Frankenstein (1931) | 31 Days of Horror: Oct 11

by Jovial Jay

My, I bet you monsters lead interesting lives. The places you must go and the places you must see, my stars!

Tonight begins a two-part Frankenstein experience as 31 Days of Horror looks at the original and iconic 1931 film, followed tomorrow by the 1994 version. Both are based on the same story but what makes them both stand out?

Before Viewing

The trailer for Frankenstein doesn’t appear to be a terrifying one. It gives the audience the information that a mad scientist has reanimated a dead body, which is deformed, which then goes on a murder spree (or at least gets loose). Most of the trailer however, is superlatives about how great the film is, and that people are talking about it. So let’s take a look and see what there is to talk about in this classic tale of creation.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Spoiler Warning - Halloween


Frankenstein title card.

After Viewing

Before the film starts in earnest, a member of the cast (Edward Van Sloan) steps from behind a curtain to give the films’ audience a brief word of warning about what they are about to witness. The film begins and Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his hunchback assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) unearth a recently buried body and cut down a hung man for parts to assemble into his experiments of creating life. At the local medical school Dr Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) describes two different brains on display in the class: one normal and the other a criminal brain.

Henry sends Fritz to steal the healthy brain, but he accidentally drops it and instead brings the damaged brain. Henry’s fiancée Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) and their mutual friend Victor Moritz (John Boles) discuss what Henry may be up to. They visit with Dr. Waldman to find out that Henry is experimenting on human bodies. The three of them visit Henry’s castle to make sure he is ok, since Elizabeth hasn’t heard from him in some time.

At first Henry wants the visitors sent away, but when he realizes Elizabeth is with them he invites them in to see his work. A patchwork body made of multiple body parts stitched together lays on a slab. He and Fritz raise the body through an opening in the castle roof where a lightning storm reanimates the dead tissue. Henry shouts that it’s alive!


Henry Frankenstein tells his friend Victor and fiancée Elizabeth to stay seated during the experiment as hunchback assistant Fritz watches.

Victor and Elizabeth visit with Henry’s father, Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr), who is impatient for the upcoming wedding between Elizabeth and his son. Waldman informs Henry that the brain Fritz stole is a criminal brain and warns him to be careful. They place the monster (Boris Karloff) in the cellar as he seems to be erratic and very strong. Fritz is killed by the monster after abusing it several times. Waldman convinces Henry to kill it with a hypodermic needle but it nearly kills Henry instead. As Henry recovers Waldman attempts to perform an experiment on the sedated monster, but it recovers, kills him, and escapes.

In town the people celebrate the upcoming marriage between Henry and Elizabeth with music and dancing. The Baron drinks to the health of the young couple. In the countryside the monster finds a young girl, Maria (Marilyn Harris), playing by the lake. She shows the monster how her flowers float. It is overjoyed and throws the pretty girl in the water too, hoping to see her float. It is distressed when it realizes she has drowned. The girl’s father brings her body into town calling for help from the local Burgomaster (Lionel Belmore) to bring justice to the killer.

The monster comes for Elizabeth in her chamber, but the villagers chase it into the mountains with pitchforks and torches. The monster grabs Henry and hides in a local windmill. Angry and afraid the monster throws Henry from the top of the windmill, but he survives by landing on a vane and lowered gently to the ground. The villagers set the windmill on fire which collapses, pinning the monster as it burns to the ground. The next day Baron Frankenstein raises a toast to the wedding of his son.

Herr Frankenstein was interested only in human life. First to destroy it, then recreate it.” – Dr. Waldman


The creature befriends a little girl, which may be the most horrifying moment in the film.

Frankenstein is a loose adaptation of the 1818 novel by Mary Shelley (or as the credits here list her, Mrs. Percy B. Shelley). It was the second in a long line of horror films produced at Universal Studios under the auspices of Carl Laemmle, Jr., after Dracula was released in February of the same year. Realizing there was money to be made with these sorts of films, a new production was put together and released just nine months later in November, 1931. This too was a hit for the studio, making a new star out of Boris Karloff and spurring dozens of spinoffs, sequels, and imitators. While the film does not stick directly to the plot of the novel, it did create many aspects of the quintessential depiction of Frankenstein’s monster. As such, this gets the last H-Origins tag for films this month. That’s a film that defines the origin of a specific monster or style of horror.

Directed by British filmmaker James Whale (also responsible for the 1933 adaptation of The Invisible Man, and the first creature sequel in 1935 The Bride of Frankenstein), the look and style of Frankenstein became iconic for both the monster and the mad scientist’s laboratory. An adaptation of Shelley’s novel had occurred nearly two decades prior with Frankenstein (1910) from Edison Studios. While a curious silent film, it never captured the public’s imagination as this second, more mainstream version. The makeup work here by Jack Pierce was unique and not based on the description from the story at all. Pierce developed a flat topped cranium, electrode bolts on the creature’s neck, large boots and an ill fitting suit which defined the iconic look of the Frankenstein monster. It’s a look that audiences immediately recognize from numerous sequels, but also from other media that depict the monster, such as the TV series The Munsters, or the cartoon The Groovie Ghoulies. It was something that is inherent to this adaptation and  something that Universal could definitely capitalize on the success of.

And capitalize they did. Universal created at least seven more films including the Frankenstein monster over the next 20 years. Boris Karloff continued his role in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939). Then in 1942 Lon Chaney Jr. took over for The Ghost of Frankenstein. Bela Lugosi was given an opportunity to play the monster (one he had passed on in 1931) in 1943s crossover Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. And finally Glenn Strange portrayed the monster in the final three Universal films The House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).


Shambling slowly, the creature comes after Frankenstein’s bride on her wedding day.

The original film portrayed the monster in a way that other versions tended to ignore. Many versions of the Frankenstein monster show him as a lumbering brute, smashing through doors, growling and being afraid of fire. This is consistent with his 1931 portrayal, but it’s not everything about the role. Karloff brought a tenderness and child-like quality to the creature that is often ignored for the more horrific aspects. His subtle movements under the heavy makeup when he looks up at the moon, or his frantic panic when he realizes he has done something bad by drowning the girl, create a pathos for the creature that many other versions skip over. The horror of this monster was the complete antithesis of Lugosi’s Dracula. With that vampire there was a suave nobleman that could command others with a glance. A creature whose sexuality and charm were parts of the weapons he used to disarm potential victims. Yet here, the monster was a strong and powerful beast that was almost unaware of its own strength. In his curiosity he might snap a neck as easily as picking a daisy.

Besides the look of the monster, this version of Frankenstein introduces a number of other iconic elements to the myth of the mad scientist and future screen adaptations of the creature. These include the deformed assistant, often identified as Igor (or Ygor, but here Fritz, played by Dwight Frye, who also played Dracula’s assistant Renfield months prior), the use of sparking electrical equipment and machinery, and the idea of the village mob out to get the monster. Whale would utilize this same imagery in The Invisible Man where a number of townsfolk try to capture the scientist. These elements were so often used that they also became ripe for satire, being spoofed in films like Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, which also utilized some of the original props from this 1931 film.

Sometimes audiences can forget the evolution of iconic characters, especially ones with such a long lifespan. This version of the Frankenstein monster turns 90 years old this year and represents a moment to look back at the original film with fresh eyes and see how it generated such iconic and fresh ideas about a story that was 100 years old at that point. Tomorrow night, 31 Days of Horror will look at a more modern adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel to see what it borrows from this original film, and how it differs.


The villagers get heir revenge as they urn the mill the creature was hiding inside. Guess he’ll never be coming back, right?

Assorted Musings

  • Frankenstein was so popular that the creature made up part of Universal’s Trinity of Monsters, along with Dracula and The Wolf Man, which have appeared in dozens of movies together including The House of Frankenstein, The Monster Squad, and Van Helsing.
  • Besides playing the monster three times, Boris Karloff had the opportunity to play Frankenstein in Frankenstein 1970 (1958) and in the claymation spoof Mad Monster Party (1967).
  • A film about the life of director James Whale, with some moments focusing on the Frankenstein films, was released in 1988 called Gods and Monsters.

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