dir. James Whale

TIFF Cinematheque - Hollywood Classics

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"It's alive!" Boris Karloff became a screen icon for the ages as the green-skinned, flat-topped monster in the definitive film version of the classic horror tale.


"It's alive! It's alive!" James Whale's Frankenstein begins with a warning about the film's nerve-straining nature, and then proceeds to worry those nerves into ever-mounting anxiety. (It's one of those films whose imagery is so famous and indelible that you may feel you've seen it when you haven't.) Born in a lightning storm after the obsessed Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his hunchbacked assistant stitch together body parts exhumed from the local graveyard, a monstrous replica of humanity breaks out of captivity and takes to the countryside. After his attempt to befriend a little girl he encounters by the lake turns lethal — a sequence censored by several states at the time of the film's release — the hapless creature finds himself hunted through the hills by a torch-bearing mob. As the lurching, by turns violent and tender "walking dead," a surprisingly subtle Boris Karloff donned copious makeup and heavy asphalt shoes to produce one of cinema's most famous creations. Inspiring countless copies, sequels, and parodies — as well as a stirring homage in Victor Erice's The Spirit of the BeehiveFrankenstein is "[a] landmark. When treating Karloff's monster it is surprising, lyrical, and gravely tolerant. In the scene of the monster and the little girl the balance of hope and menace is so exact that it still has the riveting effect of the best Hitchcock" (David Thomson).