Frankenstein (1931) directed by James Whale
For the two-hundredth anniversary of the publishing of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein, I've decided to rewatch the classic movie and give it a review!
Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is obsessed with creating life through scientific means. Not just any life, either. He intends to create human life. He and his lackey Fritz (Dwight Frye, who made a delightful Renfield in Dracula) collect recently buried bodies and executed criminals to get the raw materials for a new human body. Fritz steals a brain from the university where Frankenstein used to study. Frankenstein's mentor, Doctor Waldman (Edward Van Sloan, who was Van Helsing in Dracula), still teaches there and is drawn in when Frankenstein's fiancee Elizabeth (Mae Clark) needs help. Henry has been avoiding the wedding until he can complete his experiments, which are clearly driving him past the point of sanity. They go to the isolated watch tower which is Henry's laboratory, where he does indeed endow a sewn-together body with life. Frankenstein clearly hasn't thought beyond that point as his creation suffers in isolation and torment (Fritz really doesn't like him and makes that obvious). The scientists debate about what to do with the creature. Dr. Frankenstein has a breakdown and is taken home, where he recovers and prepares for marriage. Waldman stays behind to take care of (i.e. kill painlessly) the monster. Frankenstein's monster breaks out and terrorizes the countryside before coming to the village and ruining Henry and Elizabeth's wedding day.
The movie was a smash hit and is rightly considered one of the great horror movies ever created. The cast give great performances, especially Clive as the obsessed scientist and Boris Karloff as the monster. Karloff's performance is especially effective since he portrays the innocence and minimal comprehension of a new-born person and the menace of a tortured soul who has known little other than inhuman treatment. His appearance is hideous but he reaches toward the light when he's finally taken out of shadows. He immediately embraces companionship with a young girl who doesn't freak out at his appearance and only wants someone to play with her. Their play ends tragically, and the monster knows something is wrong as he scrambles away through the underbrush. Karloff does a great job being at turns menacing and sympathetic.
James Whale's direction is close to perfect. Large and elaborate sets (the laboratory, Frankenstein's home, the town-wide celebration of the wedding, and even the opening cemetery scene) allow the camera to wander through, focusing on details and giving wider views. The action never gets lost and a lot of plot and theme is fit into seventy minutes of film time. The really horrific moments are ameliorated by comic relief in subsequent scenes. The science is a bit iffy but the movie is really about life and death, not about technical details. And it's about the horrifying consequences of trying to play God with human life.