On a dark stormy night in 1818, a teenage girl wrote one of the most influential pieces of fiction in history.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has always appealed to movie makers – what better source material could a studio ask for than a recognisable, public domain horror icon? Ripe for appealing to audience’s desire for horror and tragedy, Frankenstein and his monster have appeared in scores of adaptations (Wikipedia alone lists 55). To celebrate 200 years since the novel debuted, we look at some of the best (and worst) Hollywood has to offer.
Films don’t come much more iconic than James Whale’s Frankenstein.
Frankenstein isn’t the most faithful adaptation by a long shot. It can’t even claim to be the first, not by a good 21 years (take a bow, 1910 silent film). But nonetheless, every shot of it drips with imagery that would go on to define countless other horrors. Jack Pierce’s stupendously iconic flat-headed monster makeup is still an instant shorthand for the Creature. Colin Clive’s elated, blasphemous cries of “It’s alive!” have inspired hundreds of imitations in countless adaptations and parodies. The crumbling castle, the sinister laboratory, the hunched assistant, the baying mob – if Frankenstein didn’t originate them then it certainly immortalised them.
However, it’s in Boris Karloff’s revelatory performance that the jumble of stolen body parts truly comes to life. The weary, hollow-eyed pathos that Karloff brings to the role is unequalled, offering 1931 audiences one of cinema’s first truly pitiable monsters. Purists decry the decision to swap the loquacious, eloquent creature of the books for a moaning, shambling monster who cannot speak. But Karloff does more with those sad, hollow eyes than most actors can do with pages of dialogue, and it’s a choice that makes perfect sense for the film.
Made for $262,007 (that’s almost $4,000,000 in today’s money), the film was a monster hit, grossing $12,000,000 ($180,000,000), saving the studio from bankruptcy and proving that Universal were Blumhousing horror movies decades before it was cool. Sequels were inevitable, but the original has never been bettered (and probably never will be – until Guillermo del Toro gets his act together and drops than Frankenstein movie we all know he has within him).
Young Frankenstein (1974)
Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein certainly wasn’t the Creature’s first foray into comedy – the Monster became a figure of fun decades earlier in the successful Abbot and Costello Meet… movies of the 40s, which saw the famous comedy duo running into Universal Studio’s stable of classic monsters – but its arguably the best.
A loving pastiche of old Universal creature features, the film follows Gene Wilder’s Frederick Frankenstein (it’s pronounced “Fronk-en-steen”), the grandson of the famous doctor who’s none too keen to accept his family legacy. Returning to his ancestral estate in Transylvania, Frankenstein soon finds himself drawn back into his grandfather’s work, with help from weird new pal Igor (it’s pronounced Eye-gore) and busty lab assistant Inga.
It’s sheer joy for any fan of classic horror, seeing familiar tropes referenced, plot points from James Whale’s classic lovingly mocked (Igor’s mistaking a brain marked Abnormal as ‘Abbie Normal’ and the hermit scene are particular highlights) and Mel Brooks’ trademark silliness permeating every scene. Frankenstein learns to love his creature (“This is a nice boy. This is a good boy! This is a mother’s angel!”) and in one of cinema’s most iconic comedic scenes, the duo performing Puttin’ on the Ritz in top hats and tails to impress the baying villagers. Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth, rather than being unceremoniously murdered, falls for the Creature and acquires her own Elsa Lanchester Bride of Frankenstein hair-do in the process. With a musical adaptation currently enjoying a successful revival on the West End stage, Young Frankenstein remains one of the most beloved adaptations.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is what we in the business call ‘a Hot Mess™’. Sir Kenneth Branagh twists every crackling electrode up to 11 as he directs and stars in this extremely self-indulgent adaptation, proving that just because you can do both, doesn’t mean you should.
Although frequently cited as one of the most faithful adaptations, Frankenstein is also so clearly a vanity project for Kenneth Branagh . Frankenstein zips around his laboratory throwing switches and pulling levers, golden locks flowing and shirt absolutely nowhere to be seen because this is Kenneth Branagh’s movie, dammit. When the monster finally shudders into life, Frankenstein stares in horror at what he’s done…after the two indulge in a prolonged and oily wrestling match, of course. Fiancée Elizabeth – murdered by a simple strangulation in the novel – now has her heart ripped out, falls face-first into a glass bowl and catches on fire. A distraught KenBran repeatedly kisses her lifeless corpse with the kind of frenzied zeal that would make a silent film actor cringe.
Of course, it’s not all bad – Robert De Niro as the monster, despite not quite hiding his Fuhged-About-It New York accent, is suitably hideous and for the most part sympathetic. Our hearts break for him as the lonely creature finally discovers a friend in Richard Brier’s kindly old blind hermit, only to have it snatched away at the last minute by something as mundane as simple human mistrust. But at the end of the day, you just can’t keep 1990s Kenneth Branagh down, and the film soon collapses under its own silliness.
I, Frankenstein (2014)
Like Joel Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera a decade earlier, the brave creative minds behind fantasy-action schlock I, Frankenstein dared to dream the impossible dream: “What if this notoriously hideous literary character was…a hottie?”.
Picking up from the novel’s end, in which Victor and the Monster pursue each other across the Arctic, the film begins with the immortal Creature now navigating modern times. What has he been up to since his creator died some 200 years ago, you ask? Well, apparently doing abdominal crunches and working on his sick blade skills. The Creature, known as Adam, is now a square-jawed hunk, whose scars were evidently slapped on to his shredded abs at the last minute when the makeup team suddenly remembered he was supposed to be a reanimated corpse. Requisite hoodie and cool-guy fingerless gloves acquired, Frankenhunk reluctantly teams up with a gargoyle queen played by Miranda “I am no man!” Otto and her soldiers to fight a demon prince played by Bill Nighy, save the world, and perhaps earn a soul in the process.
Based on the comic by Underworld creator Kevin Grevioux, the film was originally intended to crossover with the aforementioned leatherclad vamp ‘verse. Sadly (or perhaps mercifully), a low box office return and a critical mauling saw I, Frankenstein become Bye, Frankenstein.
Victor Frankenstein (2015)
2015’s Victor Frankenstein waves more red flags than Enjolras at a bullfighting match. Written by Max Landis (flag), the film opens with a sombre voiceover promising that this “isn’t the story you know” (flag). The monster is relegated to a mere footnote (ENORMOUS BILLOWING FLAG) as we’re instead treated to an origin story exploring the relationship between Frankenstein and his assistant Igor, an indelible part of the Frankenstein mythos despite not existing in the novel. Frankenstein rescues the nameless hunchback (Daniel Radcliffe) from his cruel masters at the circus, taking him home and christening the man Igor after Frankenstein’s absentee roommate. Igor 2.0, luckily both fine with being named like a stray pet and an expert in human anatomy, agrees to helps Victor with his weird science experiments – all while dodging the attentions of Andrew Scott’s sniffily suspicious Inspector Turpin.
Clearly taking its cues from both the Robert Downey Jr Sherlock Holmes and the BBC series (Rude Genius/Put-upon Sidekick, Onscreen Mind Palace Silliness, Slow-Mo Martial Arts Action) the film struggles to make us care about the duo’s supposed friendship. This is problematic, as it’s the film’s USP and the entire reason we aren’t getting a fun couple of hours with the Creature instead. Radcliffe presents a grounded, sympathetic Igor, but James McAvoy’s obnoxious Victor leaves nary a scrap of scenery unchewed, and you wonder why Igor would bother to stick around with this creep.
If nothing else, Victor Frankenstein can at least be commended for returning the sense of sheer ickiness to tale. Frankenstein hasn’t had Igor home for two minutes before he’s diagnosed the hunch on his back as a cyst, sucking the pus out of it like he’s siphoning petrol at a roadside. – and the duo’s first creation is the repulsive Gordon, a gooey, fly-infested chimp-monster. For all its flaws, the film gleefully reminds us that bodies are gross and weird, and putting one together would be a nasty business.
So, what’s next? The fate of the next planned Frankenstein, part of Universal’s much-maligned Dark Universe, seems to be in flux. Back in May, an Instagram post from concept artist Robert Vargas promised “monster things in the works”, offering a glimmer of hope that maybe the franchise will rise from the dead. Whatever the form, you can be sure that cinema’s most enduring monster will be back before long.