Entry updated 28 October 2019. Tagged: Film.
Film (1931). Universal. Directed by James Whale. Written by Garrett Fort, Robert Florey, Francis Edward Faragoh, based on an adaptation by Florey and John L Balderston of the play by Peggy Webling, based in turn on Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818; rev 1831) by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Cast includes Mae Clarke, Colin Clive, Dwight Frye, Boris Karloff and Edward van Sloan. 71 minutes. Black and white.
This remains the most famous of the Frankenstein films, although it was not the first. (The Edison Company made a sixteen-minute version in 1910; it was directed by J Searle Dawley and starred Charles Ogle as the Monster. A second version, also US, was the 70-minute Life without Soul in 1915, directed by Joseph W Smiley.) Dr Frankenstein is a Scientist who builds an artificial man using parts from stolen bodies. He succeeds, with the aid of an electrical storm, in bringing the creature to life but, because his assistant has provided the brain of a criminal rather than that of a "normal" man (a clumsy plot device which has nothing to do with Shelley's novel), the creation proves difficult to control. The baron's famous exclamation during this central scene – "It lives!" – is original to the film. Eventually the Frankenstein Monster escapes, accidentally kills a small girl, and is pursued and apparently slain by angry villagers (originally the Monster killed Frankenstein, too, but the studio substituted a happy ending). This climax is Parodied en passant in the final pages of Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust (1939).
The film remains central to the Frankenstein canon. With his atmospheric lighting, smooth tracking shots and numerous low-angle shots that were never obtrusive but made effective use of the high-ceilinged sets – particularly Frankenstein's laboratory – Whale succeeded in making a Horror film of some grandeur, with an undertone of ironic humour. Much of the credit must go to Karloff for his fine (unspeaking) performance as the pathetic Monster, considerably helped by Jack Pierce's famous make-up; Karloff's success here doomed him to horror roles for the rest of his life.
There have been numerous sequels and remakes. The sequel Bride of Frankenstein (1935), also directed by Whale, is the best film he ever made. Other, increasingly awful, sequels from Universal were Son of Frankenstein (1939), Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) – which was, surprisingly, awarded a Retro Hugo in 2019 – House of Frankenstein (1944) and the comic send-up Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). In 1957 the UK company Hammer Films remade the original, calling it Curse of Frankenstein (1957; vt Birth of Frankenstein), and then made The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Frankenstein Created Woman (1966), Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) and The Horror of Frankenstein (1970), ending with Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973). Five of these were directed by Terence Fisher, and nearly all featured Peter Cushing's interestingly tense and upright performance as Baron von Frankenstein. Tales of Frankenstein (1958) directed by Curt Siodmak briefly reworks the story as pilot for an unmade Television series. Andy Warhol produced in Italy a 3-D Splatter-Movie pornographic version (remarkably tasteless on all counts) directed by Paul Morrissey (or possibly an uncredited Antonio Margheriti): Carne per Frankenstein (1973; vt Flesh for Frankenstein; vt Andy Warhol's Frankenstein). A successful Parody/homage movie was Young Frankenstein (1974), directed by Mel Brooks. Other versions of the story, mostly exploitation films, were made in Italy and Spain. Two more US titles are Frankenstein 1970 (1958; vt Frankenstein 1975), directed by Howard W Koch (1916-2001) and starring an ageing Boris Karloff, and Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster (1965; vt Mars Invades Puerto Rico; vt Duel of the Space Monsters) (see R H W Dillard), which is not about Frankenstein at all.
There are many further Monster Movies in similar vein, often – as in the excellent Young Frankenstein – invoking descendants of the original Dr Frankenstein who carry on the blasphemous family tradition: examples include I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957) and Frankenstein's Daughter (1958; vt She Monster of the Night). A Television sitcom treatment in which such a descendant teams up with the original Creature is Struck by Lightning (1979); also in television, the Creature features alongside Vampires and Werewolves in House of Frankenstein (1997, vt House of Frankenstein 1997).
An interesting attempt to recreate Mary Shelley's original novel, including its finale in the Arctic (all previous films had changed the story), is the three-hour made-for-tv film Frankenstein: The True Story (1973), Universal/NBC, directed by Jack Smight, from a script by Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, starring James Mason, David McCallum and Michael Sarrazin. It was theatrically released, cut to 123 minutes. The teleplay was published as Frankenstein: The True Story (1973), by Isherwood and Bachardy. Frankenstein Unbound (1990) is based on the 1973 Recursive SF book by Brian W Aldiss, but it does incorporate much of Shelley's original, including interesting Arctic scenes. Another television movie version, made for cable television, and moderately true to the book, though not very interestingly so, is Frankenstein (1993), 150 minutes, directed by David Wickes, with Randy Quaid as the creature. By far the most distinguished of any version from the last two decades of the twentieth century is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994), directed by Kenneth Branagh, which is sensitive to the nature of the original yet prepared to use somewhat more modern metaphors to illuminate it; it is nevertheless an uneven work.
A useful book about versions of the story is Hideous Progenies: Dramatizations of Frankenstein from Mary Shelley to the Present (1990) by Steven Earl Forry. [JB/PN/DRL]
- Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. Frankenstein: The True Story (New York: Avon Books, 1973) [teleplay for Frankenstein: The True Story (1973): pb/still from production]
- Steven Earl Forry. Hideous Progenies: Dramatizations of Frankenstein from Mary Shelley to the Present (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990) [nonfiction: hb/]
previous versions of this entry