourite horror film from the thirties.

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