One thing I quickly discovered while doing this year's Halloween countdown of mad science movies for Youtube is just how many of them there are! Of course I knew there were a lot going into the countdown but once I started looking specifically at the genre the full extent hit me. Even with the specific criteria that I applied to this countdown - it had to feature not just a mad scientist but also a creation of some sort that runs amuck (thus the title Monsters Gone Wild) - there were way more of these films than I could possibly cover in 31 days (especially in the early days of cinema) .
But of all the hundreds or possibly thousands of mad science movies out there, one stands boots and bolts above the rest - I'm talking about, of course, the 1931 Frankenstein from Universal Studios.
Most of us are familiar with the story - Colin Clive plays Dr. Henry Frankenstein, a scientist obsessed with creating life. Together with his hunchback assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) he robs graves for parts to sew together to create a new body. He builds a laboratory in an abandoned windmill and makes all the preparations. During a thundering storm he harnesses electricity from lightning and brings his creation to life. The monster (Boris Karloff) is grotesque, huge, and strong, yet innocent of mind. When Fritz tortures the monster with a whip and open flames , it reacts in fear and murders Fritz. The horror of what he has done overcomes Frankenstein, and he realizes the monster must be destroyed. His mentor Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) prepares to dissect the creature to destroy it forever, but it awakens and murders the doctor, then escapes to rampage the countryside.
This film is loosely based on the 1818 Mary Shelly novel Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. It draws influences from the 1927 stage play adaptation of that novel by Peggy Webling too, as well as an American adaptation of that play by John Balderston. It's always been interesting to me that Universal chose to swap names of the doctor and his best friend, Henry and Victor. In the book the doctor is Victor Frankenstein and his friend Henry Clerval. This name swap came directly from the first stage adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel, adapted by Peggy Webling.
When I think of Frankenstein the image of Boris Karloff in that incredible makeup immediately springs to mind. The look of the monster is so iconic it is etched into the public consciousness. It’s a part of the general zeitgeist now. That design was painstakingly created by makeup artist Jack Pierce through weeks of trial and error with Karloff, testing and reworking designs until they came up with the final look that wowed audiences and continues to impress to this very day, nearly 100 years later.
It was Karloff’s performance that sold that design wholeheartedly, however. Without speaking a single word he conveyed power, pain, rage, and even vulnerability. Colin Clive is convincing as the obsessed scientist who immediately regrets his ill-fated actions in creating this monstrosity. Mae Clark plays the doctor's fiance Elizabeth. James Whale's direction is masterful. Dwight Frye is the actor who continues to impress me on repeat viewings of this film. He is just so GOOD in it. Fritz is a sad being who was undoubtedly mocked and abused by society and who, given the opportunity, does the same thing to someone else, torturing and tormenting the monster with whips and open flames.
Kenneth Strickfadden’s electrical apparatuses in the lab would not only be copied in films going forward, many of the actual devices would be used and repurposed in other mad science movies for decades.
This film is, in a word, iconic. It set the mold for so many films – not just Frankenstein movies, mind you, but mad science films in general – to come for decades. Thundering storms, the musty damp castle, buzzing electrical apparatus, a bubbling beaker-filled lab, the hunchback assistant, the obsessed scientist tempting the laws of nature – the list goes on and on.
This was quite possibly the first horror film I ever saw, on television as a kid in the early 70s. It doesn’t get much better than this.
5 out of 5 skulls