Classic Horror Origins: Frankenstein’s Monster

The modern horror film can trace its roots back to the experimentation of German expressionist filmmaking in the second decade of the 20th century. The country’s filmmakers were especially influenced by the breakout of WWI in 1914. During the war, Berlin became isolated, and there was increased demand for locally produced films. A depressed national sentiment associated with the war as well the resulting sociological and economic impact on domestic life resulted in films that depicted human psychological distress, darkness, and surrealism. The birth of the horror genre came from the rejection of the romantic themes typically found in films of the time period. While there had been films with horror tendencies and plots made previously, it was the influence of these German expressionist filmmakers which helped to spark interest in the genre moving forward.

These German expressionist films may not be necessarily well-known today, but they were a major influence on Hollywood’s first major foray into horror, which helped to establish the genre in the mainstream. Starting with 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Universal Studios began what would later become an entire franchise devoted to darker, more sinister storylines (even if they had comical tones, at times). Today known as the Universal Classic Monsters, these films centered around fictional monsters, many of which had recurring roles over several films. Universal’s Classic Monsters franchise introduced American audiences to horror for the first time, and would help to establish many traits of the genre we recognize today. This month we are investigating the most prolific Universal Classic Monsters, reviewing their on and off-screen origins, and most memorable films. First up, we look at Frankenstein’s monster!

Character Origin:

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In Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, Frankenstein’s monster is the creation of Victor Frankenstein. Victor, fascinated with his studies in chemistry and science, figures out a way to reanimate dead organisms. Eventually his experiments culminate in creating a living human, only to find that his creation is grotesque and horrific, not a thing of beauty as he had imagined. The creature is intelligent, and tries to become friends with humans, but they are frightened and run away because of his looks. Frustrated with his condition, the creature takes out his anger on Frankenstein.  

Shelley was only 20 years old when the novel was published unanimously. The idea came from a number of different influences, including a nightmare and conversations she had on her travels as a teenager. She decided to write the novel when her friends began a competition to try and write the best horror story. In many circles, Mary’s novel is considered the first example of science fiction, and remains popular to this day.

Cinematic Origin:

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Due to the timeless popularity of Shelley’s novel (and its bold premise), it is easy to see why many adaptations were produced over the years. The first adaptations were several stage performances throughout the rest of the 19th century. The first film adaptation came from Edison Studios in 1910. However, the Edison Studios version attempted to remove many of the grotesque elements of Shelley’s novel. The 1915 lost silent film “Lost Without Soul” was also based on Shelley’s novel, adapting it for modern times. In 1920 an Italian version was released, but has also since been lost.

The definitive start to Frankenstein’s monster’s legacy in film was the 1931 Universal Studios Classic Monster film, Frankenstein. This film was actually based on a play, not Shelley’s novel directly. In the film,  Dr. Frankenstein is the quintessential mad scientist, who tries to create life from stolen dead body parts. The experiment is a success, but he mistakes the creature’s fear for menace, locking it away. This, of course, actually makes the creature confused and disoriented, which leads to anger. Despite many attempts to bring the creature down, he comes back to life, a hallmark of the monster (and a great trick to exploit for the sake of sequels!).     

Must-See Films:

Frankenstein’s Monster has appeared in 8 Universal Classic Monster films. The character has been a part of more than 20 additional sequels, remakes, and adaptations, making him not only one of the most recognizable and popular characters in horror, but in cinema in general. Of course, all of his films are not equal.

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The best Frankenstein films are the original trilogy with the monster played by Boris Karloff. Today the original Frankenstein is recognized as one of the finest horror movies ever made, and the continued interest in the story is due to this film’s resounding success. It was a hit in theaters, one of the biggest of the entire franchise, which certainly went a long way to greenlight more monster films out of Universal Studios. However, Frankenstein’s best film is arguably his second. In Bride of Frankenstein, Frankenstein is basically blackmailed into creating a mate for his monster, only to find that she is as terrified of the monster as everyone else. Bride of Frankenstein built on the success of the original film, as well as showcased everything the studio had learned about creating crowd-pleasing horror films up to that point in time. Both the original and sequel have earned a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. The sequel in particular is especially appreciated for the way it is able to get around the censors of its time to create a film that is effective on multiple levels. Son of Frankenstein (1939), the third film in the series, finds Dr. Frankenstein’s son resurrecting the monster in order to prove his father’s worth. It is appreciated for its campiness, excellent cast, impressive direction, and detailed set design.

But what is great about Frankenstein’s monster, or really any character that has been associated with so many films, is that there is a lot of variety. For example, Frankenstein’s monster is featured in a number of great comedies that should also be considered must-see. Through the 40’s and 50’s, Universal Studios was trying to find ways to prolong their Monsters franchise, and they began producing crossover films. One of those crossover films was 1948’s Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. By this time, Universal’s Classic Monster franchise was basically a parody of itself, and Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein is no exception, and it isn’t afraid to admit it. While far from Abbot and Costello’s best films, this film is still zany enough and endearing enough to work. Another fantastic Frankenstein’s monster comedy is, of course, Young Frankenstein (1974). Widely considered one of the most brilliant and iconic spoofs/satires of all time, Young Frankenstein is effective in mixing horror and comedy in a very unique way.     

For a more in-depth look at the history of Frankenstein in cinema, click here.

Check back in next week as we examine another Classic Horror Monster!