It's Alive: A 'Frankenstein' Retrospective

Mary Shelley's Promethean tale follows the mad genius Dr. Henry Frankenstein as he attempts to create new life from dead tissue. His experiments are a success, but the being that rises from his slab is an abomination of science. Frankenstein is unable to contain his own creation, and the hulking brute is unleashed upon the unsuspecting village below in Universal's classic Horror series! The Frankenstein films bridge a gap between the dark Gothic settings of some far away land and modern questions of science and ethics that permeate our society to this very day. And now, it's time to revisit the classics in It's Alive: A 'Frankenstein' Retrospective!

Frankenstein (1931)

Although it was not the first time Shelley's novel had been adapted for the screen, James Whales will always be remembered as the man who gave life to the one true FRANKENSTEIN. The 1931 version would set the standard for every Gothic Horror film to follow, with its incredible sets, creeping atmosphere, and impeccable performances. Colin Clive shows a ferocious energy and an irresponsible enthusiasm as he declares "It's alive!" as the egomaniacal Dr. Frankenstein. The iconic look of the creature would be attributed to the great Jack Pierce, who would go on to design other such notable villains as The Mummy and The Wolf Man.

But who is the mystery man behind the monster that is only identified by a question mark in the opening credits? Although Boris Karloff played in countless pictures prior to making FRANKENSTEIN, it would be this role that would jettison him into the limelight. Karloff would go on to star in dozens of Horror films in the decades to follow, but none of his performances (save for his reprisal of the character in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN) would ever reach the same level of notoriety and critical acclaim. While his towering form combined with his menacing snarls made The Monster both fearsome and frightening, it is the tender moments like the death of Maria that best demonstrate Karloff's range and form as an actor. Few, if any, have even come close to creating such a terrifying and tragic character through their performance.

FRANKENSTEIN is the greatest of any of Universal's classic monster movies, and yet James Whales would somehow manage to outdo himself four years later in the film's stunning sequel.

Rating: 10/10.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)


The Monster demands a mate! After surviving the wreckage at the windmill, Frankenstein's Monster takes refuge from the angry villagers at the home of a blind hermit. The two strike up a loving friendship, and the kindly old hermit teaches The Monster how to speak and act civilly. Meanwhile, Doctor Henry Frankenstein has also survived his fall. During his recovery, he is visited by the eccentric Doctor Pretorius, who has also developed a means for creating life on his own. Pretorius manipulates Dr. Frankenstein into aiding him in his experiments, and the two set out to create a female companion for the hulking Monster. Now, The Monster returns to claim his bride at the scorn of his creator!

James Whales improves on perfection in 1935's BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the followup to his Gothic masterpiece FRANKENSTEIN. With BRIDE, Whales brings back the same stunning set pieces and chilling atmospherics, but adds to them a number of multi-layered themes and a strict balance of horror and comedy that surpasses the original in its intelligence of design and strength of character.

Horror legend Boris Karloff returns to the role of The Monster, but this time, he is allowed a more sympathetic performance given his newfound ability to speak. Here, we find that The Monster is no monster at all, but a lonesome and weary creature that only longs for companionship. Karloff brings a warmth to the character that was missing from before as he sits and laughs while sharing a smoke with the old hermit. This transformation falls far closer to Shelley's original intent in the novel.

The Monster is joined by his mate as Dr. Pretorius unveils "The Bride of Frankenstein!" Elsa Lanchester would forever be immortalized on film for what is really only two-minutes of screen time as The Bride. Unlike the hulking Monster, The Bride is delicate and fragile, but Lanchester's twitchy performance makes her just as unnerving and memorable. Unfortunately for The Monster, his bride is none-too-keen on their arranged marriage, as she screams in fright at his mangled appearance.

The gift of life proves to be no gift at all, as The Monster recounts to Dr. Pretorius in their first encounter: "[Frankenstein] Made me from dead. I love dead... hate living." Whales, through Shelley, demonstrates that man has no right to play god, and that doing so can only lead to ruin. Where the broken Henry Frankenstein realized this after his failures in FRANKENSTEIN, his successor, Dr. Pretorius, blindly steps into "a new world of gods and monsters" with reckless abandon. In the climactic finale, The Monster punishes those that cross nature, destroying Pretorius, his bride, and himself as he exclaims "We belong dead!"

Colin Clive is far more reserved in his reprisal of Dr. Henry Frankenstein, which is entirely appropriate to the material. His new counterpart, the conniving Dr. Pretorius, is played perfectly by an outlandish Ernest Thesiger, who assumes the role of the mad doctor. Thesiger's selection for the role along with his queer portrayal of the character ties into the homosexual undertones that are inherent throughout the plot. James Whales made no attempt to hide his own sexuality, and his bold incorporation of homosexuality as an underlying theme is groundbreaking in the very least.

To touch on this is to touch on just one of the many complex themes that run throughout the film, but BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN cannot fully be discussed in anything short of a thesis of its own. What James Whales has accomplished in this film outstretches far beyond the genre, and serves as a defining historic landmark in film.

Rating: 10/10.

Son of Frankenstein (1939)


Three of Horror's greatest names come together for the first time in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, featuring Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, and Boris Karloff in his final performance as The Monster. Henry Frankenstein's heir returns to reclaim his heritage, but he is scorned by the villagers that fear he should continue in his father's devilish pursuits. After discovering the crooked Ygor living beneath the castle's laboratory, Baron Wolf von Frankenstein learns that his father's creation has survived destruction, and he sets out to revive The Monster in order to correct his father's grievous mistakes and finally clear the family name! While Basil Rathbone puts in another admirable performance as the titular character, it is Bela Lugosi who steals the show once more as the scheming Ygor. Karloff is given little room to excel, considering The Monster has very limited screen time and has lost the ability to speak. The film is quite aware of itself, and uses The Monster's notoriety to set up some of the poignant humor. Lionel Atwell's quirky performance as the armless Inspector Krogh also provides some laughs as he pesters the younger Frankenstein at every turn. Unfortunately, Wyllis Cooper's script lacks many of the complexities that were found in the previous two films, but director Rowland Lee does manage to bring back many of the brilliant Expressionist set pieces that adorned both FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE. Although the role of The Monster has been greatly reduced in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, the stronger themes of family obligation and morality make this a fitting entry in the series.

Rating: 8/10.

Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)


The townspeople have had enough! With the burgomaster's approval, the Castle Frankenstein is finally destroyed for good, but the explosions free The Monster from the sulfur pits below! Ygor has also miraculously survived, and the two escape to the small town of Vasaria, which is home to Dr. Henry Frankenstein's second son Ludwig. Using a treatment of his own design, the younger Frankenstein hopes to replace The Monster's defective brain with a healthy one, but Ygor seems to have other plans! GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN revisits similar themes to the previous production, with Sir Cedric Hardwicke assuming the role of Ludwig Frankenstein this time around. Unfortunately, The Monster not only receives less screen time, but he is reduced even further into a lumbering oaf. Boris Karloff is greatly missed, and Lon Chaney Jr.'s zombified performance lacks personality. It is Bela Lugosi who comes through once again with another playful performance as the conspiring Ygor. GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN would be one of the first films to show the downward decline of the Universal monster movies, but series crossovers would give The Monster a few more jolts of energy.

Rating: 7/10.

House of Frankenstein (1944)


Dracula! The Wolfman! Frankenstein's Monster! The Universal Monsters come together at last in 1944's HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN! An insane scientist following in the footsteps of Dr. Henry Frankenstein escapes from prison with his hunchbacked assistant, but the two run into trouble posing as a pair of carnival operators when they bring Count Dracula back to life from one of their sideshow attractions. Dracula helps to rid the pair of the burgomaster that had imprisoned them, but the vampire is destroyed during a daring escape. Dr. Niemann and Daniel then seek refuge in the ruins of the Castle Frankenstein, where they discover the bodies of Frankenstein's Monster and The Wolfman frozen in the caves below! Once revived, Niemann convinces Lawrence Talbot to help him find Frankenstein's records so that he can lift the curse off of the werewolf's head while searching for a new body for his misshapen friend. Before he is able to do so, the monsters break loose and bring the angry villagers back down upon them, and Niemann's plans are cast to ruin!

This convoluted tale takes a number of unexpected twists and turns as it tries to bring Universal's three greatest monsters back to life within a single framework. Director Erle Kenton manages to do so with some success, while also maintaining the continuities of each of the individual series. On top of the big action sequences and excellent make-up effects, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN benefits the most from a number of strong performances from each of its many villains. Boris Karloff returns to the series that made him a star in the devilish role as the mad Dr. Gustav Niemann, and he is joined by Lon Chaney Jr. as Lawrence Talbot and both John Carradine and Glenn Strange in their first appearances as Count Dracula and the undying Monster! J. Carroll Naish is also excellent as Niemann's assistant Daniel. HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN travels through a variety of beautiful Gothic sets that draw from THE WOLFMAN, FREAKS, and the original FRANKENSTEIN. The only disappointment is that the baddies never get to face off in a giant monster melee, but with plenty of action, drama, and suspense, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN proves to be a huge crowd pleaser!

Rating: 7/10.
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