Top 5 Frankenstein Films

 

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

Year: 1958

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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.

4. Frankenstein

Year: 1931

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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

Year: 1935

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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

Year: 1957

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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 worthy 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

Year: 1974

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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.

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Top 10 Scariest Performances: 5-1

Well, it’s time to continue the list of the scariest performances in film history. If you haven’t already read part 1, you can do that here. Which performance chills, scares and unnerves the viewer more than any other? Let’s find out.

5. Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh

Film: No Country for Old Men

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No Country for Old Men may not be a horror film, but it is unquestionably one of the most suspenseful films ever made. In a way, Anton Chigurh is something of a horror monster though, in the way he is a seemingly-unstoppable killer. Unlike someone like Michael Myers (Halloween sequels not withstanding), we get hints of why Chigurh kills, but they serve to make his character even more frightening. He seems to feel a debt to kill, almost as if he’s utterly powerless. He is merely the harbinger of death.

I’ve talked about the gas station scene extensively here, but that is far from the only scene that makes Chigurh chilling. Take the scene with Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), the kind of roguish anti-hero who would normally be the one to take down the villain. Chigurh almost immediately corners him and has a conversation with him at gunpoint. The moment the telephone rings is one of the scariest moments in the whole film, because Wells knows his time is up.

In a later scene, Carla Jean Moss (Kelly Macdonald) finds herself face to face with Chigurh. She tries to talk him down, but he says the coin toss is the best he can do. He doesn’t seem to get enjoyment out of what he’s doing, but he seems to malfunction when Carla Jean refuses to call it. It’s like he knows nothing else at all.

4. Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes

Film: Misery

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Yeah, you knew this one was coming. Rob Reiner’s Misery, based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, is one that preys on our fears of claustrophobia, obsession, and much more. When author and totally-not-Stephen King-avatar Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is almost killed in a car accident, he’s taken in by the seemingly-kind Annie Wilkes, who calls herself Paul’s number one fan.

The scariest thing about a character like Annie Wilkes is she feels like someone who could totally exist in the real world. She’s so obsessed with her favorite character, Misery Chastain, that she treats her like a real person. She punishes Paul for killing her off and forces him to bring her back in a new novel.

Bates plays a woman who can switch between overly sweet and affectionate to psychotic at the drop of a hat, and yet it doesn’t feel like either of these is a facade. These Jekyll-and-Hyde qualities are both equal parts of her personality, and we never know which is going to show up. The scariest moment, of course, is the infamous hobbling scene, where Annie breaks Paul’s ankles with a sledgehammer, a punishment for trying to escape. What makes Bates so scary in this scene is how laid back she is about it all, like it’s just another medical procedure. She’s not manically laughing, and the score is just a classical-sounding piano, but the contrast creates one of horror’s most iconic moments.

3. Max Schreck as Count Orlok

Film: Nosferatu

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Dracula has been adapted countless times, and while many portrayals focus more on the seductive side of the character (Bela Lugosi, Gary Oldman), others are still not afraid to portray him as a monster (Christopher Lee). That said, there is no portrayal quite as monstrous as Max Schreck in F.W. Murnau’s classic Nosferatu.

Just look at that makeup. The movie is almost 100 years old, and yet the creepy look of the character still holds up. Nosferatu isn’t really a close adaptation of Dracula, displaying Orlok as the carrier of a plague and having an entirely different ending. These changes lead to some of the film’s most iconic moments though—Orlok on the boat and the stair-climbing sequence.

Count Orlok doesn’t even move like a human, just sort of appearing in rooms, which makes him all the more ghastly. Even without being able to hear his voice (or perhaps because of it), Orlok is one of the scariest characters of all time.

2. Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance

Film: The Shining

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It took me a few viewings of The Shining to realize that the main character is not Jack Torrance, but rather the Overlook Hotel itself. Torrance has no control over the hotel turning him evil. It’s happened before with a previous caretaker, and it’s destined to happen again.

Unlike the Jack Torrance of Stephen King’s novel, Nicholson’s Torrance is clearly unhinged from the beginning. As the Overlook begins to take over, he starts seeing the ghosts, eventually going crazy enough to be willing to kill his family. Sure, most of his scenes have been parodied endlessly, but they still work wonderfully in the context of the film. The film’s scariest moment comes when Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) comes in to rescue the family, and Jack runs out of the shadows and sticks an ax in him.

By the time he is chasing his son through the hedge maze, he is barely human anymore, bleating like some mad animal. It is complete and absolute madness, and while it comes off perhaps as over-the-top at first, it becomes more and more horrifying on re-watches. He’s completely lost himself to forces outside of his control.

And the #1 scariest performance of all time…

1. Marlon Brando as Col. Walter Kurtz

Film: Apocalypse Now

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As much as I love horror films, you’d be hard pressed to find a film that scares and unsettles me more than Apocalypse Now. The whole film plays like a nightmare, and it gets progressively darker and unnerving as Willard (Martin Sheen) and crew get closer to Col. Kurtz in Cambodia.

Apocalypse Now builds up Col. Kurtz for the first two acts of the film, letting Willard and the audience gradually try to unfold the mystery. We hear audio of Kurtz saying terrifying things about a snail on a straight razor, and we see the military say how crazy he’s gone, but the fact that we don’t meet him until almost two hours into the movie is a big risk. If the buildup doesn’t pay off, it’s going to be a big letdown, but of course director Francis Ford Coppola gives us one of the most memorable characters in film history.

We’re expecting a mad man and an evil man, and we get one, but perhaps not as mad or evil as we expect… or want. His actions make him scary sure, particularly killing Chef and presenting Willard with the severed head, but it’s what Kurtz represents that’s even scarier. The military who now wants him dead had a hand in driving him to this. Kurtz was one of the most decorated men in the military, but then he snapped. Does Kurtz show that even the best of us could be driven to this kind of madness if we see enough hell in the world?

While all the other performances on this list are terrifying, it’s not very likely that any of us will ever be driven to the point of being blood-sucking vampires, insane hotel caretakers, or murderous traveling preachers. However, Kurtz could be any of us. He’s clearly intelligent, as he reads T.S. Elliot and obviously understands that Willard is there to kill him. In fact, Kurtz is so shell-shocked and tired that he wants Willard to go through with it. Personally, I even think Kurtz kills Chef just to rile Willard up enough to murder him. The scene where Willard does brutally slaughter Kurtz is one of the most horrifying in all of film. His words “The horror, the horror” will stick with Willard and audiences long after the film has ended.

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Top 10 Scariest Performances: 10-6

As Halloween draws near and we all break out our favorite horror movies, it’s only appropriate to take a look at the all-time scariest performances. I am not limiting this to horror films, as often times terrifying characters lie in dramas as well. These are the characters that creep you out on screen, but continue to get under your skin long after the movie has ended.

10. Bob Gunton as Warden Norton

Film: The Shawshank Redemption

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This one may seem an odd choice, as Norton keeps a cool demeanor throughout the film’s first two acts, and characters like Bogs (Mark Rolston) and Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown) are more openly unhinged, but Gunton plays the prison warden as a man who is just one step away from snapping. He’s such a control freak that if one piece moves out of place, everything will fall apart. Samuel Norton may seem to be a strict but good man at first, but it’s pretty obvious after a while that he is hiding behind religion (literally, as the safe with all his illegal paperwork hides behind a Bible verse stitching).

Upon discovering that Andy is innocent of the crime that put him away, Norton has the man who knows the truth killed and Andy put in solitary confinement for a month. After the month is over, he threatens him in his “Nothing stops” monologue, without once raising his voice, and coldly gives him another month in solitary. It is clear this is a man who will stop at absolutely nothing to stay in control. When things start to turn against him, he does finally snap and it’s clear he has been falling apart for a very long time.

Bob Gunton owns every scene he is in, playing Norton as someone who doesn’t flinch as he watches Captain Hadley beat up a prisoner under his orders. His final scene is one of the most memorable in a film brimming with memorable scenes. He’s not unlike Nurse Ratched in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but I find him immeasurably scarier, because at least Ratched has some justification—McMurphy is a convicted rapist. Her methods are awful, sure, but they are at least understandable. Norton learns that Andy is innocent and continues to treat him the same way, showing that it has nothing to do with him being a criminal and everything to do with Norton being a control freak.

9. Jonathan Scott-Taylor as Damien Thorn

Film: Damien: Omen II

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In the first Omen film, the evil was felt constantly, but was only occasionally seen in the character of Damien. Harvey Spencer Stephens only had a few lines (He was originally not to speak at all), which of course made Robert Thorn having to kill him all the harder. By the sequel, though, Damien is coming into his own as the Antichrist, and Jonathan Scott-Taylor gives a flawless performance.

There is horror enough in viewing a character trying to accept whether he is doomed to be the Antichrist predicted in prophecy, but once he does accept his fate is when it gets really scary. In what should have been the film’s climax, Damien discovers that his cousin Mark (Lucas Donat) knows the truth about him. Damien offers him an equal place of power, but when Mark refuses, Damien uses his telekinetic powers to murder him. It’s his ultimate descent into evil, and it is a terrifying scene. Scott-Taylor shows us the pained and the evil sides of Damien, without chewing the scenery or having any stereotypically evil qualities (except a British accent, I suppose).

My only complaint about this performance, as I detailed here, is that it is not the crux of the film. It’s even called Damien: Omen II, but for so much of the story, the focus isn’t even on Damien. Still, the brilliance from Scott-Taylor makes even the most ridiculous parts of the film worth watching.

8. Heath Ledger as The Joker

Film: The Dark Knight

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When Christopher Nolan attempted to turn Batman into a dark, realistic crime thriller, everyone wondered how he would make The Joker work. Sure, Jack Nicholson’s portrayal worked in the Tim Burton film, but that was sort of a colorful fantastical film noir that was clearly not in the real world. It would take a work of genius to make this character work, and that genius was Heath Ledger.

I think the scariest aspect of the character is that voice, which shows him as both threatening and incredibly unhinged. His unpredictable delivery, pausing at seemingly random times, shows how unpredictable his actions are. Unlike Norton in Shawshank doing everything to hide behind a mask of composure, The Joker wears his madness on his sleeve. He scares people by telling various stories of facial disfigurement, all of them horrific, and perhaps none of them true.

The Joker unquestionably gets enjoyment out of corrupting a city and making people suffer, and his plan goes through fully even though he gets captured. He’s completely destroyed Harvey Dent, the city’s idea of a perfect, law-abiding hero and sent Batman on the run. He feels a creepy camaraderie with Batman, that they are two halves of the same whole. Without the one, the other is nothing… and for those who have seen The Dark Knight Rises, it looks like he was right.

7. Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell

Film: The Night of the Hunter

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I’ve talked about this film at length here and here, and it’s one that owes a whole lot to its lead actor. Laughton’s direction is phenomenal, but it’s Robert Mitchum’s performance as traveling preacher/serial killer Harry Powell. Dressed in all black and speaking in a deep, rich voice, Mitchum plays a character constantly switching between his charming, affable side and his psychotic, murderous one.

Unlike Warden Norton who hides behind religion, Powell actually believes his murders are God’s will. He rides his horse and loudly sings “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” entirely apathetic about making his presence known. He’s a seemingly unstoppable force, and he won’t let the matter of a few thousand dollars go. He will pursue John and Pearl until they have given up the money or they are dead. When the children hide out in the barn, John asks if Powell ever sleeps, the same question we’re pondering. We’re constantly in the shoes of the children going through this nightmarish scenario, constantly on the run from pure evil.

6. Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth

Film: Blue Velvet

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Sometimes an over-the-top performance makes a film less scary (See 1990’s It), and sometimes it makes a film terrifying. Is Blue Velvet a horror movie? A mystery? Psychological romance? Sort of all of them and none of them… it’s really weird, but it’s still one of David Lynch’s most coherent movies. I actually have to admit that I don’t really care for this film (that’s an article for another time), with the major exception of Dennis Hopper’s performance as Frank Booth.

Frank Booth bursts onto the scene, crying out like a child and huffing a mysterious gas that gives him his “power.” We know he’s pure evil, but he has a past. He tells Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) “You’re like me,” but we never know how exactly they’re alike. Like Jeffrey, did Frank start his descent by trying to do good in an evil world? Is he just saying this to torment Jeffrey? Like The Joker, his past is a mystery, and that makes him scarier.

Between the constant swearing, over-the-top nature, and especially the scene where he kisses Jeffrey, Frank Booth could have gone down as one of the most unintentionally hilarious villains of all time, but somehow Dennis Hopper makes it work. The seemingly-goofy parts of his character just make him that much scarier. You will also never listen to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” the same way ever again.

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