Let’s talk about sewing body parts together. Let’s grab the other necessary elements: a hunchback, an abnormal brain, lightning and really big shoes. And for dessert, let’s add some angry villagers carrying pitchforks and torches. Sounds like dozens of movies that we have all seen, dozen it?
Yet, how much do we really know about this creature?
We begin with a definition of terms. The Monster is not called Frankenstein. Frankenstein was the man who created the Monster, who should be referred to as Frankenstein’s Monster. Splitting hairs, you say? Ladies and Gentlemen, I present Vincent Furnier. Currently, he goes by the moniker Alice Cooper. However, when started, the band he was fronting was called Alice Cooper, not the singer. He later adopted the name for himself.
So, yes, it makes a difference.
Mary Shelley, wife of poet Percy Shelley, published a book, in 1818 called “Frankenstein, or a Modern Prometheus.” For those of you Greek Mythology fans, Prometheus not only created man but also gave them fire. This pissed off Zeus, the King of the Gods. He took Prometheus, chained him to a mountain top and had an eagle eat his liver every day. The liver would grow back every night so the eagle could dine again in the morning. Harsh!
So, the book is more about the man as creator, rather than the Monster he created.
On the whole, the book is a bit boring. It is required reading (I had to read it for a class on the Faust Legend in college). But as a fan of horror, like “Dracula”, the book should be on your shelf.
As a kid, there were ads in comic books that allowed one to buy a Super 8 (8mm) version of classic horror films. One was billed as the “Original Frankenstein”, referring to the 1931 Boris Karloff feature. In later years, I found this to be wrong. During the silent era, there not only was a “Frankenstein”, but also two “franchises”, if you will, that mirrored the Monster.
1910. Georges Melies reign is starting to wane. The lessons learned from France are now being applied and improved in America. The Wizard of Menlo Park, Thomas Edison, was now making movies. This year, he turned his attention to the Mary Shelley novel and did his best to film the story. Charles Ogle was cast in the role of the monster. The film lasted sixteen minutes. In that time, a monster was created and destroyed and the humans around them were forever changed.
A few notes about the film. There is only one complete print in existence. It is actually owned by a collector in the Philadelphia area. He has put the film on DVD and it is sometimes available on ebay. It can also be seen on YouTube. In a scene that would have made Melies proud, the creature was born of fire. We watch as a fire rages and the monster comes into form. The filmmaker took a dummy and set it on fire until it burned completely. He then ran the scene backwards. For the time, it was groundbreaking.
In 1915, “Life without Soul” was filmed. It, too, was based on Shelley’s work. The film is completely lost.
Meanwhile, in Germany, soulless life was being created all over the place. In 1914, the first of Paul Wegener’s “Der Golem” series was film. The Golem is clay creature created by a Rabbi to protect the people of his village. As is always the case, the creature runs amok, doing more harm than good. Although, not a direct descendant of Frankenstein, the story, which is part of Jewish folklore, bears some resemblance. The 1920 version, once again starring Wegener, is available on YouTube and on DVD through KINO.
Also in Germany was the film “Alraune”. In this case, a soulless woman is grown from a ginger plant. Filmed several times between 1918 and 1952, the most available version is the 1928 version, starring Brigitte Helm, who you may remember as Maria in “Metropolis”. This can also be found on YouTube.
1931. Universal has decided to make Frankenstein. Let’s look at the drama. No, not the movie but the casting. I was brought up with the concept that Bela Lugosi was offered the role of the Monster, but was advised to turn it down as his agent felt that it wouldn’t advance his career. Let’s turn to Wikipedia. Apparently, Lugosi was given the role of the Monster. But under director, Robert Florey, the makeup made Lugosi look like the Golem, and the script had the Monster be nothing more than a killing machine. Lugosi was very unhappy. It appears that both Lugosi and Florey were removed from the project and James Whale took over the film. Whale changed the character of the Monster and brought in Boris Karloff to fill the role. The rest is history.
Of course, Karloff was a secret. If you note the opening credits, the role of the Monster is given to question marks. His name appears on the ending credits.
1935. Karloff is in the makeup again with Elsa Lanchester as “The Bride of Frankenstein.” Colin Clive returns as Dr. Victor Frankenstein, while Mae Clarke, his bride and best known for receiving a half of a grapefruit in the face from James Cagney in “Public Enemy,” was too ill to reprise her role. The start of the film shows Lord Byron and Percy Shelley discussing the book with Mary Shelley, who, by the by, is portrayed by Elsa Lanchester. From there, we are given the search for female bodies to create a mate for the Monster.
James Whale’s direction, the script, the makeup, the cast, everything that goes with this film, makes it one of the best horror movies of all time. It is also on many lists of best movies ever. To give details of the film would be criminal. If you have not seen this film, do so by all means!
1939 to 1948. Universal holds the character in the palm of its hand. After the ban on horror films was lifted in the United Kingdom, the horror movie unit reopened and Frankenstein (and Dracula) rose from the cinematic dead. Karloff would end his time as the Monster in “Son of Frankenstein” (1939), with Basil Rathbone (right before he would make his mark as Sherlock Holmes). Lon Chaney Jr. would play the Monster in “The Ghost of Frankenstein” (1942). Bela Lugosi would finally play the role in the 1943 film “Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man,” with Lon Chaney, Jr. reprising his role of the Wolf Man (1941). The last three films of the era, “House of Frankenstein” (1944), “House of Dracula” (1945), and “Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein” (1948), would all have Glenn Strange as the Monster.
1957 to 1974. Rule Britannia. Hammer Studios, who was making headway with its line of Dracula films, decided that Frankenstein could be added to its stable. After all, Mary Shelley was British, why shouldn’t the movies about the Monster come from Britain? But differing from the US versions, the British stories focus more on Dr. Frankenstein, rather than the monster. Peter Cushing would star in six of the seven films for the period, with seven different actors interpreting the Monster. Most notable is Christopher Lee portraying the Monster in 1957’s “Curse of Frankenstein”.
The rest of films would slowly devolve into the same pattern that would end the Dracula series, with the 1969 “Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed” and the last feature, the 1974 film “Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell.”
The Frankenstein Monster would be as prevalent as Dracula in the US. In 1957, Gary Conway would trade his good looks for “I Was a Teenage Frankenstein”. In 1958, Boris Karloff would appear as Dr. Frankenstein in “Frankenstein 1970.” In the same year, there is “Frankenstein’s Daughter”, who would appear again in “Jesse James meets Frankenstein’s Daughter” (1966). “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein” was be paired with his version of Dracula in 1973. This film deals, in many ways, with the question of what is innocence, as Dr. Frankenstein’s children are an integral part of the story. The telemovie, “Frankenstein, the True Story,” would appear in the same year. A period piece that tried to follow the novel a bit closer, but not too close. Handsome Michael Sarrazin, played the Monster, whose body deteriorates as the film goes on, a bit of a Dorian Gray spin on the story. Also that year, like “Blacula,” the black exploitation film “Blackenstein”, would premier.
Frankenstein would go international during this time, as well. Mexico would offer “The Hell of Frankenstein” in 1960. In 1965, Japan would throw its at in the ringu, by making Frankenstein a giant in “Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster” and “Frankenstein Conquers the World”. Paul Naschy would portray a werewolf who turns for help from a Dr. Frankenstein type, who wants to turn him into a vampire in Spain’s entry, the confusing “Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror” (1968). Italy would throw in “Lady Frankenstein” (1971) with Joseph Cotten, in the twilight of his career, as Baron Frankenstein.
Finishing out the period, Mel Brooks would direct the hilarious “Young Frankenstein”, in 1974. This was in the midst of Brooks’ most creative period. Putting together a cast of Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Terri Garr and Peter Boyle, he beautifully spoofed the series, filming the movie in black and white and renting the original lab equipment from the 1931 Frankenstein, which does include a Tesla coil built by Tesla himself. Peter Boyle, who was not known for his comedic chops, was a great choice. Uncredited was Gene Hackman, who played the Blind Hermit with such bad aim. The film, like “The Producers”, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Writing, in this case, by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks. As a matter of fact, in an interview, Gene Wilder only agreed to do the film if Mel Brooks didn’t star in it.
1981 onward. John Carradine would play Dr. Frankenstein in “Frankenstein Island” (1981). In 1984, Disney would ask Tim Burton to do a film based on Frankenstein. He created the live action short film, “Frankenweenie”, with Shelley Duvall, Daniel Stern and Barrett Oliver. A cringing Disney Studios thanked him and put the film on the shelf for a number of years, finally releasing it, then having it remade via animation in 2012. Big name stars would get into the picture with “The Bride” (1985) starring Sting as Dr. Frankenstein, “Frankenstein Unbound” (1990) with Raul Julia as the Monster, “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” (1994) with Robert DeNiro as the Monster and “Frankenstein” (2011) from the National Theatre (England) directed by Danny Boyle (28 Days Later) and starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Also filmed is the hilarious “Frankenhooker” (1990), which is a favorite of mine, along with other stories of “Frankenstein’s Army” (2013), “I, Frankenstein” (2014), and many more.
And there will be more, many more. As time goes on, the Frankenstein Monster will be a continuing staple of the horror genre. With his heavy boots and outstretched arms, he comes out of the dark to scare the crap out of us. Let’s hope it will always be that way.
Thanks to Wikipedia and IMDB, the two best sources for historical articles like this. My own DVD library, which includes the 1910 Edison film and the Legacy collection of the Universal films, has been a help as well. I really need to find a DVD of Frankenhooker for my library.