In this first version of the novel, Victor Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips) is a young student of medicine, who moves to college in order to continue his research. He is looking for the ultimate secret of life and death, and has as a goal the creation of the most perfect human being the world has ever seen. After months of constant research, he thinks he has discovered the secret and sets his final experiment in motion. With a mix of science, alchemy and black magic, Frankenstein creates his creature, but to his surprise, the creation is far from the perfect being he had hoped to make, as his creature (Charles Ogle), is a deformed monster who disgusts and horrifies the young scientist. Frankenstein decides to abandon his creation and return home hoping to rebuild his life, however, the creature has followed him, and is now envious of Frankenstein's bride (Mary Fuller).
Adapted to the screen by J. Searle Dawley himself, the story in this adaptation is very simple, although considering its short runtime (aproximately 16 minutes), it captures fairly the novel's core plot. Dawley's version of the novel introduces a notable element of psychology, as in this film the monster is literally the living physical representation of the evil in Frankenstein's soul. This original take on the novel's plot is really interesting as it not only deviates from the novel but is also completely different than the better known version done by James Whale for Universal in the 30s. While of course the movie lacks the more complex themes of the original story, this interesting addition certainly makes up for it and makes the film to stand out among other early horrors.
Being a professional of theater, it was natural that Dawley's films carried that feeling of being filmed plays; however, one has to praise the fairly original visual composition of the movie, and of course, the very inventive use he gave to the many tricks and special effects of his time. Particularly notable is the scene when Frankenstein creates his creature, as even today, almost 100 years after its shooting, remains an amazing and very suspenseful moment of silent cinema. Of course, given his background it is his work with the cast what separates Dawley's work from other pioneers. Certainly what he lacked in cinematic vision, he compensated for with a good domain of his cast, pulling off great performances from his actors.
While Augustus Phillips is perhaps a bit over the top in his role, he is quite good considering it was his debut on film, and makes a nice portrait of the Doctor as a young man. The mysterious Mary Fuller (who would leave the industry in 1917 at the peak of her fame) plays Frankenstein's bride, in one of her earliest works as an actress, and Charles Ogle completes the cast as the monster. While certainly not a Boris Karloff, Charles Ogle's performance as the Creature is extremely good, and his talent shines in many memorable scenes. Story says he also made his own make-up, as probably he had performed the Monster before on theater during the early years of his career. Ogle's performance is certainly the film's highlight, and through his interpretation one can see why this role is one of the finest horror characters ever written.
The first version of "Frankenstein" is not only valuable for its enormous historical importance, but also for its artistic qualities as a version of the novel. While many may disregard it due to it's unimaginative visual quality and its stagy style, it is one of the films that show the progression of cinema as a narrative art form. Despite its short runtime, it is a very entertaining movie that still manages to be impressive after all these years. Decades before Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff, Charles Ogle became a monster and brought the immortal classic to life with terrifying power. Fans of the novel and horror fans in general, this is a must-see.