Monday, November 21, 2016

At the Heart of What Scares You

"Oh God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!"

Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive)

By modern standards, the Boris Karloff version of "Frankenstein," which was showing on the big screen on this date in 1931, seems hopelessly primitive. It has no splashy special effects, and there was not a slasher in sight.

But there is probably no more iconic horror movie in film history — and there was no more successful movie in 1931–32 than "Frankenstein." In those early Depression years, "Frankenstein" easily outdistanced all comers at the box office.

Karloff and Bela Lugosi were the archetypal stars of the 1930s horror genre and long–time staples of midnight movies on TV, but Lugosi had little regard for Karloff. In reference to Karloff's performance in "Frankenstein," Lugosi dismissed Karloff's acting as "grunting." There was a certain amount of truth to that — although, to be fair, that was what the role called for. Karloff was not instructed to speak actual words in his role.

Lugosi considered — and perhaps rightfully so — the fact that he had to recite lines in English in spite of his heavy Hungarian accent a challenge that London–born Karloff did not face.

But even though "Frankenstein" is 85 years old today, do not make the mistake of thinking it is irrelevant, outdated or anything similar. It is still unsettling in its examination of the mad genius (Colin Clive) who brought the monster to life.

In short, it is at the heart of what scares you.

And even after 85 years, it is still the definitive monster movie, along with Lugosi's "Dracula," which also was released in 1931.

The American Film Institute ranked "Frankenstein" #56 on its list of the Top 100 thrilling movies while "Dracula" came in #85.) Now regarded as film classics, both were ignored by the fledgling Academy Awards.

Many elements of "Frankenstein" have become cliches over the years. Some were parodied in Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein," one of my favorite comedies.

There were other parts of "Young Frankenstein" that parodied elements from two other movies in the "Frankenstein" series, too, so it would be a mistake to think that "Young Frankenstein" only made references to the first film.

But one of my favorite scenes from Brooks' parody was when the monster (played by Peter Boyle) encountered the young girl. In the original, the monster threw her into the lake. That portion of the movie was considered so terrifying that it was edited by censorship boards in New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

I guess audiences had never really seen anything like it before — even though "Dracula" was in theaters nearly a year earlier.