Watching Frankenstein feels like watching the beginning of horror itself. This movie contains possibly the most infamous and misunderstood villain in history. Not all horror monsters need to be diabolical killing machines with no regard for human life. Instead, Frankenstein’s Monster yanks on your heartstrings and beckons to memories of total misunderstanding and ignorance. We have all been in situations where we were completely out of our element. Obviously, we didn’t react by killing people (most of us anyway), but we can understand how scary it is to be in the dark.
It's a tale as old as time. In a European village, a young and precocious scientist (Henry Frankenstein) decides that he is too smart for the classroom and instead isolates himself in order to change the world as we know it. Henry and his assistant, Fritz, gather random body parts and sew together what looks like a human body. With a brain, a heart, and hopefully all the other essential organs, they bring the monster to life. Much like putting a dinosaur in the middle of Times Square, Frankenstein’s Monster simply doesn’t understand how to function in society. The viewer witnesses the Monster actively learn what can float, how much pressure the human body can take, and the dangers of fire.
Complex emotions are generated from Frankenstein. While I hate that the Monster kills pretty much everything he sees, I am more upset with Henry for creating him to begin with. The theme of nature vs. nurture is prevalent in the film and even more importantly the book (Mary Shelley). In the film, Fritz makes an error which implies that the Monster is the way it is because of this error in finding a healthy brain. The book focuses more on the moral dilemma of leaving something you created. If Henry and Fritz were humane to the Monster from the start, would it have turned out so evil? There is also the theme of omnipotence or vast knowledge. Henry’s irrational desire to be God resulted in his demise. I suppose pride does come before the fall.
I was personally conflicted on how to assign this film to a specific genre. There have been many arguments that the Monster is actually a zombie. While he is a reanimated being, he is more of a scientific creation than anything else. The sum of his parts are different than the past of each individual body part that was assigned to him. If the Monster dies then comes back to life, we can then call him a zombie. If more “creations” or true monsters pop up, then Horror Island may have to begin recognizing a distinct monster genre.
Modern viewers won’t find Frankenstein particularly scary, but they will be impressed with the cinematography and most importantly the sublime storytelling. The themes and concepts are universal, which allows any viewer to sink their teeth into the film. Of course, Boris Karloff is amazing as Frankenstein’s Monster. He beautifully captures the emotionality and confliction that the Monster feels. For films that lack in scares, I usually hope that they have a sense of dread or sinister quality that I can reflect on after the film. Sadly, Frankenstein doesn’t make you uneasy in any way, but the quality of the story and acting allow it to be remembered for years to come.
If you liked Frankenstein, you might also like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.