A User’s Guide to Frankenstein
Binge on more than candy this Halloween. Check this list of landmark Frankenstein films.
Anne Morra, Isabel Custodio
Oct 26, 2018
Two hundred years ago, in 1818, Mary Shelley published a novel about an idealistic young doctor who believed that, with dedication to his craft, he could reanimate the dead. Few stories have taken greater hold of the modern imagination than Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. Over two centuries, it has inspired countless plays, comics, and especially films.
In conjunction with our recent Hammer Horror series, we pulled together a list of some landmark Frankenstein films that should inspire you to binge on more than candy this year.
Created in 1910 by the Edison Company, this 16-minute silent film adaptation of Shelley’s novel stuck closely to her characterization of the Monster. Frankenstein’s creation is a primordial man with a hulking build and wild, curly hair, rather than the green-skinned creature with bolts in his neck we’ve come to know as a pop-culture icon. This film emphasized psychological terror over violence.
Universal Studios produced Frankenstein on the heels of its first foray into horror films, Tod Browning’s Dracula. Universal’s version shaped many of the later representations of the Monster and defined many of the elements that compose the horror genre in film. Director James Whale used shadows, high contrast, and sharp angles in the production design, and he recruited electrician Kenneth Strickfaden to develop machinery that would simulate a real, working laboratory. Boris Karloff played the Monster as a half-mechanical man with bolts in his neck, a lumbering, stiff gait, and a serious fear of fire.
Colin Clive’s Doctor, convinced of his own infallibility, exclaims that he knows what it is like to be god—a controversial statement that Hollywood censors wanted cut from the film.
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
The Bride of Frankenstein is the follow-up to Universal’s 1931 film. Rooted in subplots from the novel, this sequel is considered to be one of the most successful franchise sequels of all time. Elsa Lanchester joins the cast as The Bride, the first female Frankenstein creation to appear on screen. Despite mere minutes of screen time, her character—and hairdo—remain iconic in the horror canon.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Abbott and Costello join not only the Monster, but also Dracula and the Wolfman, in this epic comedy, in which two freight handlers get caught up in a spooky situation. Glenn Strange, who replaced Karloff as the Monster-in-residence, prepared for this famous role by training with his predecessor.
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
When England’s Hammer Productions launched their own Frankenstein series, the focus turned to the journey of the doctor. Peter Cushing portrays a relentlessly ambitious Dr. Frankenstein whose questionable ethics prompt the audience to wonder who the real monster is—the “creature” or the man who created it? Christopher Lee, who as Hammer’s Dracula became a horror icon in his own right, plays the Monster.
Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)
Frankenstein Created Woman played on the title of the popular film by Roger Vadim, God Created Woman, to introduce the world to Susan Denberg’s glamorous Monster. This film shows how far Peter Cushing’s Dr. Frankenstein will go to attain scientific knowledge; he is so eager to know whether the soul leaves the body after death that he puts himself in a death state for a whole hour.
The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)
The Spirit of the Beehive sees Frankenstein’s monster through the eyes of a child. This drama takes place in Spain, just after Franco’s takeover. Ana, the young protagonist, sees the 1931 Frankenstein and wonders why the Monster would attack a little girl. Overwhelmed, she begins to wonder if the Monster lurks closer to home than anyone suspects.
Young Frankenstein (1974)
Mel Brooks brought together some of the greatest comedic voices of the 1970s to turn Frankenstein on its head. In typical Mel Brooks fashion, the gags come a mile a minute in this parody. He repeats jokes throughout, and places the Monster in situations no one ever assumed he could go before—including a tops-and-tails performance of “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Young Frankenstein includes many visual references to the early Universal films, such as filming in black and white and using Strickfaden’s original machinery in the lab.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
With a little makeup, fishnets, and just a step to the right, The Rocky Horror Picture Show claimed a Frankenstein narrative all its own. The film reimagined the Monster as an Adonis-like figure named Rocky, and the doctor as Frank-N-Furter, a “sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania.” The tank used to birth Rocky had appeared in the Hammer film The Revenge of Frankenstein in 1958.
Rocky Horror famously encourages audience participation. Its cult following uses a script of responses to yell at the screen during the film’s songs and memorable pieces of dialogue.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)
Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation sticks closely to Shelley’s novel. Robert De Niro stars as the Monster, who, in this version, eloquently meditates on the meaning of life. “Yes, I speak, and read, and think, and know the ways of man…," he reflects. "What of my soul? Do I have one? What of these people of which I am composed?”
For more on Frankenstein, check out our How To See episode highlighting the Hammer Horror series.
How To See: Frankenstein