Nuts and Bolts: Frankenstein On The Screen
THE MODERN PROMETHEUS
In 1818, author Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, and whether she wanted to or not, gave the horror genre one of its most enduring icons: a monster, created by a mad scientist, misunderstood by society and questioning its own existence. It made the jump to movies even during the silent era, but its popularity really took off once Universal Studios got a hold of it, even if some people still don’t realize that “Frankenstein” is actually the mad doctor’s name and the monster doesn’t have one.
James Whale’s gothic horror Frankenstein is what everyone thinks about when they recall this story: the monster as a flat-topped, childlike brute stumbling around with bolts on his neck; the doctor going insane in his elaborate lab, helped out by his hunchbacked assistant; the townspeople wielding torches, and so on. Stylishly directed by Whale, whose sets were grandiose and meticulous in detail, it was a Cliff’s Notes version of the original novel (surprisingly, it barely runs 70 minutes) but it proved massively popular and was part of Universal’s stable of movie monsters, sharing room with Count Dracula, the Wolfman, and the Mummy.
It also made a star of Boris Karloff. Covered in makeup and wearing platform shoes and shoulder pads, the actor took a “Schwarzenegger” part – a hulking, mute, inexpressive killing machine – and actually managed to give it charisma and pathos, easily surpassing the rest of the cast; movies back then were still coming off silent pictures and scenery chewing was viewed as an acceptable acting method. Karloff was a mega star and apparently really good with children, even if the movie’s most infamous scene had him casually tossing a little girl into a lake after mistaking her for a flower.
SEQUELS, SEQUELS, SEQUELS!
The studio, of course, spent the next few years cranking out sequels to these hits, proving that soulless, cash-grab follow-ups made by greedy studios exist as far back as the 1930s, not just in modern times. The monster got a mate in the form of Elsa Lanchester and her wacky afro, and the studio exhausted the Frankenstein family tree by having everyone repeat the famous experiments; you’d think the family would learn a lesson and stay the hell away from the medical profession.
Once the formula of “Create Monster – Monster Runs Amok – Killed by Angry Townsfolk” began to get stale, Universal resorted to teaming up all of its in-house monsters, having the monster butt heads with Dracula and the Wolfman on a regular basis (still a better match-up than Alien vs. Predator). Eventually that got old as well, and the monsters were reduced to playing bumbling comic foils in Abbott and Costello routines.
Still, one can’t overlook the importance of Frankenstein in horror movies and cinema in general. Universal had exhausted its cash cow by the end of the 1940s, but they had set in motion an entire pop culture phenomenon.
POP CULTURE PHENOMENON!
The Frankenstein story was picked up in the 50s by Hammer, the British studio known for classy, sexually charged gothic horror films. In their hands, Dracula went from a regal aristocrat with a bad Eurotrash accent to a feral, bloodthirsty killer; and the Monster was now a mindless creation who stayed in the background while the films focused on its creator: Doctor Frankenstein was not only a mad scientist, but also psychotic and deeply disturbed, and more evil than his creation could ever be. Once again, any complexity present in the original novel was brushed aside for shock value.
It would take until 1994 for someone to attempt to adapt Mary Shelley’s original work as it was written. The result was Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein, which no longer presented the Monster as a lumbering tree trunk but as a tortured soul, hideously deformed, able to speak, and constantly questioning its own nature and its peculiar relationship with its creator. In a bizarre casting choice, it was played by Robert De Niro in what has to be one of the strangest roles in his career; and this is someone who once played a cross-dressing pirate named Shakespeare.
Speaking of which, Branagh’s background in the works of the Bard definitely comes through here; this is a tragic, grandiose film with no humor to speak of (even John Cleese has a super-serious cameo as the doomed Professor Waldman), and filled with a lot of over-the-top histrionics and melodrama – only De Niro is subdued. However, it is the closest anyone has ever come to adapting the novel, and even manages to include a bit of Bride of Frankenstein in there, with her being played by Helena Bonham Carter, back when she was the Keira Knightley of the 1990s and popped up in every drama set in the Victorian Era.
One of the most interesting adaptations of the story came from B-movie king Roger Corman in 1990’s Frankenstein Unbound, where a scientist from the future travels back in time and meets Mary Shelley and the very real mad scientist she bases her novel upon. An intriguing concept paired up with Corman’s usual low grade sensibilities (the budget looks to be around 500 dollars or so) delivers an epic cheesefest which at least includes the late, great Premium Ham that was Raul Julia as Frankenstein.
This is just one of the many, many, many adaptations of the Frankenstein legend, and that’s not even counting films that are only inspired by it; a comprehensive list would require another article on its own.
Among the many highlights are the Monster as a crack-addicted prostitute in Frankenhooker; as a dog in Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie; and as the fondly remembered Herman Munster on TV’s The Munsters. An entire host of directors has taken a crack at the story, from Mel Brooks to Andy Warhol. The Monster has fought not just the other Universal Monsters, but also masked Mexican wrestlers. He’s appeared on everything from video games to breakfast cereal (who doesn’t love Franken Berry?). In short, the Monster and his creator are now an indelible part of pop culture.
What this goes to show is that the Creature is more than the mindless monster it was originally shown as; the trailer for the Whale film painted him as monster who “preyed on the innocent”, when he probably was the most innocent character in the film. It’s a tragic story, whether it’s shown as a drama or comedy, and a portrait of what can happen when a man attempts to play God.
With even more projects being influenced by this story, including a stage version directed by Danny Boyle and the upcoming Frankenstein’s Army – where a Nazi doctor creates a race of patchwork Monsters from the bodies of German soldiers – Frankenstein doesn’t look to be going away anytime soon. He’s earned his place as one of the most enduring movie monsters; not bad for one of the silver screen’s first reanimated zombies.
Ernesto Zelaya Miñano