In 1816, 21-year-old Mary Shelley participated in a horror story writing competition with friends. History does not record who won, but almost 200 years later the novel that resulted, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, is the clear winner for horror filmmakers, who have adapted it in numerous ways. As Victor Frankenstein, starring X-Man James McAvoy and Daniel (Harry Potter) Radcliffe, creeps around the corner for Thanksgiving release, we celebrate National Frankenstein Friday with a “frank” look at some enduring screen versions.
Boris Karloff, Frankenstein (1931)
A shaggy-haired Charles Ogle was the first actor to play the Monster, in a 1910 short produced by Edison Studios. But the one who made it immortal was Boris Karloff, who, struggling to launch a film career at age 43, submitted to a cumbersome costume (the boots weighed 11 lbs. each) and hours in the makeup chair with Universal Studios’ wizardly Jack B. Pierce to play the Monster. Under the direction of James Whale, Karloff found the humanity within the lumbering undead beast, and a horror film legend was born. The superior sequel, Bride of Frankenstein (1935), gave the Monster a voice and even greater sympathy, and Karloff would play the role again in 1939’s Son of Frankenstein. The studio’s Dracula, Bela Lugosi, and Wolf Man, Lon Chaney, Jr., would play the Monster in subsequent films, but no actor has as effectively combined the physical and emotional force that Karloff brought to the role.
Christopher Lee, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
The same year America’s Rebel Without a Cause generation thrilled to the tawdry I Was a Teenage Frankenstein at drive-ins, England’s Hammer Films pumped new blood into the genre with its full color, more explicitly violent take on the story. “Depressing and degrading for anyone who loves the cinema,” raved critics—but audiences loved the shock treatment, and Hammer became the go-to studio for horror movies for a generation. Cast as much for his height (6’5”) than any other quality, the late Christopher Lee, wearing makeup radically different from Karloff’s to avoid copyright infringement, is an unsettling specter, but he would find his niche, and stardom, as Hammer’s Dracula the following year. Hammer’s Frankenstein series was dominated by its obsessive, ever-experimenting doctor, charismatically played by Peter Cushing in six films that concluded with Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973).
Michael Sarrazin, Frankenstein: The True Story (1973)
By the time Hammer’s series wound down, the Monster had been reanimated in curious ways, including the Godzilla-sized Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965), the no-budget horror Western Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1965), and the hippie-era Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971). A Blackenstein would follow Blacula into theaters in 1973, but the main event was on TV that year, with this lavishly produced, star-studded miniseries, from a script by novelist Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy that makes a bit more use of Shelley than, say, the tongue-in-cheek 3D Flesh for Frankenstein, AKA Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (1974). Here Sarrazin’s Creature is a handsome innocent who degenerates over time—in a scene that terrified impressionable viewers up past bedtime, he rips the head off his evil “bride,” played by Jane Seymour.
Peter Boyle, Young Frankenstein (1974)
With hulking Western star Glenn Strange playing the Monster a third time, following 1944’s House of Frankenstein and 1945’s House of Dracula, Universal’s mash-up Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) emerged as one of the great horror comedies, partly because it played the horror absolutely straight. Mel Brooks’ smash hit was an out-and-out spoof, but lovingly made, shot in black and white and featuring the original lab equipment used in the 1931 film. In Brooks’ and star Gene Wilder’s Oscar-nominated script, Wilder’s Doctor “Fronk-en-steen” and Peter Boyle’s Monster duet with “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” On his own, Boyle hilariously sends up a poignant scene with a little girl from Frankenstein and (with an assist from Gene Hackman) the blind hermit sequence from Bride of Frankenstein.
Robert De Niro, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)
After the success of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), actor and director Kenneth Branagh, noted for acclaimed Shakespeare adaptations like Henry V (1989), was enlisted to direct and co-star as the doctor in an equally well-mounted version of Shelley’s novel. Two-time Academy Award winner Robert De Niro was cast as The Creation, an offbeat choice (wearing Oscar-nominated makeup) who anchors Branagh’s frantic approach to the material. The movie failed in the U.S., but in playing the monster as a damaged son trying to gain his disapproving father’s approval, De Niro largely succeeds in an underrated performance.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, Frankenstein (2011)
TV’s two Sherlock Holmeses (Cumberbatch on Sherlock, and Miller on Elementary) alternated in the roles of Victor Frankenstein and The Creature in Nick Dear’s stage adaptation, which was excitingly directed by Oscar winner Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) for London’s National Theatre. The actors shared the Olivier Award for their vivid performances, in a play that is truer to the spirit of Shelley than most other adaptations. (Cumberbatch was particularly agonizing as The Creature.) It closed in 2011—but lives on as a National Theatre Live, which is periodically rebroadcast, and is essential viewing for any Frankenstein fan.
Rory Kinnear, Penny Dreadful (2014- )
Created by playwright and screenwriter John Logan for Showtime, this outstanding series revamps horror legends as thrillingly as vintage Hammer. The program began with the drug-addicted Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) in the thrall of his gentle creation—an idyll brutally interrupted by the surprise reappearance of his first, abandoned creature, who has made his life a nightmare ever since. Given the most literate dialogue a Frankenstein monster has ever had to speak, Kinnear (an Olivier winner who also plays M’s chief of staff Bill Tanner in the James Bond films) is tremendous in the role, terrifying, wounded, and pitiable. Shelley would approve.