Looking Back on the Long Film History of Frankenstein

The Frankenstein Monster was the invention of 18 year old Mary Shelly (wife of poet Percy Shelly) who was vacationing in Switzerland with her husband, their close friend Lord Byron and John Polidori. Incessant rain left them housebound and reading ghost stories to each other. This led to a challenge from Byron, daring them all to create the scariest story ever told. Mary Shelly seemed outclassed by her literary companions until she heard legends of a crazy scientist named Conrad Dipple who performed illegal experiments using parts of dead bodies and electricity.

Ideas began to click in her head and soon she fleshed out the idea for a horror story which so impressed the others that they encouraged her to expand it to book length. This was the genesis for her famous 1818 novel “Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus“. It’s a common error that most people call the monster Frankenstein, but that’s not accurate. Frankenstein is the name of the doctor, not the monster. The monster itself really has no name but is generally referred to as simply “the Monster.”

The first time the Monster haunted the big screen was in a 12 minute long, silent 1910 short film produced by Thomas Edison studios, starring Charles Ogle as the first screen Monster (the irony of inventor Edison making a film that warned about the dangers of science was likely lost on audiences of the time). Despite its limitation in length and budget, it was a fairly good cliffnotes adaptation of the novel.

The first sound version of the story is far and away the most popular version of the story (many would say it’s the best version) and has achieved a legendary status among horror films. Universal Studio’s classic Frankenstein (1931) recreated the Frankenstein story, becoming the most familiar retelling of Shelly’s tale and introducing the famous physical appearance that we still associate with the creature today. When horror star Bela Lugosi made the error of passing on the part (He didn’t want to play a role where he was covered in make-up and had no dialogue) the career-making role was handed to then-unknown British actor Henry Pratt, better known to the world as Boris Karloff. This was the beginning of Karloff’s long reign as the king of horror.

Make-up artist Jack Pierce designed the distinctive appearance of the monster which has since become his trademark look, and James Whale directed. Colin Clive played the obsessed Doctor Frankenstein. Karloff gave a wonderfully emotional pantomime performance as the confused and lonely but not evil monster.

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The moody film was a colossal hit for Universal Studios and it turned Boris Karloff into an overnight superstar. Although very mild by today’s standards, it was controversial back then for its violence (particularly the scene where the Monster tosses a little girl into a lake to drown, which had to be edited out of the theatrical cut.) This movie actually came with a pre-credits disclaimer, warning people with a delicate nature of the scariness they were about to witness.

The immense success of Frankenstein ensured that a sequel would inevitably follow. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) picked up where the first film ended. Again directed by James Whale, the two combine films tell a complete story which is faithful to the spirit of the Shelly novel, with some notable changes. Many people see the Bride of Frankenstein as superior to the excellent original, due to its dark humor, although most fans look at both as one complete two-part tale. Karloff got to speak this time around, and the world was introduced to the monster’s bride (Played by Elsa Lanchester.) As in the first movie, the Monster is seemingly killed at the end, but we all know better than that. A good monster never stays dead.

Karloff played the monster for the third and final time in The Son of Frankenstein (1939), where Doctor Frankenstein’s son Wolf (Basil Rathbone) is manipulated by evil hunchback Igor (Wonderfully played by Bela Lugosi) into re-powering the weak monster. Once its strength is returned to it, the Monster becomes Igor’s assassin and begins killing Igor’s enemies. Wolf realizes his mistake too late. This was a pretty good follow up to ‘Bride’ (mostly due to Lugosi, who steals the show) but it isn’t without its detractors.

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Karloff himself was one of those detractors. He was unhappy with the script of Son of Frankenstein because the Monster didn’t talk and had little motivation except to obey Igor. Karloff felt that the monster was becoming a prop in its own franchise. Thus, Karloff refused to ever play the role ever again and he stuck to his edict.

Still, even the loss of Karloff didn’t stop Universal from continuing the Franchise. They simply recast the role in the fourth installment, the Ghost of Frankenstein (1942). This time another big horror star took on the role. Lon Chaney Jr. (Best known for playing the Wolfman) wore the monster make up, making Chaney the only actor to ever have the honor of playing Frankenstein’s Monster, Count Dracula, the Wolfman and the Mummy. Cedric Hardwicke played yet another son of Doctor Frankenstein, again manipulated by Igor (Lugosi) into treating the Monster. Lovely Scream Queen Evelyn Ankers played Hardwick’s daughter Elsa, and grand-daughter of the original Doctor Frankenstein. At the end, in a twist that could have been interesting had it been followed up on in future films, Igor’s brain is put into the Monster’s body but he goes blind before being killed yet again. Temporarily.

The box office was weaker than expected for the admittedly mediocre Ghost of Frankenstein (the Horror genre was weakening during World War Two when people weren’t looking for more horror, preferring comedies instead) which led Universal to begin a series of Monster-Mash franchise cross-overs, teaming up all their most popular monsters. (This originated the concept of the shared film universe.)


The first monster-mash cross-over was Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943). Since Lon Chaney was needed to play the Wolfman, the Monster was recast. Bela Lugosi, having realized the error of his ways due to a career slump, decided to take on the role he had once turned down.

Many people criticize Lugosi’s stiff-limbed, lumbering interpretation of the monster which would, sadly, become the standard for the Monster in future films. However, what most viewers don’t know is that the film was heavily edited in post-production and the studio deleted all references to the blindness that had afflicted the monster in the previous film. Lugosi played the monster as being blind and thus clumsy, feeling his way around, but when all references to that blindness were bizarrely cut from the final version, the result made Lugosi’s interpretation of the Monster look ridiculous. Sadly, no copy of the original director’s cut still exists.

It’s a shame that the plot set up in the previous film about Igor’s cunning, sadistic brain being put into the Monster’s powerful body was ignored, because it could have created a whole new paradigm and an entirely different direction for the weakening franchise. Sadly, this is a classic missed opportunity. Despite the edits, the film was a big hit and fans enjoyed seeing the Monster grapple with the Wolfman. Patrick Knowles played the requisite misguided scientist and Ilona Massey took up the role of Elsa (Which Evelyn Ankers had played in Ghost of Frankenstein.)

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The next monster mash was The House of Frankenstein (1945) which not only brought back Chaney as the Wolf Man, but also Dracula played by John Carradine. Boris Karloff returned to the Franchise but not as the Monster, rather as mad scientist Doctor Neiman. The role of the Monster was taken up by Glen Strange who would be Universal’s go-to guy for the Monster from then on. While the film focused mostly on the Wolf Man, the mad scientist and a hunchback named Daniel (not Quasimodo), leaving Dracula and the Monster with little to do, it was still fun to see them all together for the first time.

The House of Dracula (1945) was the next monster cross-over, again featuring Chaney as the Wolfman, Carradine as Dracula and Strange as the Monster. It was rushed out the same year as ‘House of Frankenstein’ but was poorer in quality. The Frankenstein Monster had very little to do in either of the monster-crossovers, spending most of his time inert and awaiting a charge. Karloff’s prediction that the monster would be reduced to a mere prop had finally been realized. The film didn’t do very well and began the end for the Universal franchise.

The final monster-mash cross-over was the uproariously funny horror parody Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1947) which featured not only the popular comedy duo, but also Chaney and Strange as the Wolfman and the Frankenstein Monster. Bela Lugosi recreated his most famous role as Dracula, marking the second and final time he would ever play his trademark role. This was the end of the Universal Studios reign as the sole makers of Frankenstein movies but the door was now opened for others to give the Monster a retelling. 


Hammer Film Studios in England, known as much as Universal Studios was for making horror films, took their turn at adapting Shelly’s story. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) featured their popular duo of horror stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Cushing and Lee frequently worked together, making many successful horror films. In this adaptation, Lee played the Monster and Cushing was a more evil version of Doctor Frankenstein than we’d ever seen before. It was a very atmospheric film with a small cast but done very effectively.

The success of Curse of Frankenstein inspired Hammer to do a Frankenstein franchise with a unique twist. The subsequent films would not be about the iconic monster but rather about the insane Doctor Frankenstein (malevolently played by Cushing in each) creating a different monster in each installment. The sequels were The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958); The Evil of Frankenstein (1964);  Frankenstein Created Woman (1966);  Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969); The Horror of Frankenstein (1970), with Dave Prowse (Only seven years before he played Darth Vader in the Star Wars films) as the Monster. And finally Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1973). Cushing was excellent throughout the whole series. (Like Prowse, Cushing would also have a part in Star Wars.)

Several films unrelated to Frankenstein or his Monster also came out, utilizing the name and nothing else from Shelly. For instance, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957) and Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965), had no connection to Mary Shelly’s characters. The terrible Frankenstein’s Daughter (1959), and the even worse Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966) as well as the campy, silly Japanese Kaiju film Frankenstein Conquers the World (1966) had only vague, contrived connections to the Frankenstein legend.

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Boris Karloff made two last forays into the realm of Frankenstein, but not as the Monster. Firstly, he appeared in Frankenstein: 1970 (1958) as another mad scientist of the Frankenstein line (who seem unable to learn a lesson) and lastly in the cute supermarionation film the Mad Monster Party (1967) with Karloff doing the voice of Doctor Frankenstein as he hosts a monster party for Dracula, the Wolfman, the Mummy, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Invisible Man, the Hunchback, Jekyll & Hyde, the Frankenstein Monster and his Bride and even King Kong. If you like supermarionation, this is harmless family fun.

The dreadful, ultra-low budget Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971) filmed in Sweden, was a laughable attempt to recreate the monster cross-overs of the past. It failed. Sadly, this mess was Lon Chaney Jr’s last film. Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder made the hilarious horror parody Young Frankenstein (1974) which brilliantly skewered the old Universal Frankenstein films. Peter Boyle played the Monster and Wilder was Doctor Frankenstein’s nephew Frederick Frankenstein (Which he pronounced Fronk-In-Steen). Marty Feldman was terrific as Igor (Pronounced Eye-gore.)

A good reworking of The Bride of Frankenstein was The Bride (1986) starring Clancy Brown as the Monster, Sting as an evil Doctor Frankenstein and Jennifer Beals as the beautiful Bride he creates for the monster but then decides to keep for himself. This film continued the Peter Cushing style of portraying the doc as the real villain, instead of the monster.


Frankenstein Unbound (1990) was an interesting but ultimately forgettable attempt by Roger Corman (A top horror director of the 50s and 60s) to retell the Frankenstein story. John Hurt played a scientist from the future who is accidentally thrust back to the past where he meets Dr. Frankenstein (Raul Julia), has a romance with Mary Shelly (Bridget Fonda) and ultimately finds himself battling the Frankenstein Monster.

Shakespearean star Kenneth Branagh tried his hand at the Frankenstein legend with Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (1994) a very faithful adaptation of the original Shelly novel. Branagh played the well-intentioned but ill-fated Doctor Frankenstein, and Robert De Niro portrayed the Monster. This was an ambitious and visually artful take on the oft-told tale, sticking closer to the book than most.

Van Helsing (2004) was a lively but ill-conceived monster-mash featuring not only the Frankenstein Monster, but also Dracula and the Wolfman. Hugh Jackman played the monster-hunting hero Van Helsing as a proto-James Bond. The film unwisely tried to turn what should have been a horror film into an action movie, and it failed to capture the interest of monster fans. I, Frankenstein (2014) made the same misstep in trying to focus on action over mood and tone. Despite having the talented Aaron Eckhart in the role of the Monster, the film was a critical and box office disaster. It was based on a comic book that was much better.

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And that brings us to Victor Frankenstein. At this point, it is poorly rated (34% on Metacritic, 20% on Rotten Tomatoes) and is sinking at the box office, having made only a million dollars on its premier day, with little chance of recouping its $40 million production costs. There are several problems with this film, all of which can probably be traced back to these comments about the original source material by the film’s director Paul McGuigan, who said that in his version, “There’s not a reverence to the book. I sometimes think people are over-reverent to the book.” He adds, “It’s dull as dishwater, in my opinion.” Well, it’s a huge problem when you ask someone to adapt something he has no regard for. If he’s trying to stray far from the original material, which he doesn’t respect, it creates a massive disconnect with the fans who have expectations about these characters and the story of Frankenstein.     

Despite McGuigan’s opinion, “Frankenstein: the Modern Prometheus” is a terrific story which has stood the test of time, and the monster, in all his varied incarnations, continues to fascinate viewers. He’s had his cinematic triumphs and failures. Since Universal is in the process of making their own new shared universe (which began with Dracula Untold) we can expect to see another version of the Monster in the next few years.

The Frankenstein Monster never dies. He always comes back. Let’s hope his next return is better than Victor Frankenstein.