Coined in Schneider as “the single most important horror film ever made,” Frankenstein showcases a classic Boris Karloff in iconic makeup to portray a brutal, animalistic, touching, crazed, and horrifying creation. This first “Universal Monsters” film tells the story of the creation and fallout of one man’s conquest of dominance over nature, but features mainly stage hands, rudimentary makeup that was conceived on a shoestring budget, and a storyline that…sorta defined a genre by cutting up some source material to make a new story on screen. Definitely innovative, this piece takes a lot of interesting origin stories and combines them to create a work of art that seems like it would not have come together to become a film that is a “chilly and invigorating cornerstone of its entire genre” (Newman).
So, I am really interested in what people see in this film. I am convinced it is simply some sort of drive-in cruisin’ baby boomer late night double feature nostalgia or something. I literally cannot figure out what is so great about this film, except that it appears to be the first horror film like it (it isn’t the first horror film at all, though) with a shoestring production and budget that all seemed to come together in this miraculous way. It is interesting that a lot of the characters were stage hands (including Karloff), but the script and the performances are mediocre, camp, and cliche – maybe they were terrifying for early audiences, but I found myself ‘meh’ for most of the film. I did find myself fascinated by the makeup (but not who wore it), and the sets. The sets were incredible, and interestingly just some simple stage theater tricks with perspective and lighting easily turned small flat walls into gigantic, sprawling hallways and creepy windows. The main question, however, is: does that make this good?
I think my major gripe is that this literally couldn’t be any further from the book. The characters have different names, people don’t really die, the monster is scary and Victor isn’t made to deal with his choices (wait…he isn’t Victor), there is a weird campy dad, there are really no stakes or motivations for any of the characters – and what is with the ending? Scary, but literally couldn’t be further from Shelley’s work. Is my main gripe that it is nothing like the book? No… It’s that it isn’t anything like the book in every way, from tone to execution to theme to violence to science… heck, it spends practically half of the film covering material that is directly told to the audience that it is not in the book on purpose (probably because it would be as boring as it is in the movie). This probably colored the entirety of my feelings about the film…well, that and it is marketed as one of the greatest film achievements of all time by the Universal marketing department.
Will this be an unpopular opinion? Maybe. Frank-ly, aside from it being innovative, I was simply not only not scared, but I was disappointed, bored, and don’t understand what the motivation was to tie it to the book. If they had called it “the scientist” and used new names, I think I would be slightly less disappointed. To me, it just wasn’t as great as people and Universal markets as so very sacred.
I actually recall liking Frankenstein. I never red the book, so I cannot hold it up against that and I am the first to admit its many faults, but I think it nailed the goth feel and the scene where the monster comes alive is iconic.
Often I try to stay away from movies based on books I love. It is so rare that the movie match the book and often the story is torn to pieces and reassembled as a… Frankenstein monster, a sad shadow of the story in the book.
Did you watch Dracula movie from the same year? It is in my humble opinion even worse.
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Absolutely agree with you on the process of adaptation. My favorite adaptations are the ones where my expectations and love of the books translate into a completely different work of art that has certainly taken many liberties but manages to capture the spirit of the book in a completely new, different, and captivating manner. The World According to Garp, Requiem for a Dream, Adaptation, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy Gentleman, and The Grand Budapest Hotel all seem to do the stories they are based on such beautiful justice even though they are completely different.
I haven’t watched Dracula, but I am anticipating it being very different in the way that blockbuster, classic Hollywood can only ruin something wonderful and sincere. Maybe my main complaint is that it should and could be something new and different if it embraces and massages the original into something amazing on its own but keeps the skeleton intact. If you rearrange the bones, or even use a completely different animal and style the fur the same, then maybe give it a different title and hope no one notices.
Definitely pick up Frankenstein, though! It’s not about what you think it’s about, and is so much more beautiful and tragic portrait of parenthood, abandonment, and the natural environment. Add in that it was all written by an 18-year-old cooped up in a castle as a paramour to a hopeless romantic, and you have a story whose conception is as legendary as its prose.