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Frankenstein: The Changing Face of a Cinematic Monster

Written by: Erik Myers, special to CC2k


No Movie has ever correctly captured Mary Shelley’s Novel.

The beauty of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was arguably the fact that it was a horror story that simultaneously kept its monster in the shadows while bringing it center stage. During the course of the novel, the creature acts as antagonist, protagonist, and for a lengthy stretch, the narrarator; but despite being so visible in the story, the character’s visage is one that were forced to mentally stitch together from bits and pieces of scattered description.

Not only is the cadaverous appearance of the monster left vague, but its creation is never described either, as Victor explains to Walton that the secret of reanimation is one that must never be revealed. Whether this was a decision Shelley made based on her lack of medical knowledge, or because she (rightly) understood that what is imagined is always more frightening than what is shown or described, Frankenstein’s monster is kept in the shadows, being vague of appearance as well as origin, something that works to the novel’s advantage but has proved a stumbling block for Hollywood film makers.

The first cinematic adaptation appeared in 1910, Thomas Edison’s Life Without Soul. There was no precedent set, not even in the form of illustrations from the book. As such, Edison had to design not only the creature in such a way that it was both horrifying as well as sympathetic, but he also had to find a plausible way to show the monster’s creation. Stage actor Charles Ogle was covered in heavy theatrical make-up and a wild fright wig, emerging dramatically from a bubbling cauldron filled with the unidentified elements of life. Like The Great Train Robbery before it, Edison’s film featured early hand-tinted color, most notably during the monster’s birth sequence. However, the film made little impact in its time, and was considered lost until a collector unearthed a copy in 2002.

It wasn’t until 1931 that the story was truly immortalized by Hollywood. James Whale’s Frankenstein sprung from a screenplay by Robert Florey that had virtually nothing in common with Shelley’s novel beyond the character names (and even these were toyed with), and featured a marketing campaign that led to the common belief that Frankenstein and the monster are one and the same, a misconception that continues to this very day. Despite these factors, Frankenstein’s triumph is in Jack Pierce’s make-up designs. Beginning with Boris Karloff’s uniquely angular face, Pierce studied surgery, anatomy, criminology, and even electrodynamics. The latter tied into the film maker’s idea that Frankenstein would literally harness the power of heaven—lightning—and channel it through electrodes in the creature’s neck. In addition, Karloff was given a flat skull (to  suggest the crude removal of one brain and substitution of another), lifts and a steel spine that resulted in the actor’s permanent back problems, and was dressed in clothes too short for him to suggest height. However, the film, like the book before it, never bothers to explain how an eight-foot humanoid was fashioned from the corpses of normal (or even large-sized) men, but this was a factor typically overlooked in the wake of the film’s success. In fact, the make-up was (and is) so popular that and so groundbreaking that any film maker attempting to adapt Frankenstein to the screen is hit with an enormous lawsuit by Universal Pictures if their monster design even remotely resembles Boris Karloff.

In what is typically considered Hollywood’s first sequel, Whale, Karloff and Pierce returned to the story for 1935s The Bride of Frankenstein. Ironically, the second film contains more elements from the novel than the first, such as the blind fiddler DeLacey, the creature’s self-education and mastery of speech, and, of course, the Bride herself. Elsa Lancaster, who also doubles as Mary Shelley during the movie’s prologue, was turned into a white-robed, seven-foot-tall phantom through a combination of stilts, forced perspective, and a shock of lightning-streaked hair. The character design, lifted from an extensive study of ancient Egyptian burial customs, was so physically limiting that Lancaster had to be wheeled around the set on a cart and fed through a narrow tube.

Universal followed with several more sequels, creating the first movie franchise in which each successive film picks up where the last installment left off. The third in the series, Son of Frankenstein, was the last under Whale’s direction and the last to star Karloff, both of whom feared typecasting. However, Pierce’s makeup was carried over to Karloff’s successors, notably horror stars Lon Chaney Jr. (Ghost of Frankenstein), Bela Lugosi  (Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman), and cowboy actor Glenn Strange (House of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, and the final nail in the series’ coffin, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. With the world plunged into the Second World War, audiences had had enough of fictional monsters, and once Universal had reduced its characters to parody, the franchise died a pitiful and ignoble death.

It took the British to revive the series. Hammer Studios, a small company looking for potentially lucrative properties, turned to Frankenstein and his monster, both of whom had been out of commission for over a decade. In 1957, director Terrance Fischer produced The Curse of Frankenstein, a new spin on a hoary classic. Shot in glorious Eastman color, the Hammer Frankenstein offered (for its time) gratuitous blood, sexual imagery, and violence. The script, written by Jimmy Sangster, owed more to Florey than Shelley, and deviated wildly even from the Universal storyline. The creature, however, was the least successful element of the production.


Not this one…

Due to Universal’s strict copyright on Jack Pierces make-up, FX artist Phil Leaky had to reinterpret the monster, deciding to go for a less expressionistic appearance in favor of a more realistic look. His interpretation was based on the concept of real surgery, using real tissue, real organs, and the technology available at the time. The result was actor Christopher Lee looking essentially like an accident victim, with generous amounts of scarring, a blind eye, and a deformed nose. The six-foot-five-inch actor lumbered around onscreen as the monster only once before moving on to the character that would make him famous: Count Dracula.

Like Edison’s Life Without Soul, Fischer’s monster is also born of a nutrient bath, though the electrical currents of the Universal cycle are similarly put to good use. The laboratory, filled with glass tubes and whirling machines, was innovative in 1957, and the fact that the pseudo-science of Curse of Frankenstein made even less sense than Whale’s film didn’t disappoint audiences, who gave Hammer the boost it needed.

More sequels followed, though in each case, the monster was portrayed by a different actor. Ironically, Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) himself was the star, coming back from the dead at the beginning of each new installment to create yet another creature. There was Revenge of Frankenstein, in which a normal-looking monster is created via solar rays, only to degenerate into a rotting cadaver; The Evil of Frankenstein, the first and only time Hammer attempted to reproduce Universal’s make-up in exchange for distribution rights, featuring a laughable facsimile reanimated using hypnosis(!); Frankenstein Created Woman, a sexually-charged reinterpretation of the tale featuring a female creature possessed by a male spirit, thanks to Frankenstein’s creation of a soul transference machine; Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, with a fairly normal-looking monster reanimated through a series of injections; Horror of Frankenstein, a remake of the first film, featuring a pre-Star Wars David Prowse with painted stitches and a bizarre skull cap; and finally, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell, the last film of the series, in which a large, hairy, ape-like monster (again, David Prowse) is brought to life using that old favorite, lightning. By 1973, the series had managed to come full circle, imitating the very films it sought to stand apart from.

There were other interpretations during the seventeen years that Hammer monopolized the Frankenstein name, mostly from outside the United States. The Japanese production Frankenstein Conquers the World had a human heart subjected to radiation implanted in a boy named Frankenstein, who then grew giant-sized and battled a giant lizard in downtown Tokyo. Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster featured an astrobot called Frankenstein with a head like an alarm clock. I Was A Teenage Frankenstein was an attempt to lure kids into the theater with a tongue-in-cheek contemporary retelling, in which a mad scientist sews together teenage corpses and reanimates them using lightning. The monster even made its way to TV in the form of The Munsters, about a family of ghouls based on the Universal cycle of horror films. Fred Gwynne, playing patriarch Herman Munster, was outfitted in a fairly decent facsimile of Jack Pierce’s make-up, but by this point there was no longer any attempt to frighten.

Strangely, it took television—the least likely medium in which to convey genuine horror—to inject much-needed originality into Shelley’s now tiresome tale. Frankenstein: The True Story put a new spin on the novel, featuring a creature (Michael Sarazzin) who, stitched together and then fed to a nutrient bath, emerges as an Adonis who charms the ladies of pre-Victorian England. However, the inevitable rot begins to set in, and Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting) turns his back on his creation, spurring the monster to madness. Featuring far more blood, beheadings, and  dismembered corpses than seen previously on television, Frankenstein: The True Story was subsequently edited down from its four-hour run time and released theatrically overseas.


…and not even this one!

The following two decades saw new (and sometimes not-so-new) interpretations of the monster, but by now, film makers were running out of new looks as well as new ways of bringing the creature to life. Paul Morrissey’s Flesh For Frankenstein was a gory, softcore retelling featuring more nudity than plot, and holds the distinction of being the first (and only) version shown theatrically in 3-D. A television play, simply called Frankenstein, starred Chris Sarandon as a creature who is the reanimated corpse of Frankenstein’s mother (!).  Frankenstein Unbound utilizes a confused notion of time travel, in which Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, and the monster meet a scientist from the twenty-first century. Only the all-star cast and the atypically disgusting monster make-up serve the film in any way, as it borders on the same level of camp as Mel Brooks’ tribute to Whale, Pierce, and Karloff, Young Frankenstein.

The 90s saw the last two interpretations of note. The first was the Francis Ford Coppolla-produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, director/star Kenneth Branagh’s attempt to film the book as it was written. The claim, however, couldn’t have been further from the truth, beginning with the casting of the unusually short Robert DeNiro as the monster, referred to by Branagh as “The Sharp Featured Man.” Despite a series of stitches, flesh discolorations, two different color eyes and a generous amount of forced perspective, DeNiro never looked nor sounded like anyone but Robert DeNiro. Even the birth sequence, played at levels bordering on camp, combined elements of Hammer and Universal, featuring liquids, lightning—and acupuncture.     

The made-for-cable Frankenstein starring Patrick Bergin as the titular scientist and Randy Quaid as the monster, lacked Branagh’s budget, but made up for it in originality. Adhering closely to Shelley’s novel, the film deviated in one major respect: the monster was created using Frankenstein’s soul, captured, reflected, and then grown through a combination of machinery and chemical bath. As such, the monster becomes a metaphor for Frankenstein himself: his obsession, his inner self, until at last they recognize that they are at the very least brothers if not one complete being. Bergin and Quaid look similar enough that the latter was transformed into a vaguely deformed version of the former, incomplete due to an accident during the birthing procedure.

To this date, no film has accurately told the story as written by Shelley, but to be fair to the film makers, the novel contains gaps that only a competent screenwriter can fill in. Reading the book, one never questions the monster’s appearance — it is something that is formulated, and the creation sequence in turn becomes something unnecessary to the advancement of the overall plot. With film, however, the cardinal rule is to show, not tell, resulting in varying interpretations to be studied and appreciated.