Follow TV Tropes


Film / Frankenstein (1931)

Go To
Henry Frankenstein: Look! It's moving. It's alive. It's alive... It's alive, it's moving, it's alive, it's alive, it's alive, it's alive, IT'S ALIVE!
Victor Moritz: Henry, in the name of God!
Henry Frankenstein: Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!

"How do you do? Mr. Carl Laemmle feels it would be a little unkind to present this picture without just a word of friendly warning. We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation: life and death. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even... horrify you. So, if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now's your chance to, uh... Well, we warned you..."
Edward Van Sloan, offering a "friendly warning" to the audience before the start of the film

Frankenstein is a 1931 horror film directed by James Whale, based very loosely on Mary Shelley's classic novel of the same name. One of the most iconic Universal Horror productions, it also immortalized Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein's Monster.

Along with Karloff, it stars Colin Clive as Dr. Henry Frankenstein, Mae Clarke as his fiancée Elizabeth, Dwight Frye as Fritz and Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Waldman.

Here's a quick summary:

Obsessed with creating life, Dr. Frankenstein robs bodies with the help of his hunchbacked assistant Fritz and sews the best pieces together. After the legendary creation scene, he finds out from his old college professor, Dr. Waldman that the brain he used on the creature is in fact a criminal brain and is convinced that it should be destroyed. However, it escapes and starts wreaking havoc in the countryside, prompting the local townsfolk to grab Torches and Pitchforks and chase it down.

Frankenstein was followed by a series of sequels, most notably Bride of Frankenstein in 1935 and Son of Frankenstein in 1939.

It is one of many films included in the Universal Horror canon and arguably the single most famous.

This film is alive with the following:

  • Adaptation Distillation: Only about 15% of the novel at best is used in the film. Several characters, most notably Fritz, aren't in the original at all. (Fritz was created for an 1823 play adaptation, Presumption: or the Fate of Frankenstein — the earliest recorded play adaptation of Frankenstein and the only one Mary Shelley saw in her lifetime.)
  • Adaptational Heroism:
    • While Frankenstein wasn't evil by any means in the original book, he wasn't quite as friendly or responsible as his film's portrayal. He made the monster mainly for his own glory and threw it out into the cold just because it was ugly. And rather than telling his family and friends about the situation when it starts to get out of hand, he keeps quiet and tries to handle it on his own, which results in the death of each of his loved ones one by one as well as his own. In the movie, he does it more for the benefit of science and knows better than to judge his creation by his appearance alone. And when the monster starts attacking, he does tell his loved ones which is largely why not nearly as many people end up dying in the film.
    • The Creature himself receives a less malevolent portrayal than the original novel. In the book, he committed his murders for revenge and was fully aware of his actions and their immorality. Here, his violence is either self-defence or unintentionally harmful.
  • Adaptational Nice Guy: As stated above in Adaptational Heroism, the doctor AND the monster are a lot nicer in the movie than they are in the book.
  • Adaptational Nonsapience: The Creature gets hit with this hard. In the book, he reads Paradise Lost, speaks fluent French, carries guns and frames someone for murder. Here, he's a blundering, mindless brute. Justified in that the film takes place over a ''much'' shorter timespan than the novel, where the Creature educated himself over the course of many months.
  • Adaptational Wimp: In the novel, The Creature had superhuman speed and intelligence on top of his immense strength. Here, it can only walk extremely slowly, and seems to be no more intelligent than a dog.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Victor Frankenstein and Henry Clerval switch first names in the film, while the latter's surname is changed to Moritz.
  • All There in the Manual: Per the novelization of its sequel, the little girl's full name is Maria Kramer.
  • Anachronism Stew: Intended by James Whale, who fostered for this and Bride of Frankenstein to be a sort of Alternate Universe which mixed deliberately and freely the aesthetics of the early 1800s (the time that Mary Shelley wrote the original novel) and the '30s. As a result, in this film you see electric lights, X-ray images, women attending medical school and modern dress mixed in with clearly 19th-century aesthetics. (Whale's intent was somewhat contradicted by the studio that promoted the film as wholly taking place in the modern day, and was totally contradicted by the nearly-exclusive 19th century setting of the sequel.)
  • And Call Him "George": The childlike monster innocently plays with a little girl; they throw flowers in the lake and watch them float. When he runs out of flowers, the monster throws the girl into the river, thinking she'll float too. She drowns, and the monster runs away horrified. This was considered so disturbing in the 1930s that the scene was cut right as the Creature is reaching for the girl and after a few intervening scenes elsewhere we then see her father carrying her dead body. This made the implications of the scene much worse.
  • Artificial Zombie: The monster. Somewhat averted in that he is receptive to training, reasonably friendly unless provoked, and later develops the power of speech to a limited extent.
  • Artistic License – Medicine: Frankenstein and Fritz retrieve a dead body hanging from a gallows. Upon cutting it down, he discovers the neck is broken (suggesting he expected the condemned man to have strangled to death), rendering the brain useless. A broken neck would not necessarily damage a brain, and even if this were the case, Frankenstein has no issues sending Fritz to steal a brain that may have been resting in a jar of preservative solution for years, its cause of death unknown.
  • Artistic License – Physics: Frankenstein claims that his big scientific breakthrough came when he discovered a form of radiation higher in the spectrum than "the ultraviolet ray", thus proving that ultraviolet was not "the highest color in the spectrum". There are "rays" higher than ultraviolet, but the "great ray" of which Frankenstein speaks so highly is the X-ray, known for its deleterious effects on organic matter (also, UV and X-ray are broad bands, not specific frequencies).
  • Ascended Extra: Dr. Waldman. In the novel, he only appeared in one chapter, his primary purpose to spark Frankenstein's interest in science. The film, he becomes sort of a mentor to the doctor and tries in vain to help stop the monster.
  • Asshole Victim:
    • Fritz, who keeps tormenting the Monster for his own amusement by whipping him and sticking a torch at his face. The Monster eventually has enough of it and hangs him.
    • Also, Dr. Waldman. Though he promised Henry he'd kill the Monster "painlessly", it's shown he's actually just keeping the Monster sedated so he can vivisect him. The Monster promptly wakes up and strangles Waldman.
  • Bait-and-Switch Credits: None of the evil and satanic imagery shown in the opening credits has anything to do with what happens within the film.
  • Berserk Button:
    • Henry is well on his way to convincing Elizabeth, Victor and Waldman to leave him alone to his experiments until one of them implies that he's crazy.
    • Fire + Fritz + Monster = nightmare scenario.
  • Big Bad: The creature's Obliviously Evil rampage drives the conflict.
  • Blank Slate: Much has been made of the Monster's birth, and the empty expression on its face, called a tabula rasa (Latin for... well, blank slate.)
  • Blasphemous Boast: Henry's "Now I know what it feels like to be God!", which drew so much ire in its time from Christians that it had to be covered over with sound effects; the original version wasn't heard for decades.
  • Blood from the Mouth: Henry shows blood from the mouth when fighting the Monster in the mountains.
  • Bowdlerise: Later reissues, in response to complaints from Moral Guardians, muted Dr. Frankenstein's Blasphemous Boast using a sound effect and omitted The Monster throwing the little girl into the pond and reacting in horror to her drowning, instead cutting to the next scene just as the Monster reaches toward her, creating much more disturbing implications when her father carries her lifeless body through town in a later scene.
  • Brain Transplant: The monster received the brain of a violent criminal.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Edward Van Sloan's "friendly warning" prior to the opening credits.
  • Bullying a Dragon: Fritz keeps abusing and antagonizing the Monster until the Monster hangs him with his own whip. And then is completely berserk.
  • Cleaning Up Romantic Loose Ends: The reason for the existence of Victor in the film as, in the original cut, Henry had been killed.
  • Climbing Climax: At the film's climax, the Monster carries Dr. Frankenstein up the mountain side and on top of the mill where he ends up being trapped by the onrushing mob.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: The one-sided fight between the Monster and Henry on the hill.
  • Dead Unicorn Trope: Frankenstein's hunchbacked assistant in the movie is named Fritz, not Igor. And he had no assistant, hunchbacked or otherwise, in the book (though the character was added to later stage adaptations, and the film was partially based upon one of those).
  • Death by Adaptation: Dr. Waldman is murdered by the monster while he tries to dissect it.
  • Death of a Child: Little Maria is thrown into the water by the Monster and drowns. Followed by a memorable scene of her father carrying the lifeless body of his daughter through the town. Originally, the studio demanded that the sequence of Maria being thrown in be cut, resulting in an even more disturbing implication as to what happened to her; all we see is the Monster smiling at her and reaching towards her. For decades audiences never saw the monster actually reacting in horror to her death after throwing her in the water.
  • Dramatic Thunder: During the "experiment" sequence. A major contender for Trope Codifier, for "mad scientist" films.
  • Dr. Frankenstein: Henry Frankenstein is portrayed as less focused on aesthetics than Victor in the original novel, genuinely well-intentioned, and more willing to share information that will save lives.
  • Establishing Character Moment: In his debut scene the monster both reaches up toward the sky with childlike curiosity and demonstrates terrible ferocity when Fritz brings a torch too close.
  • Everyone Chasing You: The Monster is being chased by an enraged mob of townspeople.
  • Evolving Credits: Opening credits list all the actors except the one playing the Creature, who is billed only with a question mark. Boris Karloff is only named in the closing credits.
  • Expanded Universe: As with other major Universal Horror films, a few tie-in novels have been written, such as Frankenstein: The Shadow of Frankenstein from 2006 (which takes place between Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein).
  • Face-Revealing Turn: As Henry celebrates his experiment's success while discussing its ethics with Dr. Waldman, they suddenly hear loud footsteps coming to the door. The Monster, still getting used to its new life, enters through the door backwards and slowly turns around, which is then followed with a Staggered Zoom to its face.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Frankenstein really must have looked over the big label on the jar of the brain Fritz collected clearly stating that it's an "abnormal brain" in plain English.
  • Fake Shemp: The screenplay originally called for Henry Frankenstein to die from his fall from the burning mill. When Universal decided for a happy ending, Colin Clive was in England, so his stand-in was used for the far shot of him recuperating in his bed, with Elizabeth at his side.
  • Finger-Twitching Revival: After receiving the rejuvenating lightning, the Monster is lowered back to the floor, and it starts to come to life by moving its fingers.
  • First Time in the Sun: The Creature is absolutely enraptured by a sunbeam let inside by Frankenstein, trying to reach it.
  • Flat Character:
    • Frankenstein's fiancee Elizabeth is not only the usual Hollywood heroine who accompanies the lead, she's basically a Satellite Love Interest, as she spends the entire film talking about how much she wants to get married, taking a break only to faint when the monster comes after her. If she ever thinks of anything other than Henry, you don't get to hear about it.
    • His close friend Victor Moritz isn't too far behind in the department. In a previous version of the film, he was the backup protagonist, and he would stay with Elizabeth and look after her as Henry ran off to fight the monster and gets killed. But during the final version, Victor doesn't have to take care of Elizabeth, since Henry's still around. As a result, Victor's role seems completely pointless and he never does anything of value.
  • For Doom the Bell Tolls: Heard in the opening graveyard segment.
  • Frankenstein's Monster: The Trope Codifier.
  • A God Am I: The famous "It's ALIVE!" rant has Dr. Frankenstein proclaiming "Now I know what it feels like to BE God!!!"
  • Grave Robbing: The film opens on Henry and Fritz hiding next to a burial, and stealing the corpse once the grave digger leaves. Henry later claims that it was just one of the many.
  • Gut Feeling: Elizabeth has strong premonitions about incoming trouble on her wedding day... right before the Monster breaks into her room.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: The Monster hangs Fritz with his own whip.
  • Iconic Outfit: The iconic look of Frankenstein's Monster— a greenish face, flat head, thick boots, a lumbering gait, bolts in his neck, and the rest— originated in this film.
  • If I Do Not Return: Before he leaves to pursue the monster, Henry implores Victor to take care of Elizabeth for him, with the strong implication that he should marry her himself if Henry dies trying to stop his creation. Henry was supposed to die in the original screenplay, but in the actual film, he survives his fall from the windmill, which renders all the foreshadowing moot.
  • The Igor: The Trope Maker is Fritz, while the Trope Namer is Ygor from Son of Frankenstein. Fritz was imported from an 1823 play adaptation, Presumption: or the Fate of Frankenstein - the earliest recorded play adaptation of Frankenstein and the only one Mary Shelley saw.
  • In Name Only: Has almost nothing to do with Mary Shelley's novel aside from the main characters' names, some basic sequences, like the creature attacking Elizabeth on the night of their wedding (but he does not kill her), and the basic idea of a man made of corpses being brought to life. This is in part due to the fact the film is based upon a later stage play adaptation.
  • Instant Sedation: An early example, where the (very large and very angry) Creature is brought down with a single (likewise very large) injection in the back. It takes a couple of seconds though (and it doesn't last as long as expected).
  • It's Going Down: This trope probably started with the windmill that the mob sets on fire.
  • Jerkass Ball: Even though he helped Frankenstein create the Monster in the first place, once it comes to life, Fritz spends all his time tormenting and torturing it for no good reason, forcing it to defend itself.
  • Kick the Dog: Fritz whipping the creature and then tormenting him with fire for no reason. This leads to the creature killing him and going on setting off his entire rampage.
  • Kill It with Fire: The movie ends with the Monster trapped in a burning windmill.
  • Kubrick Stare: Dr. Frankenstein shoots one while responding to being accused of craziness to his face.
  • Let's Split Up, Gang!: Henry doesn't stay with the rest of the search party but ventures out by himself. Naturally, he faces the monster shortly after.
  • Lightning Can Do Anything: A key component of bringing the monster to life is raising its operating table to the roof, where it receives lightning strikes. However, unlike some other versions, this happens offscreen.
  • Mad Scientist: Invoked and discussed early on regarding Dr. Frankenstein. He doesn't take kindly to the trope being applied to him...
  • Mad Scientist Laboratory: Frankenstein's well-equipped lab where the monster is Strapped to an Operating Table.
  • Mix-and-Match Man: The Monster is made up of various spare parts from stolen corpses.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Frankenstein begins to have this reaction after he realizes how out of control his experiment has gotten. The Monster himself has one after accidentally killing little Maria.
  • Nature Versus Nurture: One of the most major ways the film departs from the novel. In Shelley's book, nurture is why the monster became evil. He only wanted friends, and the world treated him horribly for his appearance. In the film, nature is why he's evil. He has the brain of a notorious criminal. However, it ends up being more of an Informed Attribute, because the monster only kills people who attack him first, with the exception of the girl Maria, whom he killed completely unintentionally.
  • No Name Given: The Monster is never referred to by any actual name (some adaptations do assign a name to him). This didn't stop the general public from outright referring to the creature by the name Frankenstein, even though this is incorrect. A later Universal film, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, cemented this thanks to its title (no one else by the name Frankenstein appears in the film). And the 2004 film Van Helsing (a very partial remake of this film) refers to the creature directly by this name and the creature answers to it.
  • Non-Malicious Monster: The monster means no harm.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Not only do all of the film's characters speak English, but almost none of them attempt a German accent. Most notably, Colin Clive speaks with a British accent throughout, while Frederick Kerr, the actor playing his father, additionally uses multiple English colloquialisms.
  • Not Named in Opening Credits: The opening credits don't mention Boris Karloff and list The Monster as being played by "?". The closing credits then do have his name alongside the character.
  • Oh, Crap!: The look on Henry's face after Dr. Waldman tells him he used a criminal's brain in his experiment.
    • Also the look on the Monster's face when he finds that he killed Maria.
  • Pietà Plagiarism: When the father carries the lifeless body of his drowned daughter through the streets of the village.
  • Protagonist Title: Frankenstein.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: Fritz, Dr. Frankenstein's hunchbacked assistant, which makes him a symbolic foil to the Monster; both of them are deformed outcasts, but whereas the Monster has an air of childlike innocence despite his inhuman origin, Fritz engages in juvenile cruelty even though he's fully human. The Monster rebels against the authority of his creator, while Fritz serves Frankenstein slavishly, and is easily frightened without his master to protect him.
  • Recruit the Muggles: The famous Torches and Pitchforks mob of villagers in the final act set out to help Dr. Frankenstein kill the monster to rescue one of his victims and avenge another as soon as they learn of his existence.
  • Repeat Cut: When the monster enters Elizabeth's room through the window and she turns around to see him, her Gasp! gesture is repeated.
  • Rule of Symbolism:
    • The film is loaded with Christian symbolism. They're a way to contrast with the devilishness of Frankenstein; he's defying God (not to mention common decency) by digging up dead bodies under a cross. Jesus Christ himself is famous for being raised from the dead. So if Frankenstein is playing God by raising the dead, then the Jesus figure would be the monster!
    • In the opening credits, the screen shows a blurry face, and then lots of open eyes spiraling around it. It's possible the eyes how Frankenstein wants to be God, and specifically, he wants to be God as all-knowing, and all-seeing. Or maybe they could be seen as a kind of representation of God—those floating eyes are watching Frankenstein, even as he thinks he's the one doing all the watching and seeing.
    • Unlike most movie monsters, Frankenstein's Monster not only doesn't mind the sunlight, he actually rather enjoys it. A major symbolic usage is when the monster is brought into the light for the first time: The monster lifts his arms up, like he's trying to grab the light, then Frankenstein turns off the light again, and the monster looks sad and at a loss. Here the light symbolizes understanding, knowledge, love—all the human things the monster seems to want, but isn't able to get. Instead, he's relegated to darkness.
    • After Frankenstein locks his fiancee Elizabeth in the room, the monster doesn't do anything to Elizabeth, he just chases her around till she faints, and then the rescuers get in the door and he runs off. But the symbolism here—an invader in the bridal chamber—is clearly meant to point to sex. The monster then can be seen as all the buried sexual instincts that Henry has pushed to one side—instincts which come back, despite his best efforts, and wreak havoc.
    • Even though the monster is freaky-looking all over, his heavily lidded eyes are still pretty noteworthy for a number of reasons. According to Boris Karloff, "[They] found the eyes were too bright, seemed too understanding, when dumb bewilderment was so essential. So [he] waxed [his] eyes to make them heavy, half-seeing." So basically, the heavy eyes are supposed to symbolize, or show, that the monster is bewildered, and doesn't understand what's going on.
  • Shout-Out: Henry Frankenstein isn't quite an Expy, but his theatrics definitely bring to mind Nikola Tesla's Large Ham tendencies.


Video Example(s):


Boris Karloff's Monster

Perhaps the most well known and influential interpretation of Frankenstein's Monster, is that of legendary actor Boris Karloff.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (8 votes)

Example of:

Main / FrankensteinsMonster

Media sources: