Are you ready to be so scared your brain leaps right out of your skull and absconds with your socks? Then prepare for Frankenstein. (The film actually opens with actor Edward Van Sloan warning you that you're about to be really, really scared. Spoiler: The film isn't actually all that scary. Movie-goers were easier to scare back there in 1931.)
Anyway; scary stuff starts. Henry Frankenstein is startled to discover he's called "Henry" because he's Victor in the novel. But he recovers, and does his Frankenstein thing, which is stitching together a body out of corpse parts with the help of his assistant, Fritz.
To complete his work, Frankenstein needs a brain. Fritz tries to get him a perfect healthy brain, but instead grabs hold of an evil criminal brain. Bad move, Fritz.
Meanwhile, Frankenstein's fiancée Elizabeth is worried. Why is Henry locked away in his abandoned watchtower when he should be out getting hitched? Elizabeth and her friend Victor Moritz go to question Frankenstein's old medical professor Dr. Waldman. Dr. Waldman explains that Frankenstein's trying to create life. Why not create life the usual way, with some good ol' fashioned baby-making? Apparently that's not good enough for Henry.
Elizabeth, Victor, and Waldman go to confront Frankenstein just as he's finishing his last tests to create life. Using a thunderstorm for power, Frankenstein animates his monster while they all watch. Triumph!
Well, there are complications.
The monster doesn't speak; it just makes noises. Frankenstein keeps the monster in darkness. When he first brings it out into the light, the monster seems pleased…but then Fritz threatens it with a torch. The monster gets scared. Frankenstein and Waldman think the monster is attacking, and chain it in a dungeon because they're kind of awful.
While they try to figure out what to do with the scary monster they've made, Fritz threatens the monster again, and the monster kills him. Frankenstein and Waldman decide they have to destroy the monster. They inject it with a drug, knocking it out.
Frankenstein decides he's had enough of monsters, and goes back to Elizabeth. Meanwhile Waldman prepares to dissect the creature. But he didn't kill it first. So when he starts to cut into him, he wakes up and strangles Waldman. (You can hardly blame him.)
The monster leaves the lab and goes out into the country. He meets a small child, Maria, and the two play together. As part of playing, the monster throws Maria in a lake, and she drowns. Someone needs to teach this monster how to behave on playdates.
Meanwhile, Henry and Elizabeth are getting ready to be married. They're just waiting for Waldman, who keeps not coming, because—oops—they find out he's been strangled to death. Frankenstein figures it's the monster. Then there's a scream in the house, prompting much scrambling and rushing about. The monster ends up terrorizing Elizabeth, who faints. (Women were always fainting in movies in 1931.)
Maria's body is found, and the villagers organize to go kill the monster. Henry leads one group, and ends up confronting the monster alone. The monster knocks Frankenstein unconscious. Again, you can hardly blame him; this is all Frankenstein's fault after all.
The monster takes Frankenstein to a windmill. Frankenstein wakes up, the two struggle, and the monster throws Frankenstein from the mill. Frankenstein isn't killed (because test audiences really didn't like it when he was killed in an early version of the film). The villagers light the mill on fire, killing the monster…or at least appearing to kill him; he ends up coming back for Bride of Frankenstein.
Frankenstein's taken back home, where he recovers and marries Elizabeth. His father, Baron Frankenstein, raises a toast to a future son. You'd think after the horrible job he did raising his monster, Henry would be reluctant to have any kids, but maybe he figures he learned something—like, don't make your child out of dead body parts.
- Warning: this film is scary. Edward Van Sloan comes out from behind a curtain just to tell you so.
- (Edward Van Sloan is the guy who plays Dr. Waldman in the film. He mentions Carl Laemmle—that's the producer.)
- Mr. Van Sloan walks off stage, and then you get the credits; this is the only part of the film that's set to music.
- Look, there are weird floating eyes behind the credits. What do the weird floating eyes have to do with the film? Who knows? (But check out Symbols: Floating Eyes for some suggestions.)
- Notice that the monster is credited as "?" Boris Karloff, who played the monster, wasn't well known at the time…so the filmmakers decided to be cute and build in some mystery by keeping his name concealed.
- The film proper opens with a graveside scene and church bells tolling.
- Very gothic and creepy.
- Oops, there's Fritz (who has a hunchback) and Henry Frankenstein, sneaking around just outside the churchyard.
- The mourners wander off and the gravedigger does his thing (that's digging graves.)
- Then he leaves too.
- Notice that it's not clear what time or place we're in. The gothic background is almost medieval, but the gravedigger's clothes seem early 20th century.
- Henry orders Fritz out of their hiding place and into the graveyard.
- They dig into the new grave.
- And after some time they get out the coffin.
- Henry says the corpse is just resting waiting for a new life. It sounds religious…but as you'll see, it's not.
- The two graverobbers wheel the coffin away.
- They arrive at a gallows, and Henry tells Fritz to climb up and cut the body down.
- So up goes the reluctant Fritz, and down comes the body.
- But the neck of the body is broken, which means the "brain is useless" according to Henry. He says they have to get another brain.
- They need different brains, all right. Because (in case you couldn't tell) None of This Will End Well.
- And the scene switches to a medical college.
- Dr. Waldman's discussing brains; he's got one perfect specimen in a jar, and another which is the brain of a criminal.
- Fritz is hiding outside the classroom and listening.
- Waldman dismisses the class…and that's when sneaky brain-stealer Fritz makes his move.
- He opens the window and sneaks, sneaks on in.
- He bumps into a hanging human skeleton used for medical purposes and startles himself. But he recovers, and grabs the good brain.
- While he's leaving, though, a loud noise startles him, and he drops the good brain.
- So he grabs the one labeled "Abnormal Brain" instead, and scuttles off.
- Notice the long shot of Fritz fleeing, with the skeleton framed towards the center of the frame. It's a very composed, still image.
- Director Whale often keeps the camera still; as a result, it sometimes seems like you're looking at a theater set instead of a film.
- The scene changes; you see a close up of a photograph of Henry Frankenstein.
- That tells you you're in the home of his girlfriend, Elizabeth. She's visited by her buddy, Victor.
- Elizabeth has sent for Victor, and says she's heard from Henry for the first time in four months.
- She reads the letter from Henry, in which he says he is pursuing amazing discoveries and must hide out in case his discoveries are stolen from him.
- Elizabeth says he sounds loony, and he does. She's got good sense, that Elizabeth. (Except for the part where she keeps Henry, rather than dumping him for Victor.)
- Henry says he's living in an abandoned watchtower doing some experiments.
- Elizabeth says she's heard about these experiments before.
- When they got engaged, he told her about the experiments.
- Victor says he ran into Henry in the woods, and asked to see the laboratory. Henry was suspicious and generally behaved like a jerk.
- He doesn't seem like such a catch, this Henry guy.
- Victor says he'll go to Dr. Waldman, Henry's old teacher to see if he knows anything.
- Victor also tells Elizabeth he's in love with her. He's apparently said so before, but Elizabeth is pledged to her mad scientist. Poor Victor.
- Victor is about to leave, but Elizabeth runs after him and says she's coming.
- He seems horrified at the thought of her coming. Not really clear why. Maybe they just needed some drama there.
- Anyway, they head off together.
- In Dr. Waldman's office, Waldman's talking to Elizabeth and Victor.
- Waldman says Henry is brilliant and erratic.
- He says Henry has an "insane ambition to create life." Also, Henry wanted dead bodies for his research.
- That's dead human bodies, Victor, not animal bodies.
- If the film had a score, there'd be an ominous little crescendo after that revelation.
- The university wouldn't give him bodies and/or brains, so Henry left so he could steal corpses unhampered.
- Elizabeth says she wants to go see Henry, and asks Waldman to come too.
- Waldman says, no thanks, but then she convinces him.
- Bad move, Waldman.
- The scene opens on the exterior of Henry's watchtower. There's a big old scary horror film storm brewing.
- Switch to a very dramatic interior shot of the darkened watchtower, with Henry moving about amidst his equipment. Again, it's filmed from a fixed position with Henry moving around in the distance, as if on a stage set.
- He orders Fritz about; do this, do that, get ready for some scary unspecified experiment that will make you shake in your boots.
- Henry is relying on the storm for electricity, he says.
- There's a corpse on a table in the center of the equipment; Henry pulls a sheet off its face to show that it's bandaged tightly about the head.
- Henry says the brain Fritz stole is inside the body.
- They do a test of the equipment, giving the film a chance to throw in some dramatic sparking special effect lights. (They still look pretty nifty, even today.)
- The sparks stop sparking, and then there's a knock on the door.
- Henry tells Fritz to send whoever it is away.
- Fritz limps through the castle, in and out of shadows.
- He opens the door and it's Dr. Waldman, Elizabeth, and Victor, but Fritz won't open up.
- Henry looks down from a high window, and hears that it's Elizabeth .
- So he troops downstairs, and finally lets them in.
- But he's not happy about it.
- He tries to get them to leave, but Victor says the magic words, "You're crazy."
- All mad scientists react to those words by getting crazier, and Henry is no exception.
- He takes it as a dare, and decides to show them his experiment.
- So up they go to the lab.
- Henry makes Victor and Elizabeth sit down. Waldman's about to uncover the body, but Fritz yells at him, and Henry stops him.
- Henry then says he's discovered a super ray that's the basis of all life.
- Dr. Waldman says essentially, "Sure, buddy, whatever."
- Henry tells him that he's going to bring a monster to life just to prove it.
- He also says the body is stitched together from other dead bodies. Everybody seems to think that's kind of gross.
- Then he starts up all the special effects machinery again. Henry and Fritz uncover the body.
- Why make a super strong large body? Why not make a small, easily handled body that can't hurt anyone?
- Oh, well, too late now. In the most famous scene of the film, probably, the table with the body rises up through the darkness towards an open rectangular skylight.
- Lights flash, thunder rolls, actors react with expressions of horror and fascination.
- This goes on for a bit.
- Then the table descends.
- There's a close up of the monster's hand, which is moving. Henry does the famous cackling, shouting, "It's alive!" and comparing himself to God.
- The others try to restrain him lest his overacting cause a chain reaction and destroy them all.
- The scene cuts to the home of Baron Frankenstein, Henry's father. The old guy's chatting with Victor and Elizabeth.
- They tell the Baron that Henry's fine but busy.
- The Baron is not impressed; he thinks there's something wrong with Henry.
- He also thinks that Henry must be involved with another woman.
- No, Baron, he's obsessed with a reanimated corpse.
- (But they don't tell him that.)
- Then they're interrupted by the maid, who tells them that the Burgomaster has come to see the Baron.
- The Burgomaster (Herr Vogel) wants to find out when the wedding's going to be.
- The Burgomaster says maybe there won't be a wedding. He sounds petulant.
- And then the Burgomaster sounds a little petulant too. He says the whole village is prepared for the wedding.
- Where is Elizabeth's family anyway? You'd think they'd be involved in wedding preparations. Maybe Henry chopped them up for his experiments. Who knows?
- Herr Vogel leaves. He's very cranky.
- The Baron blusters and blusters some more; blustering is his schtick.
- Finally, he says he's going to go to confront Henry.
- Bluster on out, Baron.
- Back in the watchtower, Henry's smoking at the table.
- Dr. Waldman's pacing around and tells him the monster is dangerous.
- Henry's blasé about it. He says danger is fun and he wants to discover awesome things because awesome things like monster corpses are awesome.
- We'll see how you feel about that at the end of the movie, Frankenstein.
- Waldman thinks Henry is young and stupid and should worry about creating a corpse monster.
- Henry reveals that he got the brain from Waldman's lab, so it must be okay. Waldman tells him it was a criminal brain.
- Henry looks a little nervous, but what can he do about it now?
- Waldman wants Henry to stop the experimenting, but Henry says no way.
- He says that the monster has so far been kept in complete darkness.
- Then there are footfalls; the monster is coming.
- Henry turns off the light, creating nifty shadows.
- This scene is very famous too.
- The monster turns towards the camera; not much expression there.
- Henry tells the creature to come in, and then tells it to sit down.
- It does; maybe that old brain understands English.
- Then Henry opens the skylight.
- The monster turns sloooowly, and looks up.
- He raises his hands towards the light; it's almost like praying, or like he's trying to close his hands on the light.
- Then they shut it off, and the monster looks sad.
- Poor monster.
- Henry makes the monster sit down again.
- The monster's hands jerk as he sits. Poor monster. (There's a lot in the film to make you say "poor monster.")
- Henry's all happy that he's made his monster sad. You jerk, Henry.
- Then Fritz comes running up looking for the monster. He's carrying a torch, and the monster's scared.
- Fritz brandishes the torch at him, which drives him into a fury.
- The monster growls and thrashes, but Waldman and Henry manage to overpower him and tie him up.
- Waldman says they should shoot him. Aww. Say it with us: "Poor monster."
- We're down in the monster's cellar. He's in handcuffs, thrashing and growling.
- Fritz runs up and starts to whip and beat him.
- Henry shows up and tells Fritz to stop. But then Henry starts whining in self-pity and clutching his head. He staggers out telling Fritz to leave the monster alone.
- But Fritz just goes back to threatening him with the torch.
- Fritz is awful; Henry is awful. The monster never had a chance to be a good monster, with those two as his creators.
- The scene shifts to upstairs in Henry's tower; it's not clear how much time has passed.
- Henry and Waldman are together and hear a bloodcurdling yell from Fritz.
- They rush downstairs, where they find the monster free.
- They back away and shut a door against him, but he smashes on it in a fury.
- Henry is all distraught. Waldman takes charge though, and says they should knock the creature out with a hypodermic injection.
- Henry feels it would be murder to kill the monster, but Waldman has no qualms.
- Henry comes down with a needle, and gives it to Waldman.
- They open the door, and the monster goes towards Henry; Waldman stabs the needle into him from behind.
- The monster seems like he's not affected at first and starts to strangle Henry.
- But then the shot takes effect, and the monster falls over.
- The monster makes sad little sounds like a whipped kitten.
- Just as they get the monster down Henry and Waldman hear a banging on the door.
- It's Victor; he tells them Elizabeth and the Baron are on the way.
- The three of them drag the monster off to hide it.
- Waldman tells Henry to go upstairs and wipe off the blood that's all over him.
- Elizabeth and the Baron knock on the door, and Victor opens it.
- The Baron demands to see Henry.
- Waldman comes down and tells the Baron to take Henry away.
- The Baron and Elizabeth go up to Henry, the Baron muttering and blustering the whole time.
- They find Henry passed out muttering about Fritz.
- Guilt's not much good now, buddy.
- The Baron and Elizabeth decide to take Henry away; Waldman promises Henry to preserve the research notes and destroy the monster.
- Waldman's examining the monster, who lies on a table.
- Waldman makes notes and turns his back; the monster's eyes flutter.
- Why on earth didn't you kill the monster before you started poking at it, Waldman?
- This is one of those horror movie moments where you shout at the screen, but he screen doesn't listen.
- Waldman leans over the monster…and then the monster's hand creeps up.
- And the monster strangles Waldman.
- You knew that was going to happen.
- The monster stomps heavily around the castle and finally find the door; he gets out.
- The scene goes back to Henry's home, where Elizabeth's helping him convalesce. (Check out the cute sleeping greyhound at his feet.)
- Henry says he's happy to no longer be whacked out about his work, and they agree they should get married soon.
- Cut to the day of the wedding, with the Baron giving orange blossoms to Henry and Victor (who's the best man.)
- The Baron mentions Henry's mother, who seems to be dead; he also makes a toast with an old, old bottle of wine, wishing for a son in the house of Frankenstein.
- Henry looks nervous. Maybe he's thinking he has a son, but the son is a giant growling corpse monster. Or maybe he's just embarrassed.
- The Baron gives the maids some champagne, and then they all go back to work.
- There's dancing and celebrating in the village.
- The Baron goes out to make a short speech.
- It's not clear why there's so much of this scene. Who goes to Frankenstein to see wedding preparations? More monster, less villagers dancing about, please.
- Ah, there's the monster. He's walking through the forest.
- Cut to a villager leaving his daughter Maria behind at his house while he goes off to work.
- Maria takes her kitten down to the side of a lake…and then the monster comes out of the bushes.
- Maria isn't scared though; she takes the monster's hand and brings him down to the water.
- Then she gives him a flower. Aww.
- The monster gives a cute little smile and then kneels down beside her.
- She throws some flowers in the water so they float. The monster throws flowers too.
- The monster is very amused, but then he runs out of flowers. So he throws Maria in the water.
- This is why everyone should learn to swim.
- The monster looks very upset at Maria thrashing around, and he runs away.
- Back to the wedding. Everyone's dancing.
- Cut to inside, where Elizabeth asks to speak to Henry in her room in private.
- Elizabeth is wearing a completely preposterous wedding gown, with a train that looks like it's ten feet long at least.
- She says she's afraid, though she's not sure why. She asks why Dr. Waldman's late for the wedding.
- She says she's worried about losing Henry; he says he'll always be there. Aww.
- But then there's a banging on the door. It's Victor, babbling about Dr. Waldman.
- Henry locks Elizabeth in her room. Kind of a jerk move (and a tactical mistake, as it turns out).
- Victor says that Dr. Waldman's been killed, and that the monster is loose.
- They hear the monster groaning in the house. They run upstairs, but can't find him.
- Then they think he's in the cellar.
- Cut back to Elizabeth wandering nervously around the room.
- The monster comes in through the window without Elizabeth seeing him.
- She finally sees him and screams. He stalks her.
- She can't get out because her dimwit would-be husband locked the door.
- The monster gets out through the window and Henry and everyone bursts in.
- Elizabeth is still alive but hysterical.
- Cut back outside, where Maria's grief-stricken dad is carrying her body into town.
- Everybody stops celebrating and follows Maria's dad to the Burgomaster's door.
- The Burgomaster comes out and sees that Maria's been murdered. (Though how does he know she was murdered? Oh well; plot hole.)
- Back at the Frankensteins', Elizabeth's still hysterical.
- Henry tells Victor he cannot get married until the monster is destroyed.
- Henry's wearing some ridiculous jodhpurs.
- He tells Victor that he's leaving Elizabeth in his care. He rushes off (with his jodhpurs).
- And it's nightfall now; the Burgomaster's organizing a search for the monster.
- He splits up the crowd into three groups, one to be led by Frankenstein.
- They're going to get the monster, alive or dead.
- And off the mob goes, with shouts and torches. (Though…why don't they have electric lights? Remember, Frankenstein used electricity. Again, the time period seems to wander back and forth.)
- Henry leads one group off to the mountains to search.
- They see the monster, and then they find an injured man who points towards where he saw the monster.
- Frankenstein gets separated from the others, and, of course, that's when he stumbles on the monster.
- Henry tries to scare the monster with fire, but he's not scared by flame any more (ah, that must be why they're all carrying torches).
- The monster and Frankenstein struggle. The monster knocks him unconscious.
- But the villagers are coming, so the monster drags Henry away.
- The monster takes him to a windmill; the villagers surround it.
- The search party tries to bash in the windmill door. Meanwhile, the monster takes Henry upstairs, jodhpurs and all.
- Henry wakes up and pulls himself across the floor. The monster sees him and attacks again.
- Henry hides behind the windmill machinery, then runs and tries to jump from the mill.
- The monster grabs him and they struggle as the villagers watch from below.
- Henry finally falls from the mill; he's unconscious. Some men carry him home.
- The rest stay to light the mill on fire.
- The monster screams in terror in the tower as the flames surround him. He is trapped under a fallen beam.
- Poor monster.
- He is finally dead…at least till the sequel, Bride of Frankenstein.
- Back to the Frankensteins' home, where maids knock on the door of Henry's room.
- The Baron opens the door, and the maids say they brought some of Henry's great-grandmother's wine.
- You see Henry being tended by Elizabeth in the background.
- The Baron makes another toast to a son in the house of Frankenstein.
- (Note that you don't see Henry up close in this scene. That's because it's a different actor. In the original script, Henry died after falling from the mill. After audience reaction was negative, the end was changed, but Colin Clive had already returned to England, and was not available to reshoot.) (Source)