My brain utterly benumbed by a recent viewing of I, Frankenstein, which stars Aaron Eckhart as a buffed-up version of the famous monster, this time on the side of the angels (literally) and battling demons from hell, I began to wonder how the iconic Hollywood creature could have fallen to such depths. On the bright side, I was also able to recall the heights to which he once soared.
Aside from a few short silent turns, the celluloid Frankenstein premiered in the sound era in 1931, some 10 months after Universal Studios hit a gold mine with Dracula. Boris Karloff reprised his role as the creature in only two sequels (1935 and 1939), but Universal kept cranking them out in the 1940s, five in all, with the creature played by different actors, including Bela Lugosi. The last Universal effort (and one of the best) had the poor, abused monster meeting Abbott & Costello.
From the ’50s through the early ’70s, England’s Hammer Studios resurrected Frankenstein in a variety of shapes and forms in seven films, with the creature portrayed by nearly everyone from Christopher Lee in Curse of Frankenstein to Playmate Susan Denberg (Miss August ’66, for the record) in Frankenstein Created Woman. (What do you expect? It was the ’60s.)
Since then, Frankenstein has fallen afoul of various film creators, from Andy Warhol (gory and ridiculous) to Roger Corman (Frankenstein Unbound) to Kenneth Branagh (operatic and over-the-top). It says something about the basic appeal and premise of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel — the first serious work of science fiction as well as a complex tale of horror, philosophy and theology — that the movies keep trying to get it right and keep it relevant for generations of moviegoers.
Nonetheless, the first two films remain the best for several reasons: the imaginative, oft-imitated production design, James Whale’s incisive and intelligent direction and Karloff’s unmatched portrayal of the monster as both menacing and tragic. The first scene in which Karloff makes his entrance capsulizes these dual qualities that he alone (despite the later efforts of Robert De Niro and many others in the same role) managed to effect. In the bowels of the castle, the rapid cuts of the camera highlight his menace even as his efforts to touch the sunlight underline his tragedy. The same holds true in the now-classic, once-controversial scene in which he unintentionally kills the young girl who befriends him. Karloff’s last words as the creature in the 1935 sequel, before destroying himself and his misbegotten bride, define the utter alienation of these monstrous children of the scientific revolution — “We belong dead!”
In what may be the greatest Spanish film ever, Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), a little girl’s fascination with the Frankenstein creature, gleaned from a screening of the 1931 film in her small village during the Spanish Civil War, stands as a metaphor for the tragic alienation and loneliness of childhood as well as the devastation of a nation.
Dreamt into being in the early 1800s by a 21-year-old female writer, Dr. Frankenstein and his tragic, terrifying creature have never been better served than in their first two major films from the early 20th century.