Frankenstein (USA, 1931, James Whale)
James Whale's Frankenstein is a film that works in important ways that Todd Browning's Dracula, released earlier the same year, does not. While the two films were responsible for ushering in the Horror Era at Universal Studios, the poignancy of Frankenstein's heartbreaking tragedy and it's consistency of tone help to separate it from its only intermittently engaging predecessor.Because Frankenstein created much of the cinematic language of horror films, it has often been imitated (and parodied. See: Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks). Consequently (and ironically), viewers coming to the film today may mistake the conventions that it created for clichés. The mad scientist and his neo-gothic lab, comma-shaped assistant, and rigidly lurching monster were all creations of director James Whale, and all have become movie icons.
However, watching Frankenstein is more than simply an exercise in nostalgia. Despite moments of melodrama, the film is wonderfully economical, telling a complex and engaging tale in little more than one hour. There are more moments of quiet power (most of them involving the strikingly effective Boris Karloff as the monster who simply wants to be loved) than you'll find in a fistful of big-budget horror films. Whale knew his medium and didn't clutter the action with a lot of chatter. Instead, he filled the screen with images that would become part of our cultural lexicon. He builds the story to its tragically inevitable climax, interchanging moments of subtle beauty and dreadful horror.
Rather than simply adopt a conventional perspective (man should not play God), Whale emphasizes the human drama (Frankenstein should not have abandoned his creation), turning a horror film into an existential tale of man's fear of abandonment.