Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Ryan Watches A Motion Picture #77: Frankenstein (1931)

So much is different from the original story that comparing the two is a pretty good waste of time. This film exists as its own entity and really has a life of its own. Of the classic monster movies I've seen to date on my Hallowe'en trek, this one is by far the best. I daresay it's a masterpiece. At its heart it contains a 'who is really the monster' dynamic that has since become awfully trite, but in its original form still potent.

As if the hints of German Expressionism wasn't enough to catch my interest, much of the acting is actually pretty good, which, given the other classic Universal horror films I've watched, was a total surprise. Boris Karloff is fantastic as the monster, and it's easy to see how, I think after this film, he became a household name. His monster is incredibly sympathetic. After a sheltered and grim life filled with torture, the monster frees himself and escapes into the woods. There's an amazing scene where he finds a little girl. The little girl hands him a flower, and they sit down by a pond. She shows him how you can throw a flower into the water and watch it float gently along. The monster is so overjoyed to find something kind and delicate and beautiful in the world that it is genuinely tear-pulling when something goes wrong. He gets up, trying his best at laughter, and throws the little girl into the water because she's like a flower too. She drowns, and it's genuinely disturbing to see the monster's panicked reaction when he doesn't understand what's happened. I hadn't felt that stirred by a movie in a long time. I was really bothered by the moment.

Made before the motion picture code was actively enforced, you get some cinema that's not afraid to upset you. While the edges will sometimes show, the violence is shocking when it wants to be, and I found myself continuously surprised by what the film was prepared to do. The film bubbles with potential violence, and by the time the mob lights their torches, the loss of control that you didn't realise was creeping into your brain reaches its apex. People shout through the streets, dogs yelp, women and children cower on the sidelines, and the beast has been loosed on the monster. It was a torch that was initially used to torture the monster, and it's unsettlingly fitting that an army of them tries to flush him out of hiding, trap him, and set him ablaze. Karloff's thrashing screams while the flames rise about him will stick with me for awhile.

Also surprising, I'm noticing that the female characters in these early monster movies aren't as helpless as I expect them to be, and I wonder if that had anything to do with the code as well. They're not neutered characters, and rigid gender roles don't seem to have been installed as safety mechanisms yet. The women in these films are just as sensible as the men, and they aren't afraid to speak their mind. In the years to come, that wouldn't be the case for quite a while. Hell, it's mostly not the case in films today.

Despite all of the injustice in the film, it's hard to really hate anyone in it save for an annoying comic relief character I'll just ignore. The monster is understandable, Dr. Frankenstein is understandable, the angry torch-wielding village folk are understandable, and even the abusive Fritz is understandable. He's a deformed hunchback that Dr. Frankenstein treated like shit. Of course he was going to whip the monster and burn him when Frankenstein wasn't looking. Nobody's really to blame in this film, which makes it so remarkable. It ends off remarkably too, with an an ironic ending that presses home the severe tragedy at the centre of the film.

So: Fantastic. I expected an iconic cheese-fest and got a dramatic masterpiece that probably made it to my list of favourite films.

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