Mary Shelly got the shaft, historically speaking. A smart, literate, talented writer and editor, on top of being the only woman in her peer group, and what is she best remembered for? Only the first science fiction novel, ever, and when it’s mentioned, trust me, it’s with much grousing and grumbling and caveats from the science fiction community. Of course, I’m talking about Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus, a decent piece of Victorian melodrama, written in 1818, that inadvertently grapples with the concept of the soul, what makes us human, and asks the question of whether or not science should meddle with the forces of nature. Heavy stuff for back in those days. But those hard SF guys, the graybeards, over in the corner, always shake their heads, and say, “Well, sure, some of the ideas are there, but really…”
How do you top that kind of back-handed compliment, I wonder? Oh, I’ve got it! Make a movie out of an extremely successful stage play and overwrite all of the conceits and concepts of the novel into its most reductive form, and turn a brilliant allegory into a grotesque caricature that is parodied and copied ad infinitum, well into the 21st century. Talk about “No Respect.”
As with Dracula, it’s probably ideal to look at Frankenstein (or, technically, Frankenstein’s Monster) from the baseline question, “how close to the book do they get?” To do otherwise gives an unfair advantage to modern interpretations, and I’d rather talk about what these movies get right than throw Jack Pierce under the bus for not being a better make-up artist. To say that there’s some great portrayals of Pop Culture Frankenstein—that lumbering creature based on Boris Karloff’s most famous role—is a given. After all, we’re talking about one of the most recognizable figures of the 20th century. And whether we’re watching Herman Munster or reading a comic book version of Frankenstein as drawn by Mike Ploog or Dick Briefer, or looking at any of the hundreds of other versions—they are all great, for what they are: Pop Culture Frankenstein. Not literary Frankenstein.
With that in mind, here are my top five favorite Frankenstein movies. It’s a motley assortment, to be sure. What I’d really like to do one day is take my favorite parts from each movie and sort of, I don’t know, stitch them all together to make one giant, killer movie. Not sure what to call it, though…
5. Frankenstein (1931)
It’s hard to discuss literary Frankenstein without mentioning this movie, a nearly exact copy of the stage play of the same name (hey, it worked out well for Dracula, right?) And Universal hit upon something with their portrayal; the idea of the grotesque nature of the monster being a source of both horror and tragedy.
Make-up man Jack Pierce loved to tell the story of his idea for Boris Karloff’s now-legendary make-up. He figured that the good doctor wasn’t a skilled surgeon and that he’d take a lot of short cuts, such as lopping the top of the head off and sewing the top of the skin over, like a flap, with clamps for easy access. Creepy, right? Also, kind of genius. And the bolts are in the neck because, of course, the monster runs on direct current, like a battery. But the stitches in the face, neck, and hands, and the dazed, disfigured look, stirred audience members up more than they may have realized. So many of the people in the theaters had to deal with the soldiers coming home from The Great War in Europe with horrible disfigurements—missing arms and legs, noses and ears, scars that no make-up could conceal, and worse. These veterans were walking reminders of the horrors of that war, and Frankenstein was the stand-in for a nation’s reaction to those veterans. The movie made it okay to scream and shudder when Karloff lumbered into the light, a living reminder that War is Hell.
Accuracy be damned. This film modernizes the setting, for what that’s worth—everything is still in the backwoods European mountains. It’s fitting that, despite the 20th century trappings, the movie’s monster hunters are still brandishing torches and pitchforks. It’s enjoyable for what it is, and I’d argue it’s even required for any serious monster movie fan, but it plays fast and loose with Mary Shelly’s novel.
4. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Much ado has been made over this film—the sequel to the smash hit of 1931, and in some weird way, a very personal statement for director James Whale. I think the movie has a lot of hubris in it—the notion of “playing God” and creating life is pushed even farther, and with more disastrous results, in this film. If anything, the themes are closer to what Shelly seemed to be driving at in her novel.
Whale must have thought so too, because he opens the film with Elsa Lanchester as Mary Shelly, knitting on the divan whilst her husband Percy and Lord Byron men roll their R’s and pose and preen while they talk about how neato it was that a mere slip of a girl could write so wonderfully wicked a story as Frankenstein. Lovely. She eventually tells them there’s more to the story, and then we dissolve to the end of the first film, implying that everything that follows in the film was somehow or another straight from the author’s mouth.
Clearly this is not the case, but if you want to watch a well-shot, bizarre, whack doodle black and white camp-fest, this is your movie. It’s a beautifully told, messed up morality play based on a subplot from the original novel, teased into a feature-length film, featuring the sexiest Universal Monster to ever spurn a creature’s tentative advances. Thematically, the movie is worth your time, but you have to make it past Dr. Pretorius’ ridiculous collection of homunculi first.
3. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
Dr. Frankenstein is on death row for murder, and when he tells his story to a priest, we get the whole thing, as well: a precocious young scientist, Victor begins experimenting with creating human life. Paul, his mentor goes along with him, initially, but has a crisis of conscious, especially when the monster rampages and kills a man. Frankenstein’s monster is killed, and then resurrected, and eventually used as a violent means to Victor’s ends. The last laugh goes to Paul, who has a chance to implicate the monster in the murder of Victor’s mistress, but denies any knowledge of the experiments and the monster, leaving Victor to the gallows.
If most of the above sounds nothing like Mary Shelly’s book, that’s not an accident. The Curse of Frankenstein was Hammer Studio’s first foray into updating and re-imagining the old Universal movies. I think this is one of their better efforts, and the only thing that keeps it from being everyone’s favorite is the terrible make-up job on Lee—something they fixed in later films. So, you know, it’s not just me that thinks that. Normally, I would never say this about Christopher Lee, but he’s not the main reason to watch this movie. He’s just not. His heart wasn’t in it, and it’s obvious, because that Frankenstein make-up sucked. It just sucked. It’s messy, crude, and yeah, I know, make-up artist Phil Leakey was trying to get away from the now-iconic Jack Pierce design, but he went the wrong way. The real reason to watch this movie is Peter Cushing as Dr. Frankenstein. He’s the man; driven, obsessed, chilling, relentless. Nothing will keep him from his dream of bringing the dead back to life. He’ll even kill to get what he wants. That’s focus.
Despite the heartbreak that is Christopher Lee with lumpy pancake make-up on his face, the movie is really watchable. It’s made abundantly clear throughout the movie that Cushing’s mad scientist is the real monster, but Lee manages to get some mayhem done on his own, and also in the service to his master. The Curse of Frankenstein was the first of a series of movies with the focus on Peter Cushing as the obsessed, psychotic doctor who kept repeating the same experiment with different monsters and unfortunately the same results.
2. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (1994)
This could have been, and probably should have been, the corrective it was advertised to be. Kenneth Branagh, fresh from doing all that Shakespeare stuff, set out to adapt, direct, and star in a lavish do-over of Frankenstein—and do it right, as we can see by the addition of Mary Shelly’s name to the title. Produced by Francis Ford Coppola. A screenplay by Frank Darabont. Filmed on location in actual castles, with sumptuous sets, a huge budget, and a lengthy running time to get it all in, and yet, this film is a hell of a near miss. What happened? I’ll tell you what happened. Branagh cast Robert De Niro as the monster.
Yep, you heard me. Terrible, gimmicky casting that takes you completely out of the movie every time you see him in his subdued make-up. Don’t get me wrong—they tried, they really did, to get it right. But instead of asking those big picture questions about the meaning of life and whether or not Victor should be meddling with the powers of creation, the film centers around Dr. Frankenstein’s rejection of his creation and the monster’s anger at his “father” for being abandoned. Lots of victimization, and not a lot of villainy. Oh, and no scares. I don’t know that there should be a lot of scares when you’re doing Frankenstein from the novel, but there’s audience expectations to manage, and this film drops the ball.
Not completely, mind you. There are some scenes that made it to the screen that have never been in a Frankenstein movie up until that time—like Victor’s and the Monster’s final confrontation in the frozen North. Straight out of Shelly. And while De Niro does give a good acting performance, it’s still not what the movie needs. It’s a good thing that Branagh and Helena Bonham Carter are pretty to look at.
1. Frankenstein: The True Story (1973)
Young Victor Frankenstein is obsessed with cutting death out of the equation of life. To this, he has devoted his life and resources to—well, you know more or less how it goes. This three-hour televised production on the BBC manages to get a lot of the book into the movie, showing us scenes we hadn’t—up until that time—ever seen in on film.
Frankenstein: The True Story stars James Mason, David McCallum, and Jane Seymour in a lavish (as only the BBC could pull off) and lengthy reconstruction of the novel that deviates in two key places. And unfortunately, one of the deviations is James Mason’s character, Polidori—named after the author of The Vampyre, but based on Dr. Pretorius, from The Bride of Frankenstein (and thankfully without the ridiculous homunculi). It’s not a bad Second Act, but it’s a big deviation that manages to hit similar themes from the novel without overpowering the main story. But when Victor and his bride flee England for America, looking to start over, and the monster stows away on the boat with them, there’s a sense of inevitability to this desperate act that confirms our greatest mistakes follow us into our next life. Also: wow, we’re getting the book’s ending!
The show originally ran as a two-part mini-series, like Masterpiece Theater, and was later edited into a made-for-TV film that was shown on American TV. It also came out in the same year that Dan Curtis’ Frankenstein (starring Bo Svenson as the monster, I shit you not) premiered. A year later, Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks would give us Young Frankenstein, arguably Brooks’ best movie, along with Hammer’s Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, the seventh and final movie in the Frankenstein series starring Peter Cushing and directed by Terence Fisher. There was definitely something in the air at that time; a distrust of science in general, the notion of powerful people doing transgressive things in the name of science and progress, with no thought as to who got hurt in the process, or the folly of playing God with the natural world. Maybe something else. But it’s curious that there was a trend toward adapting literary horror at this time, and Frankenstein was the sore tooth that they couldn’t stop tonguing.