Today: April 22, 2024

Frankenstein On Screen

Mary Shelley‘s novel Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus has been one of the cornerstones of the gothic and science fiction genres since its first publication in 1818. It is such an important title, that even the story’s origin at a gathering in Geneva hosted by Lord Byron has become the stuff of legend (and film in Ken Russell‘s Gothic).  Since the dawn of cinema, the story of Baron Frankenstein and his imperfect attempt to create a human life has taken on new form as part of the cornerstone of screen horror as well.  In the process though, it has often strayed far from the author’s original vision, creating a pop-mythology and legacy all of its own. Now with another new interpretation, I, Frankenstein out soon, Ed Boff looks over how thanks to film this story has evolved to be a household name…

The Novel
Before delving deeply into the films, it’s worth mentioning how different the original novel is to the subsequent versions.  In the novel’s story, the actual creation of the creature is kept very vague, with only allusions to matters such as Galvani’s early experiments with electricity.  Also, the monster himself is no brutish monster. He’s portrayed as a tragic figure who properly debates and taunts Frankenstein on his hubris.  (Where did he learn to talk?  Long story.)  There’s no mad scientist lab, no hunch-back assistant (no-one even called Ygor), no pitchfork and torch bearing mobs, and the monster is never described as having a flat head. That’s the influence that the film versions have had; creating a whole mythos and iconography that’s absent from the original. There have been several attempts at going back to the version of events though, including Kenneth Branagh‘s 1994 Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.

Edison Studios
The very first Frankenstein movie is actually one of the oldest surviving horror films.  Believed lost for a long while, in 1910 Edison Studios made a “one-reel” (16-minute) version, directed by J. Searle Dawley that actually drew a bit more from the play of Frankenstein by Henry M. Milner than the book.  This is unique in a lot of respects, most notably for being one of the more mystical versions, where the monster (Charles Ogle) is created by what seems like an act of alchemy.  This scene also features a truly ingenious effect for the creation, by making a dummy of the creature, setting it on fire, but then playing the footage backwards.  It also has an ending that strongly hints at the duality of the creator and his creation – something a lot of the best versions of the story do. This is an interesting little curiosity; a take on the story before a lot of the familiar trappings and tropes became standard.

The Universal Age
The version of Frankenstein that has become the standard everyone thinks about is of course the 1931 film version.  After Dracula‘s enormous success, this was the ideal follow-up. The role was famously offered to Bela Lugosi, but he turned it down. Instead the role went to another name who had become a legend in horror history, Boris Karloff. His performance as the monster in Jack Pierce‘s instantly recognisable make-up was unforgettable. In Karloff’s capable hands, the monster becomes a true innocent, an outcast judged poorly, with Baron Frankenstein’s (Colin Clive) greatest crime not being creating him, but being a poor parent to him. It was also in this version that a lot of the familiar tropes, like the laboratory, the assistant, making it clear the monster is made of dead body parts and the mob came into play. All of which was bought to life in a highly stylised gothic sensibility by Director James Whale.

Whale was allowed to take the vision a step further in Bride Of Frankenstein, which was based on several major parts of the novel not in the first film (including the monster learning to talk).  Amusingly, the film has an introduction featuring Mary Shelly (Elsa Lanchester), as though what happened in these films is exactly what she wrote.  After Bride, Karloff only played the monster one more time in Son Of Frankenstein. This was the film that launched Universal’s second wave of monster movies in 1939, and was perhaps the best of the whole series. Now on a more B-grade budget, a slew of sequels following the monster played by several actors ensued (The Ghost Of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, House Of Frankenstein, Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein). It was probably these films that not only secured the character in the public mind, but also added to the eternal confusion over the monster being called Frankenstein or not. This whole age was wonderfully pastiched in Mel Brook‘s Young Frankenstein (“It’s Fronkensteen”), which even reused the same lab equipment props from the original.

The House Of Hammer
In 1957 Hammer Studios decided to try the very risky move of going into full colour gothic horror with a new take on the story, The Curse Of Frankenstein. It broke a lot of new ground, not least in terms of the full colour splatter spectacle – the Kensington Gore as the make-up team nick-named it. The biggest change this version has on the Universal age is the focus; here it’s Baron Frankenstein himself rather than his creation who is the real source of horror. Brilliantly played by Peter Cushing, Frankenstein is made into a completely obsessed figure, determined to finish his experiments the way he wants to, not caring what he has to do to get his way. His creation, played in a star-making role by Christopher Lee, is referred to as the Creature rather than Monster, for very good reason. It’s a whole new paradigm for the character, going further from Mary Shelly than before, but keeping the idea fresh.

After this, as with Universal, sequels came, starting with The Revenge Of Frankenstein, but this time following the baron. This meant that in each film, he was trying a new experiment, creating new monsters and such, making each title unique. In fact, Hammer teamed up with Universal for one in their style, The Evil Of Frankenstein, right down to a Jack Pierce-esque monster make-up they couldn’t do before due to copyright.  Some of these sequels went in very interesting directions. In Frankenstein Created Woman (a personal favourite of Martin Scorcese) the Baron starts experimenting with the human soul. These films, especially given Cushing’s performance, all deserve to be as well known as their Universal counterparts, and show how wide a scope the concept can have.

Other Notable Titles
Many films have been influenced by the Frankenstein story, with a recent example being Vincenzo Natali‘s Splice, with the characters named Clive and Elsa in homage to Bride.  Others have made specific reference to the Universal films including The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Tim Burton‘s heartfelt homage Frankenweenie. Andy Warhol produced the surreal Flesh For Frankenstein, starring Udo Kier as an even more insanely amoral Baron than Cushing (“To know death Otto, you must first **** life… in the gall bladder!”).  Coming out on DVD in March is the 1973 TV production Frankenstein The True Story, a star studded version that despite the title, re-works the novel in a completely new storyline.  Roger Corman made a version of Brian Aldiss‘ novel Frankenstein Unbound, with John Hurt as a 21st Century scientist sent back in time to meet Frankenstein (Raoul Julia).  Danny Boyle‘s stage version featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller alternating between Frankenstein and the Monster was closer to the novel, and the John Milton style of writing within.  Finally, perhaps the oddest incarnation is one that occurred when Toho studios in Japan, the team behind Godzilla got the rights. Yes, really. The monster was once made into a Kaiju in Frankenstein Conquers The World and spawned two new city-stompers in War O The Gargantuas!

The Immortal Monster
As well as I, Frankenstein coming soon, currently in production is a new version starring Daniel Radcliffe that tells the story from a new perspective, from that of the character of Ygor. Proving that the story has now evolved to the point that the myth has become almost self-perpetuating. The classic Karloff version has become almost an old friend, the default versions appearing in everything from cartoons like Hotel Transylvania to breakfast cereals.  However, that hasn’t stopped the story itself from constantly finding new iterations, probably because there’s so much that it can represent. Scientific hubris or fear, our struggle with our own mortality, being an outcast either for beliefs or appearance. There are versions of the story that reflect all these points and more. Appropriately enough for the incarnation of the character everyone has become most familiar with, the legend that is Frankenstein has truly become universal.

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