Well, the internet tells me that October 27 is Frankenstein Day, so let’s take a look at the greatest cinematic interpretations of Mary Shelley’s classic tale.
5. The Revenge of Frankenstein
Hammer Horror’s immediate follow-up to The Curse of Frankenstein put them in a difficult position, as (spoiler) the previous film ends with Victor Frankenstein led off to the guillotine, as well as implying that Frankenstein himself was an unreliable narrator. So what did they do? They retconned the heck out of the first film to say that the whole country knew of Frankenstein’s monster, even though the previous film implied that only a few were aware. When Dr. Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) is led to the guillotine, we see the blade fall but later learn that with the help of a hunchback, he decapitated the priest instead and buried the body in his grave.
Is it a slightly cheap start to the movie? Sure, but as many times as Universal resurrected the Monster in their films, we let it slide here. Anyway, Dr. Frankenstein, using the totally clever alias of Dr. Stein, moves to Carlsbruck and is working with his hunchbacked assistant, to whom he has promised a new body. Frankenstein is blackmailed by Hans Kleve (Francis Matthews) into making him his assistant as well, and our plot is underway.
Upset that he did not make a perfect monster the first time, Frankenstein is adamant that he will make a perfect specimen. He even amputates the arm of a pickpocket just so he can use it for the Monster (long gone is the sympathetic doctor of the James Whale films). When the Monster is made, at first all seems alright and Frankenstein is excited to show his creation to the scientific community. However, since the Monster’s brain is that of a hunchback, he doesn’t like the thought of people pointing and staring at him anymore. There are also other complications that arise from the Monster going out into society too soon, and it all leads to a pretty enjoyable ending. As this film is not directly based on Shelley’s book and hasn’t entered pop culture to the same level as the others, I won’t spoil it here, but it’s a lot of fun.
The best thing about Revenge by far is Peter Cushing’s portrayal of Victor Frankenstein. He’s such a presence in every scene he’s in, and he so clearly enjoys his work. He never struggles with the morality of it like other Frankensteins. One of the best scenes is when the local board of doctors accuse him of being the Victor Frankenstein and he coolly explains to them that while his name is Frankenstein, how can they be sure he’s the one they’re looking for? It’s a brilliant scene that makes us completely understand how a character like this can get away with his actions. The only strange thing is that Frankenstein never really takes revenge on anyone from the first movie as the title would suggest, but perhaps he thinks the best revenge is living well.
After all these years, James Whale’s Frankenstein is still the most popular film adaptation. It was not the first Frankenstein film, as that honor belongs to a 1910 Thomas Edison film, but it is the first well-known one. While it’s not really an accurate adaptation of Shelley’s novel (Honestly, none of these are), it has become just as iconic, from Jack Pierce’s monster makeup on Boris Karloff to the gorgeous Transylvanian sets to Colin Clive’s impassioned performance as Henry Frankenstein. (The character named Victor in the book is Henry here, and the character named Henry is Victor. Confused yet?)
It seems strange today, but this film was controversial when it first came out. The line that really made people upset was right after the famous “It’s alive,” where Dr. Frankenstein says “In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God.” The scene where the Monster throws the little girl into the lake was also edited for a time, but that didn’t stop it from being one of the most famous in the whole film.
The real strength of the film is the combination of Whale’s grandiose direction, Clive’s performance and of course Karloff as the Monster. The supporting cast is all fine, but Frankenstein is at its most interesting when Clive or Karloff is on screen. At the end, of course Frankenstein vows to give up his experiments and settles down with his wife, but we all know it didn’t last. That leads us to…
3. Bride of Frankenstein
James Whale’s 1935 sequel sees the Monster survive his supposed death in Frankenstein, and sees Dr. Frankenstein return to his old ways, with the help of mentor and man-with-the-coolest-name-ever Dr. Septimus Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger). Pretorius simply steals every scene he’s in, being a much more evil version of what Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein is, not being afraid to kill to get body parts.
We also see the Monster walking around the countryside, and this gives us the brilliant scene between him and the old hermit. Karloff’s monster has started to talk in this one, giving him a chance to do more acting than before. I’ve written a full entry on this film here, so I won’t repeat everything I said, but this is unquestionably a better film than Whale’s first.
The creation of the bride comes much later in the film than you may expect, but her few minutes on screen are perfect. I love the twisted wedding march that plays when she is first created. The ending is great as well, as we get to see a scientist saved by his own creation instead of being killed by it. Whale never returned to the series after this, and while the sequels aren’t bad, they never reach his heights again.
2. The Curse of Frankenstein
Hammer’s first Frankenstein film was originally meant to be a black-and-white affair with Boris Karloff portraying Dr. Frankenstein, but by the time it was made, audiences were treated to a color film with Peter Cushing as Baron Victor von Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as the Monster.
Awaiting his execution, the Baron recount his life story, from being tutored by Dr. Paul Krempe (Robert Urqhart) following his parents’ death to the point of actually making the Monster to seeing his life fall apart. At first, he and Paul (who soon become equals) do their experiments in the name of science, but as they go on, Victor becomes more and more ruthless, even killing a renowned professor (Paul Hardtmuth) to use his brain in the Monster. Paul is opposed to these extreme measures, and this of course fractures their close relationship.
While the Universal films portrayed Frankenstein as a sympathetic but mad scientist, the Hammer ones portray him as pure evil. He doesn’t have qualms about what he does, and he doesn’t care who he harms in the process. Peter Cushing’s performance is magnificent, playing a man who even seems sexually aroused by his own work. He’s engaged to Elizabeth (Hazel Court) and is having an affair with Justine (Valerie Gaunt), but he doesn’t seem to care much for either’s affection. He’s completely self-serving, and that’s why I love this film so much.
We get a nice little twist in the final scene, as Paul and Elizabeth—now seemingly a couple—come to see the imprisoned Frankenstein. They dismiss Frankenstein’s story, and he’s led off to the guillotine to die. So did Victor Frankenstein commit all the murders or did his monster have a hand in it? Was there even a monster at all? Was it all true and Paul and Elizabeth merely want him dead? The ambiguity just makes the film all the more interesting.
Alright, before we get to the greatest Frankenstein film of all time, I want to give honorable mentions to Son of Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone is a worth follow-up to Colin Clive), Ghost of Frankenstein (Goofy, but still fun), and (yes) The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I also need to give a dishonorable mention to that unbearable film that calls itself Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It’s just so over-the-top that you’ll need to pop some Advil before watching. Anyway, the greatest Frankenstein film of all time is…
1. Young Frankenstein
A parody film that’s better than the film it’s parodying? This may be the only case where that’s true, but Young Frankenstein is by far the funniest parody film of all time. Everyone in the cast is pitch perfect. The late great Gene Wilder was brilliant at playing a man who could snap between sane and kind to wild and mad, and this is one of the best examples of that unpredictability. Madeline Kahn is hilarious as his fiancée Elizabeth, and of course Marty Feldman steals every scene as Igor. In addition, the film features brilliant supporting turns from Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Kenneth Mars, Gene Hackman, and Peter Boyle as the Monster.
This is a film clearly in love with its source material. Just look at how many different Universal films it parodies. The basic set-up and the scene with the little girl? That’s from the original Frankenstein. The blind hermit and Madeline Kahn’s hairdo? Bride of Frankenstein. The idea of one of Frankenstein’s relatives carrying on his family name, the one-armed constable, and the lab assistant named Igor? Those are all original to Son of Frankenstein. Even the brain transplant at the end comes from The Ghost of Frankenstein. It doesn’t go so far as to include the other Universal monsters, which was great restraint on Brooks’ part. Mel Brooks even got the rights to the old Universal sets to make this movie.
There are so many jokes hidden in this movie that I still catch new ones when I watch it. It’s just so jam-packed with brilliantly written punchlines and visual jokes. It also works because the story could fit just as well in a drama. Wilder’s character Frederick (or Froderick) Frankenstein struggles with his own destiny, and actually unlike some of the Universal films, it takes some time for him to accept it. It’s a hilarious film from start to finish, and it only gets funnier on re-watches.
So I probably missed your favorite right? How dare I leave off Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell? Leave a comment and let me know what your favorite Frankenstein film is.