A brief history of Frankenstein's monster on screen

Ahead of Mary Shelley, Haifa al-Mansour's study of the Frankenstein author starring Elle Fanning, we look at how Shelly's most famous creation, Frankenstein’s monster, has been portrayed on screen throughout the decades

Feature by Ross McIndoe | 18 Jun 2018
  • Frankenstein 1931

He’s a big green monster with bolts in his neck and his name is “Frankenstein”. Everyone knows that, right?

Since Mary Shelley first struck life into Dr. Frankenstein’s monster 200 years ago, the popular perception of him has morphed quite dramatically, mostly thanks to his various cinematic incarnations. Before Saudi Arabia’s pioneering filmmaker Haifa al-Mansour returns to the original text and the story of the woman who wrote it with Mary Shelley, here’s a quick run-down of some of the ways Shelly's much-misunderstood creation has been adapted, animated and re-animated for the big screen.

Frankenstein & The Bride of Frankenstein

Dir. James Whale, 1931 & 1933

All jagged edges and bottomless shadows, these early adaptations are beautifully shot, bona fide horror classics. Boris Karloff’s take on the monster himself remains unrivalled: wordless in the first film and speaking in stilted “Me Tarzan, you Jane” style in the second, his performance is a masterclass in how to balance the extravagant screen presence of a movie monster with all the little ticks that make him seem quietly human.

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein

Dir. Charles Barton, 1948

Originally conceived as both a tragic figure and a nightmarish monster, Frankenstein’s creature has often found himself recast as a source of comic relief. Abbott and Costello offered one of the earliest glimpses of his comedic potential while also roping in horror virtuosos Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price to lend their shenanigans a pinch of real terror.

Curse of Frankenstein

Dir. Terence Fisher, 1957

The year before he donned Dracula’s cape and became an immortal of horror cinema, Christopher Lee turned his towering frame and steely voice to the role of Frankenstein’s monster. In the process, he opened the doors to the Hammer house of horror.

Young Frankenstein

Dir. Mel Brooks, 1974

Great parody doesn’t come from just making a screwed up version of the original, but from mimicking it skillfully at a slightly crooked angle. Brooks’ Young Frankenstein aped the style of Whale’s black and white classic with loving precision and then spun it into a subversive send-up.

Frankenhooker

Dir. Frank Henenlotter, 1990

A young man accidentally murders his girlfriend and then resurrects her by stitching together the body parts of local prostitutes who he also killed. Like a Chinese Box of “women in refrigerator” tropes.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Dir. Kenneth Branagh, 1994

A title conspicuously pointing to the Victorian classic rather than its green-skinned offspring, an acclaimed British thespian behind the camera and an illustrious cast including Helena Bonham Carter, John Cleese and Robert De Niro as the monster: Branagh’s adaptation swung hard for prestige, missed narrowly, and struck only high-pitched melodrama.

Van Helsing

Dir. Stephen Sommers, 2004

In his excitement to assemble horror’s biggest players into the same story, Sommers realised some of them so pretty thinly. His Frankenstein's monster, in particular, feels like it was adapted from a photo of the character he saw once, many years ago.

Igor

Dir. Anthony & Tony Leondis, 2008

Igor is not a great film but it has that enjoyable old-school cartoon oddness where it feels like it was concocted in a dark basement by Red Bull-wired weirdos and aimed solely at college stoners and kids whose parents were too checked out to care what they were watching. It also has Steve Buscemi as an immortal rabbit obsessed with suicide.

Frankenweenie

Dir. Tim Burton, 2012

Returning to the short film that got him fired from Disney 30 years before, Burton’s tale of a young boy zapping life back into his beloved dog is one of the high points of his mostly misfiring recent years.

I, Frankenstein

Dir. Stuart Beattie, 2014

Demons! Gargoyles! Bill Nighy! CGI! Nonsense!

No.


Mary Shelley screens as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 26&28 Jun. For tickets, head to edfilmfest.org.uk/2018/mary-shelley

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