When Dracula became a huge hit for Universal in the winter of 1931, this much at least was clear: Universal would be spending a lot more time making horror movies. Not that they hadn't dabbled in the genre before, of course - some of the most important American horror pictures of the 1920s came out of Universal - but the box had really been opened now, and the studio swiftly became almost synonymous with "bloodcurdling paranormal terrors", at least as far as "bloodcurdling" was defined in the 1930s.

Tossing about for another well-known classic of horror literature to translate to the big screen, Carl Laemmle, Jr. rather naturally came upon Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus as a good choice; after all, there were not so very many classic works of horror fiction that one could point to in 1931 and use the "but it's literature!" defense. There was also a play Frankenstein, much as there was with Dracula (though Peggy Webling's Frankenstein was not nearly as successful as Hamilton Deane's Dracula); and just like before, the film owes as much or more to the stage version as to the original novel. Indeed, there are very few points of similarity between the film Frankenstein that came out in November, 1931, and Shelley's novel other than character names, and even those aren't transferred with any particular fidelity.

Universal's Dracula and Frankenstein are not, ultimately, terribly similar movies, though they are alike in many random coincidences of their productions. The biggest difference between them is that Frankenstein justifies its reputation on the strength of more than the actor inhabiting the monster make-up; if it isn't the best American horror film of the 1930s, that's only because the extremely gifted director James Whale wasn't done with the franchise quite yet. It boggles the mind that two films coming out of the same studio, in the same genre and style, both marketed heavily on the strength of their leading villain and both enjoying roughly the same reputation in the popular consciousness for much of the next 70 years could possibly be as unalike in quality as these two; but in all the ways that Dracula is dull mess, Frankenstein is a marvelous Gothic triumph, save one: most of the supporting cast is little better than their compatriots in Dracula, and that includes two men who were themselves in the earlier film, giving much more memorable performances than they manage here.

The plot of Frankenstein is certainly well known, but indulge me: in a castle on the outskirts of a small village called Goldstadt, somewhere in the 19th Century, Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is doing something with dead bodies, stolen fresh from their graves. It is in just such a macabre outing that we first spot him, with his little hunchbacked assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye), hoping to collect a specimen that has just been hanged. Unfortunately, the hanging left the man's brain too damaged to be useful, and so the doctor and his aide return home.

Of late, it would appear that Frankenstein's odd new working habits have just about everyone confused and worried - not the body-snatching, he's not letting people know about that, but everything about him has been "off" for a while. His fiancΓ©e Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) and best friend Victor Moritz (John Boles) are worried for his health and well-being, his father (Frederick Kerr) has a deep suspicion that the young man is having an affair; only Frankenstein's old teacher, Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) has some inkling of what might actually be going on, and he attempts to confirm it one night by visiting Frankenstein's crumbling laboratory one stormy night with Elizabeth and Victor in tow. It turns out that this particular stormy night is one of special consequence: it is to be the culmination of Frankenstein's many experiments in trying to revive dead tissue. To the great horror of all watching, he explains that he's stitched together a giant from the parts of several cadavers - including the brain of a criminal psychopath, stolen from Waldman's classroom, but Fritz conveniently didn't mention the "criminal psychopath" bit to Frankenstein - and he's going to use the crazy collection of sparking objects in his lab to harness the power of lightning and bring his creation to life.

Naturally, for else there wouldn't be much of a movie, he succeeds, and the shambling creature that results, played with great skill and sensitivity by an actor perplexingly credited as "?" turns out to have some rudimentary knowledge that Frankenstein hopes to train into honest-to-God self-awareness and intelligence, thus robbing death of its power; but the creature is also prone to violent outbursts, particularly when Fritz torments it or Waldman talks about terminating its existence, and before too long, it escapes the confines of Frankenstein's keep, and after that... well, a hulking patchwork corpse isn't going to be able to stay under the village's radar very long, especially when it has somewhat violent tendencies.

Since most of the conversation surrounding this film in the last several decades has centered around either Boris Karloff's exquisite, star-making turn as the monster, or James Whale's fantastic Expressionist-tinged direction of the movie, permit me to start out by casting some love at the feet of an actor who never gets even a portion of the credit that Karloff does, but is arguably even more important for the film's success, given that he has far more screen time: Colin Clive's turn as Henry Frankenstein is really quite an extraordinary thing to behold. It is no small thing to be the first mad scientist in all of sound cinema, and Clive does that historically profound part no small amount of justice. He is an egomaniac; he is passionate, he genuinely believes himself to be working for the good of mankind, and when he realises what evil he has wrought, it clearly crushes him (I think it's for this reason above any other - that Clive is able to render Frankenstein so genuinely sorry for what he's done, that he makes us like the mad doctor, for all his faults - that the studio quashed the "Frankenstein dies" ending at the last minute). If I'm going to watch a crazy scientist tamper in God's domain, this is the kind I want to watch: the kind who has his humanity fully intact, in whom I can recognise my own mistakes and misplaced ambitions - none of which, of course, involving creating animated cadavers, but it's allegory or metaphor or summat - and Clive turns Frankenstein into a great portrait of a human being, above and beyond anything else.

And, okay, now I'll talk about Karloff, who really is so very special in this performance that you almost can't stand it. He does something even more extraordinary than Clive's humanising the mad scientist: he humanises a flat-out monster, letting us understand the basic childish need to be loved and understood. The creature's emotions are all so very simple, and Karloff expresses them with unbearable grace. One of my favorite scenes in the whole movie is when Frankenstein opens a skylight, and the creature slowly looks up and reaches for the light, as though trying in his halting way to find the face of God; it is a heartbreaking moment that Karloff and Karloff alone could have made so believable. Or what of the justly famous scene where he meets little Maria (Marilyn Harris), who teaches him the tiny joy of tossing flowers into the water and watching them float. I have long thought that this scene, in its restored version (that was apparently never screened for audiences until many years after its initial release), is the heart and soul of the paradox of Frankenstein: in the moment that the monster is at his most relatable and human - he has found a child who accepts him who he is, and the audience recognises in this instant that the monster is nothing but a child himself - is the same moment that the monster commits the most unforgivable sin. Karloff's face as he runs away from the pool where the girl lies drowned is the most beautifully tragic thing in the film: he is aware that he has done wrong, and cannot begin to understand how to make it right.

How much of this performance is Karloff's uncanny understanding of what the film required, and how much was James Whale's direction, I cannot say (it's tempting to assume that, given the flimsiness of most of the other performances, Whale didn't have much to do with the actors at all - but I suspect he bears no small responsibility for bringing that performance out of Colin Clive). Certainly, though, Whale is not a man without whom Frankenstein would be anywhere near the film that we enjoy today. Just compare Frankenstein with Dracula; the vampire picture actually had a for-real German Expressionist cinematographer, but it was Whale's film (shot by Arthur Edeson, who was no slouch; later on, he would also shoot The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca) that actually captures the essence of what those German films were about. There's not another American sound film before the rise of film noir that makes such brilliant use of shadows and the effect of lighting on composition, and precious few that are this film's equals. And unlike Tod Browning's lifeless camera in Dracula, Whale knows just how to send his camera dollying in and around the wonderfully spooky sets for maximum atmosphere. I will admit that, here in 2009, nothing in Frankenstein is remotely "scary" or "creepy" in the same way that parts of the opening 20 minutes of Dracula honestly kind of are; but at the same time, Frankenstein just plain looks fantastic, one of the triumphs of early sound cinematography. You'd never know to look at it that it came from 1931, when American filmmakers still had to keep their ambitions a touch modest to keep in line with their technical limitations. It is a stunning work of visual artistry, and it's imagery has not become any less impressive over the years.

There are some distinct problems in the screenplay, which suffers for the scant 70 minute running time; scene transitions are often forced and hurried, and there are some plot holes, well not holes but sort of plot "dips", where it really doesn't seem like something fits together right, but you can't exactly call it impossible, just a touch illogical. The responses of Frankenstein's friends to his experiments certainly fall in this category. In fact, none of the characters outside of Frankenstein and his creation necessarily get a satisfying amount of screenplay attention; but why quibble? That's not really what the film is about, and for what it is about, it's pretty damn wonderful. Atmosphere out the gills and a strong central protagonist and one hell of a perfect monster; if only everyone involved hadn't decided to top themselves four years later, this would be the finest of all the dozens of Frankenstein variations known to cinema.

Reviews in this series
Frankenstein (Whale, 1931)
Bride of Frankenstein (Whale, 1935)
Son of Frankenstein (Lee, 1939)
The Ghost of Frankenstein (Kenton, 1942)
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Neill, 1943)
House of Frankenstein (Kenton, 1944)
House of Dracula (Kenton, 1945)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Barton, 1948)