A Fistful of Frankensteins: Ten Takes on Mary Shelley’s Most Notorious Creation

And how will you be celebrating Mary Shelley’s birthday (1797-1851)? Having already written quite an extensive post on the influential author a couple of years ago, I thought this year I would cast a wide net and stack up some of the more famous screen versions of her best known work Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818). I’ve explored a couple of the better known classic versions in the past, but this little survey will include many others, much as we did with our Dracula post, and have done with many other works of literature that have been oft-adapted. In this particular post, we will omit parodies and other comic vehicles for the character, as well as ones that stray too far afield from the origin tale. Perhaps we’ll hit some of those some day in a future post. There are many more besides these, but I deem these ten to be the most notable iterations:

Edison’s (1910)

Former stage actor Charles Ogle played the monster in the screen’s first version of the horror story, produced by Edison Studios. Like most movies of the time (except split reels, which were half as long) it was a one-reeler, with a running time of about 13 minutes. You can watch it on Youtube, and it’s quite a hoot!

The Universal Cycle (1931-48)

See here for my post about Universal’s classic Frankenstein pictures of the 1930s and ’40s which for many years were the last word. The impressions made by those films were so indelible that we are sometimes apt to forget that they were not inevitable. See the photo of the Ogle film above for an indication of what I mean. Based on the text, you can take the look of the Creature a lot of different ways. Charles Pierce created Karloff’s iconic look for the Universal pictures, also worn later by Lon Chaney, Jr and Glenn Strange when they stepped into Karloff’s oversized shoes. Pierce was as responsible as anybody for making these pictures, to do this day, the most enjoyable screen versions, even though numerous later ones drew more closely from the book.

A decade after the series ended, and a year after Hammer’s successful Curse of Frankenstein, Karloff revisited the saga in Frankenstein 1970 (1958), a low-budget near-future sci-fi film in which he played a descendent of Victor Frankenstein who re-creates his ancestor’s experiments. To confuse things awfully, there were actually Frankenstein movies made in the early ’70s, AND Hammer’s Dracula A.D. 1972 was actually released in 1972. But, no, Frankenstein 1970 was made in 1958 and you’ll just have to remember that, because it’ll be on the quiz.

The Hammer Cycle (1957-1974)

Nothing short of the arrival of color could sell the concept of a new screen version of Frankenstein outside of Universal’s original monopoly. Britain’s Hammer Studios tried the experiment in 1957, launching not just a new spate of Frankenstein films but the entire Hammer Horror cycle, which would last nearly 20 years. The colors are indeed gorgeous, and what’s more it delivered the great Christopher Lee as the Monster, pointing the way to the delightful career which followed. Hammer also made the interesting choice of turning Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) from a mere obsessive genius in the Faust mold to a straight-up ruthless villain willing to kill those who get in his way. The last in this series was Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974), directed, like its predecessors, by Terence Fisher. Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein was released the same year, no doubt chilling the prospects of serious versions of the story for a good while.

Dan Curtis Version (1973)

Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis produced this TV movie version among a whole series of tasteful adaptations of horror classics he made at around this time. This one starred the ubiquitous tv actor Robert Foxworthy as the titular scientist, with Bo Swenson as the Monster, and Susan Strasberg as the love interest. At present, it’s viewable on Youtube, hosted by Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

Frankenstein: The True Story (1973)

Everyone has their “one particular horror movie that scared the bejesus out of me at an impressionable age”, and this one is mine. There was much hoopla about it at the time, fanned by the misleading title which implied just what it said, that it was “true”. What the producers meant and delivered was that it was a version much closer to Mary Shelley’s original than any previous version. But my friends and I, being all of 7 and 8 years old at the time, were much more credulous. I mean, we knew it wasn’t literally true, but I’ve always had a very healthy liminal space in my brain that opens itself very readily to the suspension of disbelief when a story is well told, and this was. In the nearly 50 years since the original two-night broadcast I have retained several key scenes in my memory, and have always remembered how they terrified me.

Naturally, when I watched it again a few years ago, the awe dissipated, and I saw it for the prestige TV event it was. Christopher Isherwood co-wrote the screenplay! The now-forgotten Leonard Whiting (who’d been Romeo in Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet) was the lead in a cast that also included Michael Sarrazin (also hot at the time) as the Monster, David MacCallum of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Jane Seymour, Elizabeth Taylor’s ex Michael Wilding, Agnes Moorehead, Margaret Leighton, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, and my generation’s Doctor Who Tom Baker. And James Mason as a version of Bride of Frankenstein‘s Dr. Praetorius, here named in honor of the great Gothic writer-physician Polidori. Highly recommended viewing.

1984 TV movie

Do not adjust your set. That IS David Warner as the Creature, and Carrie Fisher as Frankenstein’s love interest Elizabeth in a 1984 TV movie version of Frankenstein. John Gielgud is in this one as well, with Robert Powell, who’d played the lead in Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth as Victor Frankenstein. That’s now TWO Zeffirelli leads who played Victor Frankenstein. What’s up with THAT? Probably not much. There’s a version of it on Youtube as speak. I’ll be viewing it with all dispatch.

Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound (1990)

It had been two decades since AIP’s Roger Corman had been directing regularly when he was persuaded to personally helm this movie, though naturally he’d been producing flicks by the carload during those years (including several movies about carloads, e.g. Death Race 2000). And you can pause before snickering. Please to remember all of those Edgar Allan Poe adaptations Corman directed, which to my mind are about on par with Hammer product. And this version stars John Hurt, whose relevant credits included Alien, The Elephant Man, and 1984, along with Raoul Julia (shortly to be Gomez Addams), Bridget Fonda, and Jason Patric. But this one really was cheesy after all (especially the monster’s make-up) so now you can go head and snicker.

Frankenstein (1992)

Can we all just pause a moment to savor the prospect of RANDY QUAID as Frankenstein’s monster? Come to think of it, in what way has Randy Quaid ever NOT been Frankenstein’s monster? He was even hiding out in Canada for awhile — it would be just a short hop for him to head up to the Arctic Circle and run around naked on ice floes, howling, which I’m sure was something he’s engaged in quite recently. This version was 30 years ago, though, long before mental illness or meth, or both, turned him into whatever he is now. More impressively, this one also features John Mills. John Mills! In 1992! That’s nothing, he was acting in roles as recently as 2004! That’s even more insane than Randy Quaid as Frankenstein!

I’m with you, Adam!

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

I saw this one when in the cinema when it came out and once again a year or two ago — and it’s still as awful as it was 30 years back. Like most of Kenneth Branagh’s non-Shakespearean films, this movie is almost totally narratively incoherent. If he is involved with the editing (he has to be, right?) he turned his expensive looking footage into bewildering hash. Naturally, with himself at the center, it’s preposterously self-indulgent besides, which is good for a laugh, but not fair to an awesome cast which features no less than Robert De Niro (stretching wonderfully) as “The Creation”, Tom Hulce (who makes far too few movies), Ian Holm, Helena Bonham Carter, John Cleese, Aidan Quinn, and Hugh Bonneville. Now that is a crown full of jewels, only in Branagh’s hands, the result is something closer to foolscap. The conceit of the title is of course building on Francis Ford Coppola’s then recent hit Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992).

Victor Frankenstein (2015)

Just what the world was waiting for — a version of the Frankenstein legend told from the point of view of…Igor! Max Landis, son of John Landis, penned this monstrosity about a monstrosity, directed by Paul McGuigan in the ironic, tongue-in-cheek action movie manner of those horrible Robert Downey-Jude Law Sherlock Holmes revisions (which I also happen to revile). In early scenes there were some circus and music hall set pieces I wanted to love for obvious reasons, but they were full of anachronisms and steampunk cliches. Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe wastes his time as Igor, with James McAvoy of the X-Men films etc as the title character. There were aspects of the movie’s visuals I did like, including the conception of the monster, although he appears too late in the story and it culminates, like all movies nowadays, with a boring action sequence. I spent most of the movie alternately hooting, laughing, howling, and shouting profanities at the screen. This $40 million production justly took a loss at the box office. Those TV movies from 40 years ago probably cost $40,000 but they’re worth more by far.

I was going to call this post “Rankin’ the Franks” and put them in order of preference, but interestingly…chronology almost accomplishes the same thing! Ain’t that always the way?

We finish our post with a little digestif designed by my beautiful and talented wife. Yes, that’s us in the image, but as our true selves: