Mordaunt Hall gave Frankenstein a very positive review and said that the film "aroused so much excitement at the Mayfair yesterday that many in the audience laughed to cover their true feelings." "[T]here is no denying that it is far and away the most effective thing of its kind. Beside it "Dracula" is tame and, incidentally, "Dracula" was produced by the same firm [...]"
Film Daily also lauded the picture, calling it a "gruesome, chill-producing and exciting drama" that was "produced intelligently and lavishly and with a grade of photography that is superb."
Variety reported that it "Looks like a Dracula plus, touching a new peak in horror plays," and described Karloff's performance as "a fascinating acting bit of mesmerism." Its review also singled out the look of the film as uniquely praiseworthy, calling the photography "splendid" and the lighting "the last word in ingenuity, since much of the footage calls for dim or night effect and the manipulation of shadows to intensify the ghostly atmosphere."
John Mosher of The New Yorker was less enthused, calling the film only a "moderate success" and writing that "The makeup department has a triumph to its credit in the monster and there lie the thrills of the picture, but the general fantasy lacks the vitality which that little Mrs. P.B. Shelley was able to give her book."
Frankenstein has continued to receive acclaim from critics and is widely regarded as one of the best films of 1931, as well as one of the greatest movies of all time. It holds a 100% "Fresh" rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes. In 1991, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant". In 2004, The New York Times placed the film on its Best 1000 Movies Ever list.
Frankenstein also received recognition from the American Film Institute. It was named the 87th greatest movie of all time on 100 Years... 100 Movies. The line "It's alive! It's alive!" was ranked as the 49th greatest movie quote in American cinema. The film was on the ballot for several of AFI's 100 series lists, including AFI's 10 Top 10 for the sci-fi category, 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition), and twice on 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains for both Dr. Henry Frankenstein and the Monster in the villains category.
The film was ranked number 56 on AFI's 100 Years... 100 Thrills, a list of America's most heart-pounding movies. It was also ranked number 27 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments. Additionally, the Chicago Film Critics Association named it the 14th scariest film ever made.
The film was a big hit. In June 1932 the film had earned reported rentals of $1.4 million. In 1943 Universal reported it had earned a profit of $708,871. By 1953 all the Frankenstein films earned an estimated profit of $13 million.