Frankenstein: A History of the Monster

… or Frankenstein’s Monster to be precise. The Monster is infinitely more famous than the man who gave him life, Baron von Frankenstein, or the woman who created the story, Mary Shelley.

With I, Frankenstein due out January 29th, we thought we’d do a potted history of Frankenstein’s Monster on film: from the legendary Karloff, to Star Wars’ Dave Prowse, Clancy Brown, Bobby de Niro and soon, a turn by Aaron Eckhardt. We’ll focus purely on the movies here, but there will be a passing nod to the Monster in comics, such as his appearance in the Creature Commandos.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Let’s go back to first principles though. If your most memorable recollection of the Monster is Boris Karloff’s iconic turn as the lumbering bolt-neck assembloid, it’s worth pointing out how wide of the mark that portrayal was in relation to the source material. In Shelley’s magnum opus, the Monster (referred to also as the Wretch, the Creature and the Beast), was much, much more.

After he was created, the Monster unsurprisingly went into hiding following the revelation that every time he saw a human they were usually followed by a pack of others brandishing burning torches and pitchforks. As his self awareness kicked in, he learned English and even read the classics of the day. Finally, the Monster hatched a very calculated plan of vengeance against the Baron, who had abandoned the Monster in his hour of need to his ghastly existence. Embarking on a European tour, the Monster set about killing the Baron’s little brother, framing his best friend for that murder and killing his new wife. Not quite the slow dumb giant we are used to.

Karloff’s Definitive Creation

That said Karloff’s turn is still the most memorable and his look was so iconic that it has been copied repeatedly. Karloff often referred to Frankenstein’s Monster as “the dear old boy”. His first turn in the role was in the 1931 film, Frankenstein. It’s worth noting that both John Carradine and Bela Lugosi turned the role down beforehand.

Karloff's Definitive Monster

Karloff’s Definitive Monster

Of all the mythology surrounding Karloff in the role, my favourite is this: during the film the Monster encounters a young girl throwing flowers into a pond. The monster joins her in the activity but soon runs out of flowers. At a loss for something to throw into the water, he grabs the girl and hurls her into the lake, departing in confusion when she fails to float as the flowers had done. In all American prints of the movie, this scene was deleted because the censors objected to the violent end of the little girl. This scene is restored in the DVD reissue.

Karloff’s fate was sealed – all the roles he performed after that, including as the Mummy or Fu Manchu was overshadowed – he was the Monster forever. Of his 205 cinematic roles, Karloff went on to make only two Frankenstein sequels as the Monster (Bride of Franksenstein and Son of Frankenstein).

Our Monstrous Picks

Currently, there are over 200 Frankenstein related movie titles. From that mega-list we picked these memorable versions of the Monster:

  • Robert de Niro plays a Monster that is closer to the book opposite Kenneth Branagh’s Baron in the 1994 film Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This film was also directed by Branagh and was much more of a theatrical affair, with a very erudite Monster scripted with plenty of dialogue – probably the truest representation of the literary work to date. In truth, this is probably why it bombed at the cinema.
  • Peter Boyle plays the Monster to Gene Wilder’s Baron and Marty Feldman’s bug-eyed Igor in Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedy Young Frankenstein, which in my mind is still probably the funniest thing Brooks has done outside of Blazing Saddles.
  • Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943): Bela Lugosi finally played the role he turned down in 1931, only to be completely outshone by Lon Chaney Jnr.’s Wolfman in one of the better Universal Studios team-ups. The film was bulk produced during the B-movie Golden Age of the Second World War.
  • My personal favourite Frankenstein’s Monster film is Budd Abbott Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). This film saw Bud and Lou up against The Monster (this time personified by Glenn Strange), Lugosi’s Dracula and Chaney’s Wolfman. Still hilariously funny today, watch it all the way to the end to see (or not) Vincent Price’s Invisible Man!
  • Peter Cushing  played the Baron (or Professor) Frankenstein several times. Hammer’s 1973 effort, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell was one of the better efforts. It also starred a pre-Vader David Prowse as the Monster.
  • Another Hammer film, 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein , saw Peter Cushing return as Frankenstein, opposite Christopher Lee as the Monster. Clearly Lee was filling a gap between playing the Fanged Wonder in multiple films!
  • Probably the best television movie interpretation, House of Frankenstein (1997), saw the Monster, Wolfman and Dracula come together in modern day California. An unknown Peter Crombie played the Monster, but star turns from Adrian Pasdar (Near Dark, Heroes) and CCH Pounder (Warehouse 13) make this a compelling tale with a great ending that left you wanting more.
  • Bride of Frankenstein

    Bride of Frankenstein

  • The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) was Karloff’s second turn as the Monster. In it, he is completely outshone by Elsa Lanchester who actually plays a character called Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who becomes the Mate for the Monster. Like Karloff, Lanchester’s look for the role became instantly iconic. Her Black hair with streaks of white was much copied over the decades. The Bride of Frankenstein was more of an attempt to stay closer to the book than the original Frankenstein. In Shelley’s story the Baron builds the Bride and then destroys her in fear of the two creating a superhuman race, which only makes the Monster angrier. That said, having the Bride fall in love with the Baron instead of the Monster made for an interesting love triangle.
  • The Bride (1985): Forget those brooding shots of Sting and the completely ridiculous situation of producing a ravishing Bride in the form of Flashdance’s Jennifer Beales. What made this film for me was Clancy Brown’s (Highlander) portrayal of the Monster (actually called Viktor) and his growing friendship with the dwarf Rinaldo (amiably played by the Time Bandits’ David Rappaport). A pair of society’s rejects thrown together out of desperation, it’s wonderful to watch Viktor’s realization that he can have a friend too – someone to teach and prepare him for the real world. Also Rinaldo’s delight that he too is no longer just a lone victim – he has this loyal giant to protect him. In truth, the scenes with Beales and Sting in only get in the way of enjoying the journey that Viktor and Rinaldo undertake in discovering their friendship and mutual reliance on one another. This film is not generally regarded well, but it is worth watching for Brown and Rappaport together.

I, Frankenstein and Beyond

In 2014 and 2015, we’ll be treated to further Monster films. Next year sees the release of I, Frankenstein . Aaron Eckhardt is cast in the titular role in Stuart Beattie’s adaptation of the comic of the same name. The film also stars Bill Nighie and Chuck’s Yvonne Strahovski. In this version, the Monster finds himself between two warring factions of immortals. Not Vampires and Lycans. This time it’s Gargoyles and Demons! It will be interesting to see Eckhardt’s portrayal as he’s already played a psychological monster in the form of The Dark Knight’s Two Face.

I, Frankenstein - 2014

I, Frankenstein – 2014

Currently in pre-production, Max Landis’s vision, Frankenstein is slated to hit theatres in 2015. Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Jessica Brown Findlay (Downton Abbey) and James McAvoy (X-Men First Class) star in this film. In it, McAvoy plays Viktor Von Frankenstein – a man with plans to create a human body. Radcliffe’s character Igor saves Findlay’s Lorelei – a trapeze artist who has a tragic accident. According to Radcliffe, the film is “about two young, brilliant guys pushing each other. Eventually one loses his morality and the other has to bring him back”.

Also currently in the early stages of development is The Sick and Twisted Tale of Frankenstein. This film is a modern retelling of the tale, with newcomer, Michael Raabe playing “The Creature” and fellow newcomer, Louis Crespo Jr. as Frankenstein. Little plot information is available, but Shelley Boozer has been cast as Detective Mary Shelley in this re-imagining.

A Monster and His Friends

Before I go, I’d like to offer one final shout out: if you like you Monsters in comic format, then I heartily recommend The Creature Commandos. This is a DC Comics team of military superhumans originally set in World War II that was introduced to the masses Weird War Tales #93 (November 1980).

The original (and better) team was composed of a vampire, werewolf and a Frankenstein style Monster, with occasional appearances by a gorgon and a robotic soldier (who may or may not have a ‘ghost in the machine’). The team was lead by a human officer, who often turned out to be the biggest monster of them all in some of the more morality based tales. If you get a chance – check them out!

– Silverfox
Geek Syndicate Magazine Issue 8

This Article was originally published in Issue 8 of Geek Syndicate Magazine. The magazine is our free quarterly publication and it’s jam packed with features, interviews, previews and more. Check out the back issues here.

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