After having been kicked out of school for his controversial work, Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) has been experimenting with the scientific forces behind the creation and perpetuation of life in his private laboratory. With the aid of his assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye), Frankenstein finally tries his coup de grace--piecing together human parts to create a "new" life. When his experiments do not go exactly as planned, Frankenstein and his fellow villagers are endangered.
Like a few other classics, director James Whale's 1931 masterpiece, Frankenstein, is one of those films that deserves to have every frame analyzed. Unlike most, Frankenstein is one of those classics that actually has had almost every frame analyzed. Countless theses and dissertations have been written about the film and its subtexts, so I can't imagine that I'd add anything novel along those lines in the space provided here. Instead, I'll take a brief look at some of the more straightforward aspects of Frankenstein that, in my view, contribute to its masterpiece status.
The opening of the film has a very hefty dose of atmosphere, which continues more or less throughout its length. Although it was obviously filmed in a studio--the sky is a painted backdrop complete with wrinkles, this fact actually adds to the atmosphere of the film, even lending a slight surrealism. There is no score to speak of aside from the music playing during the titles, but the sounds that occur are just as effective, such as the ringing bell during the opening. There are also a lot of subtle visuals, and some merely subtly effective, such as the grim reaper at end of a long panning shot in the beginning of the film.
The seriousness and realism of the grave-digging scene, complete with Henry Frankenstein throwing dirt at the grim reaper, is beautiful foreshadowing. As in the rest of the film, there is nothing jokey about this situation. Watch how effectively the actors convey a sense of toiling and franticness, how they convey the "weight" of the coffin. This is a curious fact about the film overall. Although the material is relatively melodramatic, and occasionally extremely so (especially in the case of Henry Frankenstein), the performances always come across as serious and realistic rather than campy (with the possible exception of a single snarling "growl" from the monster when he encounters Elizabeth, Frankenstein's bride-to-be). Contrast this to how Tod Browning's Dracula plays in the present day. In that film, Lugosi--although I love his performance--does come across as occasionally campy, especially in the close-ups of his "hypnotically staring" eyes. Even the one character that is meant to give some light comic relief, that of Frankenstein's father, Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr), is comic only in that the character is a bit sarcastic, with a dry sense of humor. As such, Kerr portrays the Baron seriously, also.
The production and set design, as in the sequel, Bride of Frankenstein (1935), adds volumes to the atmosphere and beauty of the film. The interior of the "watchtower", where Frankenstein's private laboratory is located, is reminiscent of German expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), and they both contrast and cohere wonderfully with the more symmetrical, right-angled lab equipment constructed by Kenneth Strickfaden.
Because there is no score, the actors have no help in amping up the emotions in their performances. Despite this, rarely has either Boris Karloff's monster or Colin Clive's mad doctor been matched. Whale helps with some ingenious shots and sequences, such as the "progressive close-ups" when we first see the monster. He also gives us a number of "stage-like" devices that work remarkably well, such as the pans through cutaways in the set that in the film's world do not really exist. Interestingly, Whale has still had the cutaways decorated as if they are extant in the film's world. Although they may seem dated now, Whale's technique of fading to black between scenes also amplifies the sense of "literary chapters" in the story, and gives an effective, ambiguous sense of time passage between the scenes.
Whale also achieves some wonderful, more understated scenes of horror in the film, often set up by contrasts. For example the severe contrast of the villager walking into the wedding party with his daughter, and the surreal bucolic adventure of the villagers working their way through the countryside to find the monster.
Many younger viewers might have a difficult time watching Frankenstein if they are not used to black & white, slower paced, understated films with a different approach to acting. These classics are an acquired taste for younger generations, but of course it's a taste worth acquiring.