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Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931)

Monster Movies – The Story of Frankenstein on Film

Posted on 24 June 2019

With Saturday 22 July having marked the 130th birthday of James Whale – director of Universal Pictures’ iconic 1930s Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein – we took a look back at the history of Mary Shelley’s story on the silver screen, ahead of our forthcoming stage production of the story, running 2-12 October.

The story of Frankenstein on film is a colourful one, and goes back further than you might imagine. If you’re not a movie buff, you might be surprised to learn that the first known Frankenstein film was produced by Thomas Edison (yes, that one) for the Edison Manufacturing Company. Released in 1910, the 14-minute film was directed by J. Searle Dawley, and starred Augustus Phillips as the titular doctor, alongside Charles Stanton Ogle as his terrifying creation.

Lost for many years, the existence of the film was brought to light in 1963, when a plot description and stills were discovered in an old issue of film catalogue The Edison Kinetogram, which claimed that, “The formation of the hideous monster from the blazing chemicals of a huge cauldron in Frankenstein’s laboratory is probably the most weird, mystifying and fascinating scene ever shown on film.”

It was not until the mid-70s, however, that the film itself was rediscovered in the possession of Wisconsin film collector Alois F. Dettlaff. When he realised its rarity, he had a 35mm preservation copy made, and since then, a restored version has been released to the public domain via the Library of Congress, which you can now watch on YouTube.

Two more versions would be released before Boris Karloff came to define the role in his sensational 1931 performance – Joseph W. Smiley’s Life Without Soul in 1915 (now lost) and Eugenio Testa’s Italian horror movie The Monster of Frankenstein in 1920.

Given the extent to which the 1931 Universal film still permeates the popular imagination, with stylised versions of Jack Pierce’s unmistakable monster make-up splashed across all manner of merchandise every Halloween, it’s astonishing to think that when its director, James Whale, was born in 1889, the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel was still within living memory for some.

To this day, Boris Karloff is still widely considered to have delivered the definitive performance of the monster, and it’s tempting to attribute some of his aptitude for the role to an affinity with the creature’s outsider status. Born to Anglo-Indian parents in 1887, the relatively dark-skinned Karloff – whose real name was William Henry Pratt – would doubtless have stood out amongst his peers in Victorian Britain. To add to this, the young William suffered from speech impediments, speaking with a lisp and a stutter as a young boy. While Karloff’s creature isn’t the articulate and philosophical man of Mary Shelley’s invention, he nonetheless cuts a sympathetic figure, with his awkward, childlike movements, innocent wonder at the world and inability to comprehend his persecution.

1931’s Frankenstein was followed by a sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, in 1935, regarded by some as superior to the original. The follow-up includes an opening sequence depicting Mary Shelley and her companions during the summer of 1816 when she first hit upon the idea for the story, with Elsa Lanchester doubling up as Mary Shelley and the man-made “bride” of the title. The Bride of Frankenstein would be the first of several films to fictionalise the book’s historical conception.

The Karloff trilogy was completed by Son of Frankenstein in 1939, which sees Victor Frankenstein’s son, Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (played by Basil Rathbone), return to the family castle and attempt to restore his father’s sullied reputation, only to find himself driven by the same ambition to create life that was his father’s ultimate undoing. The film was the first to feature Bela Lugosi as lab assistant Ygor, and saw Rowland V. Lee take over from James Whale as director. But while it was the last to star Karloff as the monster, it was by no means the last Frankenstein film that Universal produced.

Over the next 10 years, the studio would continue to incorporate the character into a series of increasingly schlocky horrors, often crossovers with other Universal monster titles. Lon Chaney Jr (best known as the Wolf Man) was the first to take up the monster mantle in The Ghost of Frankenstein, followed by Bela Lugosi in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and Glenn Strange in The House of Frankenstein and The House of Dracula. As if these weren’t quite tongue-in-cheek enough, 1948 even saw the release of an out-and-out comedy in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Interestingly, The House of Frankenstein saw Karloff return to the series, this time in the role of mad scientist Dr Gustav Niemann. Over the coming decades, the distinction between creator and creation would continue to blur…

Arguably, the next great Frankenstein film was made when Hammer Horror took their first stab at the story with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957. Directed by Terence Fisher, the film starred Peter Cushing as an ice-cold Victor Frankenstein, and Christopher Lee as a huge, hulking monster, wide-eyed with terror. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Universal made some trouble for their rival company, fiercely protecting their copyright over Jack Pierce’s original monster design. As a result, the creature of Phil Leakey’s making is an altogether different beast, ghostly pale and gruesomely disfigured, with skin that appears to be painfully decomposing on the monster’s living bones. The film shocked audiences at the time, outraging many critics and earning itself an X certificate. Setting out what would become a signature style as the Hammer Horror brand continued to grow, it has since been described by Professor Patricia MacCormac as, “the first really gory horror film, showing blood and guts in colour.”

It would be swiftly followed by The Revenge of Frankenstein in 1958, and The Evil of Frankenstein in 1964. Following the sealing of a new distribution deal between Hammer and Universal, this later film features a monster much more closely resembling the 1931 design. Subsequent Hammer titles include Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), The Horror of Frankenstein (1970) and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974). Conceived as a semi-parody remake of The Curse of Frankenstein, The Horror of Frankenstein is the only one of these not to star Peter Cushing as the scientist.

On two very different ends of the sci-fi spectrum, Herbert L. Strock’s 1957 I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and Howard W. Koch’s 1958 Frankenstein 1970 tapped into contemporary culture and concerns. As its title suggests, the former wasn’t altogether serious, and was largely dismissed as “campy junk” even by fans. Frankenstein 1970, meanwhile, sets its story during the Second World War, foregrounding very pressing Cold War anxieties about nuclear radiation. In this film, Boris Karloff takes up the role of Victor von Frankenstein, a modern-day descendant of the famous monster-making family who has suffered torture and disfigurement at the hands of the Nazis for refusing to cooperate with them. It’s with the help of an atomic reactor that this Victor is able to give life to his creation – a being modeled on his own likeness prior to his torture. Our sympathies are finally tested, however, when the baron, consumed with his endeavour, resorts to desperate means when his supply of body parts begins to dwindle.

In 1965, Japanese studio Toho (of Godzilla fame) produced their own take on the story in their distinctive kaiju style. Translated as Frankenstein Conquers the World, the film’s original Japanese title, Frankenstein vs Baragon, perhaps gives a better idea of its content – Baragon being a huge, horned dinosaur with the ability to fire heat rays from his mouth. Dr Frankenstein puts in a second Toho appearance in the 1966 follow-up, The War of the Gargantuas.

As film boards and audiences gradually became less censorious, the 1970s saw the emergence of a number of sexually charged retellings, beginning with two Italian films – 1971’s Lady Frankenstein and 1972’s Frankenstein 80. Around the same time, pop artist Andy Warhol turned his attention to the story in Flesh for Frankenstein, written and directed by Paul Morrissey. Packed with explicit sexuality and violence, it’s perhaps the most gruesome take on the tale, its shock-value amplified in a limited-release 3D version, which saw internal organs thrust towards the camera during disembowelment scenes. Rather less gruesome and more playful in nature was The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975, which sees transvestite alien inventor Dr Frank-N-Furter create his ideal man in the blond and muscular Rocky.

The 1970s was also the era of Blaxploitation movies, a trend that a myth as potent as Frankenstein could hardly hope to escape from. 1973 saw the release of Black Frankenstein or Blackenstein, with a monster that substituted a straight-edged afro haircut for Karloff’s square-topped head. While generally poorly received, the film does tap into the very real horrors of the Vietnam War: its “monster” is a soldier who falls victim to a medical intervention gone wrong when he returns from home limbless after stepping on a landmine in Vietnam.

Also in 1973, Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive offered a fresh angle on the story, focusing on the complex inner life of a young girl named Ana who becomes obsessed with Frankenstein’s monster after seeing the 1931 movie.

Now almost as iconic as Karloff’s performance as the monster in 1931 is Gene Wilder’s zany “Fronkonsteen” in Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedy Young Frankenstein. Frequently featured in critical round-ups of the funniest comedy films of all time, this off-the-wall production features one particularly famous sequence in which Frankenstein and his creation (played by Peter Boyle) perform the musical number “Puttin on the Ritz” in front of an audience on stage.

In 1985, Sting became an unlikely Baron Frankenstein in Franc Roddam’s The Bride, starring alongside Jennifer Beals as Eva, a woman he creates in the same fashion as his original monster (Clancy Brown). The film also features appearances from the likes of Alexei Sayle, Quentin Crisp and Timothy Spall, but the star-studded cast did little to save it – the film was a commercial and critical flop.

During the 1980s, three films would explore the creation of the Frankenstein story itself during the summer of 1816, with Ken Russell’s 1986 Gothic followed by Gonzalo Suárez’s Rowing with the Wind (starring Hugh Grant and Liz Hurley) and Ivan Passer’s Haunted Summer (featuring Laura Dern and Alice Krige), both released in 1988. 2017’s Mary Shelley (starring Elle Fanning) would later return to these events as part of a broader look at the author’s life and work.

The 1990s kicked off with a cinematic adaptation of Brian Aldiss’s time-travelling tale Frankenstein Unbound (1990) starring John Hurt, Raul Julia, Bridget Fonda and Nick Brimble. The same year saw Tim Burton offered a different sort of vision of the tragic man-made man in Edward Scissorhands, more dark romance than gothic horror. Frankenstein’s influence can also be seen in Burton’s landmark 1993 stop-motion movie The Nightmare Before Christmas, with its mad scientist Dr Finklestein and his ragdoll creation Sally. Both follow an interest in the story that first manifest in his 1984 short Frankenweenie, which was given a full-length, stop-motion remake in 2012.

But it was Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 film Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that would introduce the story to a whole new generation of cinema-goers, with Branagh himself starring as Frankenstein alongside Robert De Niro as his tortured creation. As the title suggests, this adaptation was consciously true to Shelley’s original tale, and is still widely considered to be the most faithful film version.

2002 saw the introduction of a rather more cuddly incarnation of artificially created life with Disney’s animated Lilo & Stitch proving a massive hit. When an illegally created alien monster crash lands on Earth, he’s taken in as an abandoned puppy by lonely, eccentric orphan Lilo. Christened Stitch by his new “family”, the would-be destroyer follows the reverse trajectory to Mary Shelley’s monster, learning kindness and cooperation through love, rather than learning to hate his maker as a result of his rejection and lovelessness. It wouldn’t be the last kids’ film to incorporate elements of the story, with 2008’s Igor following a lab assistant who takes the monster-making mantle on himself. Then in 2012, Sony released the first of three (to date) Hotel Transylvania films, all featuring the Frankenstein’s monster-like couple Frank and Eunice.

Meanwhile, in the anime world, 1998’s Pokémon: The First Movie also offers a family-friendly version of the story with a happy ending. Genetically engineered from the DNA of an extinct creature in a secret island laboratory, the super powerful Mewtwo vows to avenge his mistreatment by his creators, but eventually gives up his vendetta against humanity after a group of plucky young trainers demonstrate their love for their Pokémon companions. This year, Detective Pikachu reintroduced the character of Mewtwo, this time in 3D CGI form.

Films like 2004’s Van Helsing and 2014’s I, Frankenstein took more liberties with the story, bringing Frankenstein’s monster together with demons, vampires and other creatures of the night in a way not dissimilar to the Hammer and Universal horror crossovers of the 40s, 50s and 60s.

Lately, films like Bernard Rose’s Frankenstein (2015) and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014) have brought the story up-to-date for the 21st century, drawing on current trends in science and technology. The former tells the story of a modern-day couple who bring to life Adam, a fully-grown, initially handsome young man (Xavier Samuel) with the mind of an infant, who develops deformities when his cells fail to replicate properly. While Ex Machina never directly references Frankenstein, its Pygmalion-like plot feels true to the spirit of Shelley’s story, eliciting sympathy for Ava (Alicia Vikander), an artificially intelligent and beautiful robot, who takes revenge on her exploitative creator, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), by manipulating a visiting programmer (Domhnall Gleeson).

On the other hand, 2015’s Victor Frankenstein adapted a more classic gothic aesthetic, tapping into contemporary steampunk and Victoriana trends. James McAvoy starred as the brilliant young scientist in this film, which focused more on his origins and relationship with Igor (Daniel Radcliffe), a clever hunchback whom he rescues from the circus that has enslaved him.

What might Mary Shelley might have made had she lived to see the weird and wonderful offspring that her strange story spawned? Could she have guessed that more than 200 years later, we’d still be constantly and almost unconsciously referencing her work? It’s almost impossible not to wonder…

Frankenstein shows at the Belgrade Theatre 2-12 October 2019. Tickets are available to book now.