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The Complete On-Screen History of Frankenstein

The Complete On-Screen History of Frankenstein

Universal Pictures was a champion of horror in the 1930s and 40s, building a rogue gallery of creeps known as the Universal Monsters. Universal is rebooting these classic horror films, and has announced plans to construct a shared universe via filmmakers Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan. The first, Kurtzman’s The Mummy starring Tom Cruise and Sofia Boutella, debuts in June of 2017. In anticipation, we’ve been revisiting Universal’s supernatural antagonists. Last week, we discussed the most famous bloodsucker of all, Count Dracula. Today, we discuss a tragic monster who never asked to be born into the society that would revile him: Frankenstein.

English author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley published Frankenstein in 1818 when she was just 20. It was the result of an impromptu horror competition she engaged in with poet Percy Bysshe Shelly (whom she would later marry), the poet Lord Byron, and physician John Polidori while vacationing in Lake Geneva, Switzerland.

Shelley submitted for the approval of this 19th century midnight society a tale of a scientist who dared to play God, then was horrified by his own creation. The CliffsNotes: Victor Frankenstein, deeply affected by his mother’s death, desires to create life from nothing. He builds a creature out of materials sourced from the “dissecting room and the slaughterhouse” then brings it to life. Frankenstein is appalled by his monster’s ghastly appearance and abandons him. The forlorn Creature learns to talk and read, but is unable to acclimate to society because of his looks. He tracks Frankenstein down and asks him to build him a companion. When Frankenstein ultimately refuses, his Creature destroys everyone Frankenstein love, including his girlfriend, Elizabeth.

Though there were earlier film adaptations of Shelley’s gothic tale of hubris and woe, it was Universal’s 1931 blockbuster, directed by James Whale, that made Frankenstein a household name—albeit a misused one. Shelley never named The Creature at all, yet “Frankenstein” has evolved to refer to both the man and his monster.


Universal had based their wildly successful Dracula, released earlier in 1931, on a popular stage play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. Similarly, they decided to base their Frankenstein on a stage play written by Peggy Webling. Webling had written the play at the behest of Deane, though her story was much different than Shelley’s. After briefly considering Dracula star Bela Lugosi, the studio ultimately selected English actor Boris Karloff to play the Creature. Colin Clive took on the role of Dr. Frankenstein, whose first name was changed from Victor to Henry.

Universal is responsible for much of the iconography we associate with Frankenstein today. It was Universal makeup artist Jack Pierce who gave the monster a flat head, heavy brow, and bolts jutting out of his neck. Shelley’s monster had flowing black tresses and no bolts. Shelley’s monster was well-spoken, but Karloff expertly conveyed the monster’s emotions with grunts. Universal also changed how we perceived the monster’s creation. Shelley’s Frankenstein worked alone and used an ambiguous “spark of life” to awaken his monster. Universal gave the doctor a hunchbacked assistant, actor Dwight Frye’s Fritz, who helps him loot the local cemetery for body parts. They, too, gave us the now iconic scene in which a storm generates enough lightning to awaken the creature in the doctor’s basement lab. “It’s alive, It’s alive!” Frankenstein howls, one of cinema’s most memorable lines.

This Creature is warmly welcomed by Frankenstein in the movie, but becomes aggressive when Fritz torments him with a torch. The Creature kills Fritz as well as Frankenstein’s associate, Dr. Waldman, and escapes the lab. He befriends a young girl near a pond, but finds himself unable to understand how humans work. In a truly horrific moment, he tosses the girl into the pond assuming she, like the flowers she’s been flinging into the water, will float. She doesn’t. Her death riles up the locals who form the quintessential angry mob, armed with torches, and hunt the Creature down. In the finale, the Creature attacks but does not kill Frankenstein’s beloved Elizabeth before the mob traps the Creature inside a burning windmill.

The film was so commercially and critically successful that Universal launched a sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). This film begins with Mary Shelley (played by Elsa Lanchester) telling Percy Shelley and Lord Byron that there’s more to her story—odd because the Universal story, of course, only resembled Shelley’s novel in its foundation.


The Bride of Frankenstein then reveals that the Creature survived the fiery climax of the previous film. The Creature recruits Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), who forces Frankenstein to help him create a bride for the Creature. However, the Bride (also played by Lanchester) finds the Creature just as loathsome as everyone else, leading to the Creature’s decision to spare Frankenstein and Elizabeth, but collapse the lab on himself, his Bride and Pretorius. Notably, the Bride’s giant hair with twin white streaks would go on to become the most iconic depiction of the bride, as Shelley’s Frankenstein refused to create her.

Karloff would go on to star in numerous horror films throughout his long career, but his last appearance as the monster was in 1939’s Son of Frankenstein. The monster himself emerged many more times—not just in Universal sequels, but in countless other incarnations as well. Abbot and Costello met the Creature in 1948. Hammer Films produced several Frankenstein films in the 1950s and ’60s, as they had done with Dracula. Sir Kenneth Branagh directed 1994’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which Robert De Niro played the Creature. Though the film followed Shelley’s text more closely than Universal’s film, it was not as well-received by critics. (Universal’s Frankenstein, even today, maintains a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was added to the National Film Registry in 1991.)

The 1960s sit-com The Munsters feature a Karloff-inspired monster, Herman Munster, who marries Dracula’s daughter Lily, with whom he has a werewolf son. Blaxploitation got into Frankenstein in 1973 with Blackenstein, while Mel Brooks took a shot at the work in the celebrated parody Young Frankenstein, starring Gene Wilder as Frankenstein’s grandson and Peter Boyle as his monster. The Creature shows up again in the ’80s comedy Monster Squad, this time as a hero who fights against Dracula and the other Universal monsters. He’s also a hero in the fantastical I, Frankenstein, in which he’s played by Aaron Eckhart and is actually pretty handsome for someone fused from various body parts. Numerous other properties have built upon the idea of a mad scientist crafting a creature, including cult rock opera The Rocky Horror Picture Show and ’80s comedy Weird Science. In both, the “creature” turns out to be very attractive.

Throughout it all, Frankenstein remains one of the most complex terrors of cinema. He’s not inherently evil, like Dracula, and he lumbers sorrowfully between two worlds while belonging to neither. It’ll be interesting to see how Universal reboots horror’s most famous monster, two centuries after his birth. Rumor has it they’ve already approached to actor Javier Bardem to star.

Who’s your favorite Frankenstein? Let us know in the comments below.


Featured Image: Universal Studios

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