FRANKENSTEIN AND BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1931 AND 1935, DIR. JAMES WHALE).

© 2021, by M. Keith Booker

James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) arguably constitute a single narrative—and possibly the most important narrative in American horror film of the 1930s. Frankenstein was released just months after Dracula had become the first American horror movie of the sound era, at a time when audiences were still unaccustomed to frightening movies. Indeed, one of the most striking (and potentially amusing for twenty-first-century viewers) aspects of this film is its prologue, in which Edward Van Sloan[1] (who plays an important role in the film) steps in front of the camera to issue what we would today call a trigger warning, suggesting to overly sensitive viewers that they might want to forego the shocking film that is about to follow.[2] That film, of course, is now one of the beloved classics of American cinema. Bride of Frankenstein, meanwhile, was one of the first horror film made after the full implementation of the Hollywood Production Code, and many aspects of that film reflect the changing terms of American horror film as a result of that implementation.

Whether one regards Frankenstein as a pioneering horror film or as the first modern science fiction film, there is no question that it is one of the most important films in the history of American cinema and one that provided some of the best-known images of American popular culture in the twentieth century. It was the prototype not only for the dozens of Frankenstein movies that would be made in subsequent years but for the mad-scientist horror film in general. Indeed, both its themes and its visuals have exercised a lasting influence on the entire horror genre. Based loosely on Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel (but more directly on a 1930 stage adaptation of Shelley’s novel by Peggy Webling), this story of the pitfalls of unbridled scientific inquiry expressed some of American society’s anxieties over the rapid scientific and technological advances that had occurred in the first three decades of the twentieth century. In addition, the film’s monster, portrayed by Boris Karloff as a dangerous—but mostly just misunderstood—outcast, became a sort of icon of American individualism. Indeed, it was this ability of the powerful, but childlike and fundamentally innocent, monster to appeal to the deep-seated (but complex and somewhat artificial) American love of the underdog individual that made the film the success it was.

Whale’s Frankenstein departs in some substantial ways from Shelley’s original novel, perhaps most obviously in the grisly manner in which Dr. Henry Frankenstein[3] (Colin Clive), with the help of his hunchback assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye), robs graves and gallows in order to collect bodies, the parts of which he then reassembles into a new hybrid individual, who is then brought to life with the help of a jolt of lightning. Indeed, this version of the origin of the monster (as opposed to Shelley’s version, in which the monster is built from scratch) has now arguably become the standard, with most subsequent films following with some variation of it.

The moment at which the Monster is given life has become one of the best known in American film, both in terms of Frankenstein’s repeated excited pronouncement that “It’s alive!” and in terms of his self-congratulatory declaration that “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” This latter declaration was a bit much for the American censors, so that, even without the full enforcement of the strictures of the Code, this comparison of the scientist Frankenstein with God was eliminated from most American prints of the film, though censorship of the film varied from state to state, as well as from country to country.[4]

“It’s alive!”

Also now virtually canonical is the reason why Frankenstein’s Monster turns out to be so dysfunctional. In the process of stealing a brain for the Monster from the lab of Frankenstein’s old mentor Dr. Waldman (played by Van Sloan), Fritz botches the job and ends up nabbing the brain of a vicious criminal that Waldman had been using to demonstrate how it differed from a “normal” brain. Frankenstein apparently missed this class when he was Waldman’s student, because he doesn’t notice anything wrong with the brain, which he pops into the head of his creature prior to revving it up with lightning. Presumably because of this bad brain, the Monster does not perform as Frankenstein had expected after being activated, eventually killing Fritz and escaping into the surrounding mountains.

Despite the violent attack on Fritz, the mentally deficient Monster does not really seem to have inherited the criminal tendencies of its brain donor, but instead proceeds with a childlike innocence, stumbling through a world it little understands. Moreover, Fritz is killed only after he sadistically torments the Monster with a torch, having realized that the Monster is afraid of fire. One could thus argue that one weakness in the plot of the film is that it never really follows up on the brain-switch motif. On the other hand, by presenting the Monster as more of an innocent than a villain, the film is able to generate sympathy for the character, which is, in fact, a key to the success of the film. Ultimately, in fact, this sympathetic nature is key to the enduring cultural resonance of the Monster, who becomes a highly versatile stand-in for anyone who has ever felt lost or misunderstood, alone in a hostile world with few friends or allies.

Of course, the sympathetic nature of the Monster is greatly furthered by the performance of Boris Karloff in the role, aided by the now iconic make-up job by Jack Pierce. Virtually unknown at the time of the film (the opening credits even list the actor playing the Monster as “?”), Karloff was propelled by his performance in this film (even in a non-speaking part) into the first rank of American horror film stars, a position he would occupy at least through the mid-1940s, though he continued to appear occasionally in horror films through Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968), in which he plays an aging horror star whose career has much in common with his own. Karloff’s ability to make the inarticulate Monster appear sympathetic, more sinned against than sinning, was crucial to the success of both the film and his career.

Karloff’s iconic Monster.

Partly because of Karloff’s soulful performance, Frankenstein often verges on sentimentality in its presentation of the Monster, whose principle interaction with other humans comes in a controversial scene in which he meets a young girl named Maria (Marilyn Harris) on the bank of a lake. Maria is almost as innocent as the Monster. Accordingly, the girl greets the Monster in a friendly manner, and the Monster in turn responds enthusiastically, seemingly thrilled to at last receive a welcoming response, despite his looming appearance. Maria tosses some flowers into the lake, showing the Monster how they float like boats. Impressed, he throws some flowers in as well. Then, carried away by the moment (and demonstrating his limited cognitive functioning), he tosses Maria into the water so she can float as well, then he panics and runs away when she sinks like a rock and he is unable to retrieve her.

The scene is a powerful one that is crucial to the characterization of the Monster. Yet, for the very reason that it is so powerful, it was eliminated in whole or in part in most showings of the film in its original run. Indeed, most versions of the film available on video still do not include the entire scene, which was long considered lost until it was rediscovered at the British Film Institute in the 1980s. But the edited versions available in most video versions (including the one on Amazon Prime) are sufficient for the scene to make its point, which is that the Monster is dangerous not because he is malicious, but because he is so large and powerful, but has the cognitive abilities and practical knowledge of a very small child (or even of a frightened animal).

One could argue that this scene, in which the Monster kills an innocent child, actually increases our sympathy for him, rather than the other way around, because it shows just how ignorant he is of how the world works. It does, however, seem to represent a crucial turning point for the Monster, who subsequently wanders about the mountainside, lost, confused, and seemingly angry at having been put into this predicament. In fact, though the details are sketchy, the Monster at this point seems to embark on a campaign of vengeance. After the Maria scene, the film cuts immediately back to the Frankenstein castle, where preparations are underway for the marriage of Henry and his fiancée Elizabeth (Mae Clarke). Indeed, throughout the film, the movement toward these nuptials is presented as a scene of normality that serves as a counterpoint to the decidedly out-of-the-ordinary scenes involving the monster. In particular, marriage serves as a reminder of the socially-accepted and biologically-ordinary means of human procreation, as opposed to the extraordinary circumstances under which the Monster was brought to life.

This contrast is brought to a dramatic head soon afterward. Word comes that Waldman has been strangled, and sounds of the Monster are heard in and about the castle. Henry goes off to seek the Monster, leaving Elizabeth alone. Dressed in her white wedding gown and carrying a bouquet of fresh flowers, Elizabeth is then attacked by the Monster, who comes in through a window with apparently bad intent. He stalks her about the room. The camera then cuts away to Henry, still seeking the monster. Elizabeth’s screams and the Monster’s accompanying grunts draw Henry and those with him back to Elizabeth’s bedchamber, where she is shown draped across the bed, seemingly unconscious, as the Monster climbs back out the window.

Whether or not Elizabeth has been raped, as many critics have concluded, this scene at least enacts a symbolic clash between the domestic world of normality represented by Elizabeth and the extreme world of the abnormal represented by the Monster. Immediately after Elizabeth is discovered, distraught and barely coherent, the film cuts to a touching shot of Maria’s father (played by Michael Mark) staggering into the village carrying his dead daughter. In response, the local villagers gather to hunt down the Monster in the wake of Maria’s killing. They are presented, not as righteous agents of justice, but as an unruly mob, driven by ignorance and fear. Indeed, these pitchfork-and-torch-toting villagers have become a key image of mindless mob violence in American culture, with the individualist emphasis of that culture playing perfectly into a situation in which audience sympathy aligns almost automatically with the Monster, as a lone individual, and against the villagers, who emerge as a collective actor, almost totally devoid of individual characteristics.

Henry himself joins the mob, clearly now (presumably because of the attacks on Waldman and Elizabeth) having aligned himself against the Monster. It is, in fact, Henry who finally confronts the Monster, who has taken refuge in a rather Gothic-looking mill. In a shocking moment, the Monster throws Henry from the mill’s tower, at first seemingly to his death, though he survives the fall (presumably because his fall was broken by the vanes of the mill). Somewhat surprisingly, the villagers treat Henry completely sympathetically, sending him back to the village for treatment. They then return to their mode of almost unreasoning rage toward the Monster, burning the mill and apparently killing the Monster, who is still hiding inside.

The nighttime scenes of the final chase are among the most visually striking in the film. Indeed, one of the most influential aspects of this film was its visual composition, both in its poetic patterns of imagery (as in the recurring images of flowers) and in the effective use of styles borrowed from German Expressionism, involving striking patterns of darkness and light that help to convey a mood of Gothic horror. This style would exercise a continuing influence on American horror film, but would also be a major influence on film noir, which arose a decade after Frankenstein.[5]

In the end, the film returns to the domestic setting of the Frankenstein household, where Henry recuperates in bed, with Elizabeth at his side. In a comic final moment, the old Baron, Henry’s father (Frederick Kerr) decides to keep for himself the wine that the servants have brought for Henry, preferring to leave Henry and Elizabeth alone, perhaps so that they can have an opportunity to make a son. Besides suggesting that both Henry and Elizabeth seem to have survived their encounters with the Monster, this last statement represents a return to normalcy, suggesting that the “son” in question would be produced the old-fashioned way, rather than in Henry’s laboratory.

To this extent, Frankenstein is a rather conventional, even conservative film, celebrating traditional ways (and even looking back to the pre-capitalist world of medieval Europe, where aristocratic families like the Frankensteins reigned supreme). In some ways, the film seems deeply elitist, presenting the common people of the village as irrational bumpkins, yet is relatively generous in its treatment of the aristocratic Frankensteins. Meanwhile, the film expresses a great deal of anxiety about the rise of science and the rationalist-materialist worldview that accompanied that rise. At the most obvious level, Frankenstein suggests that scientists have taken on the role once reserved for God Himself, displaying an excessive pride and seeking knowledge that humans were never meant to have, with Henry’s creation of the Monster serving as a literalization of this notion. After all, Henry essentially re-enacts the Biblical creation of Adam (Shelley even sometimes referred to her Monster by that name), and then even overtly proclaiming that he now feels godlike.

This rejection of science and rationality should not really come as a surprise, given that Shelley’s original novel was deeply embedded within the movement of English Romanticism, which was itself anti-rationalist and deeply suspicious of the new science. At the same time, Henry himself makes a rather Romantic plea to Waldman for the value of his scientific research: “Where should we be if nobody tried to find out what lies beyond? Have you never wanted to look beyond the clouds and stars, to know what causes trees to bud and what changes darkness into light?” Indeed, the Romantics themselves were often thought of as radicals in their own time, while they certainly saw themselves as opponents of authority. Yet the most progressive readings of Frankenstein have depended primarily upon the strangely sympathetic and compelling figure of the Monster, which is very different from the representation of the same figure by Shelley. Once he has been given life, the Monster is really the main point-of-view character of the film, and his status as the ultimate Outsider actually gives the film an anti-authoritarian cast, even though this whole motif is strongly underwritten by an individualist ideology that is very much in line with the dominant ideology of America (or any capitalist society). The Monster is also dressed in garb that clearly seems coded as working class, perhaps making him more sympathetic to working-class audiences, while also making him seem more an opponent of conventional authority.

In any case, the ending of Frankenstein supplies a great deal of closure, suggesting that the filmmakers initially had no idea there might be a sequel, though sequels were already at that time becoming common in Hollywood. By 1935, sequels/franchises were becoming even more prominent, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that a film as successful as Frankenstein would eventually get the sequel treatment. What might be a surprise, though, is that the sequel is, in many ways, a significant improvement on the classic original, perhaps because of the lessons Whale had learned in making the first film.

Arguably the greatest of all the films inspired by Whale’s original Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein is a direct sequel. But Bride is actually livelier and funnier than the first film, while generating even more sympathy for its hapless monster and creating even more impressive Expressionist visuals. Bride also differs from its predecessor in that it was made after the full implementation of the Hollywood Production Code, and many of its offbeat touches can be attributed to the way Whale fenced with the censors throughout the production of the film, attempting to evade their attempts to water down the contents. Among other things, he did so by introducing a great deal of gay iconography, knowing that the censors would probably not recognize it.

As Bride of Frankenstein begins, we can immediately see that things have changed since the initial Frankenstein. Now, instead of being credited simply as “?,” Karloff is actually credited above the title of the film—though only by his last name. Then, a brief credits sequence (accompanied by Franz Waxman’s dramatic title music), ends with a cast list that includes the enigmatic entry: “The Monster’s Mate,” credited now to “?,” as the Monster was in the first film. Meanwhile, the music itself shifts at the end of the credits to a Romantic theme that will run throughout the film. The music then becomes dramatic again as the film cuts to a rather Gothic mountaintop castle amid a heavy thunderstorm, creating a horror-film atmosphere and producing the expectation that this is the castle of Frankenstein. It quickly becomes clear, though, that this is the castle in Switzerland where Mary Godwin supposedly conceived the idea for her story in during a stay with Lord Byron and her future husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1816. This scene modifies historical reality a bit, suggesting that Mary was already Mary Shelley at this time (she and Percy were married later that year, after the suicide of his first wife), but also suggesting that the first part of the story (entailing the events of the first film) had already been written. This setup allows Byron to give a quick recap of the first film, as we then move into the events of the second. Meanwhile, the suggestion that Mary and Percy are already married might be taken as a nod to the censors, who were by the time of this film fully enforcing the dictates of the Production Code, which forbade the depiction of “immoral” behavior such as the cohabitation of Mary and Percy when he was still married to someone else. Mary herself, meanwhile, delivers a message to the censors with her explanation that, in writing her story, “my purpose was to write a moral lesson of the punishment that befell a mortal man who dared to emulate God.”

The events of Bride of Frankenstein essentially begin where the first film ended, though there is actually a bit of overlap, as Henry has not yet returned to his castle (he is now the baron, his father having somehow disappeared from the scene) when this film begins. He is quickly carted away, though, leaving the burning mill to collapse in ruin. The villagers disperse, assuming the Monster to have been killed in the fire, though Maria’s father (now played by Reginald Barlow, in one of several casting changes between the two films) insists on seeing the dead Monster for himself. The Monster, of course, is still alive, having taken refuge in a pool of water beneath the mill. Wounded and enraged, the Monster attacks and drowns the father, thus consigning him to the same fate as his daughter. Then, the Monster climbs out of the mill and tosses Maria’s mother (Mary Gordon) down into the pool, presumably killing her as well.

This film thus gets rather quickly off to a dark start, though the Monster then immediately encounters Minnie (Una O’Connor), one of Henry’s servants, sending her into a paroxysm of comic screaming and frantic running about. Indeed, perhaps the most immediately obvious difference between Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein is the substantially larger amount of comedy that has been injected into the latter, perhaps as a sort of tradeoff to lighten the tone of the film and please the censors. Other than Minnie’s screaming, for example, we also get a number of clever references to the earlier film, as when Minnie herself speaks the “it’s alive” line when she discovers the still-living Monster, and also says “he’s alive” when she discovers that Henry is still living.

Una O’Connor, the original Scream Queen.

Perhaps the comic highlight of the film, however, is the early scene in which Henry’s old teacher Dr. Pretorius (who claims to have been “booted out” of the university for “knowing too much”) unveils the tiny homunculi he has been able to create and bring to life. Unlike Waldman, who served in the first film as a counterpart to Henry and as a representative of authority and propriety, Pretorius is an even madder mad scientist than is Henry, whom he exhorts to join him in this new “world of gods and monsters,” thus slipping in a reference to Henry’s earlier remark about feeling like a god, a remark that never would have been allowed under the Code. Pretorius’s homunculi play essentially no role in the plot of the film, and their introduction serves primarily as a comic interlude. Particularly amusing is Pretorius’s misbehaving king, who is clearly modeled on the Henry VIII character played by Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). This allusion is particularly clever when one realizes that Elsa Lanchester (who plays both Mary Shelley and the Bride in Bride of Frankenstein) played one of the wives of Henry VIII in that film—not to mention the fact that Lanchester was married to Laughton in real life (and that Laughton had starred in the 1932 horror film The Old Dark House, directed by Whale).

Pretorius recaptures the wayward king.

Pretorius has other comic moments as well, as when he declares alcohol to be his only weakness, then later makes the same claim for cigars. The contribution of Pretorius in the film subsequently takes a dark turn as he becomes the central instigator for Henry to resume his attempts at creating human life, this time in the form of a woman. Pretorius, employing two murderers as oddly comic graverobbers, also assumes the role of collecting body parts, while ultimately joining with the Monster in urging, then coercing, Henry to make a woman who can be the mate of the original Monster. Eventually, that Monster kidnaps Elizabeth and holds her hostage to force Henry to make the Bride, which he successfully does, employing a laboratory that seems to have been significantly upgraded since the first film. The visuals of the moment of animation (again via lightning) are also significantly improved, with lots of dramatic Expressionist camerawork helping to build the moment.

Other Expressionist visuals significantly enhance this film as well. As in the first film, this is especially the case in the scenes in which the villagers chase the Monster, in this case capturing and chaining him, though he quickly uses his immense strength to escape. What is particularly striking about this sequence is the way in which it visually links the Monster with Christ, in what might be taken as Whale’s reaction to the censors’ insistence that the film not mention the parallel between Henry and God, which had been so important to the impact of the first film. In particular, this sequence culminates in a “crucifixion” scene in which Karloff’s monster is tied to a pole and raised aloft before a hostile mob, looking very much like Christ crucified.

The Monster is “crucified” by the villagers.

Bride also significantly ramps up the pathos of the Monster’s plight. In one crucial sequence, for example, the Monster, wounded and afraid, comes upon the cottage of an old blind hermit. The old man is of course not put off by the Monster’s appearance. Moreover, he is seriously lonely himself, greatly relieved to have found a friend. The Monster experiences human kindness for the first time since Maria offered him those flowers and also learns to appreciate the pleasures of music, food, and drink. He even begins to learn to speak, but the interlude is soon interrupted when hunters arrive at the cottage, recognize the Monster, and instigate a fracas that leads to the destruction of the cottage (by fire, of course) and sends the Monster once again into flight. This time, though, he flees through a graveyard, increasing the Gothic atmosphere, but also again creating the opportunity for another visual that links him to Christ. Then, finally, there is that painful moment at the end when the Monster meets his Bride, an artificial human like himself, only to find that she is horrified by him, which once again creates viewer sympathy for the Monster.[6] “She hate me,” the Monster sadly concludes.

A visual link between the Monster and Christ.

The poignant interlude with the blind man provides an interesting counterpoint with the later scene in which the Monster, having fled into the graveyard, comes upon Pretorius, who is having a macabre feast of wine, bread, and a cigar in a mausoleum, where he and his hired graverobbers have just discovered a sturdy young female skeleton for use in constructing the Bride.[7] Pretorius is celebrating the find (using a casket as a table and a skull as a table decoration), then greets the Monster with comic nonchalance when he shows up. “Have a cigar,” he tells the Monster. “They are my only weakness.” The Monster gladly accepts Pretorius’s hospitality, hoping to have found another friend, though of course he is even more interested when Pretorius informs him that they are in the process of making a woman to be the Monster’s friend.

The Monster, of course, will be sorely disappointed, adding to a sympathy that makes Bride more clearly anti-authoritarian than the 1931 Frankenstein. It is also the case thatWhale (with the help of Thesiger’s campy performance) also managed to work in a number of suggestions that Pretorius is probably gay (as was Whale), which the censors seem to have missed entirely, just as they apparently missed the implied links between the Monster and Christ.[8] Indeed, though Pretorius is hardly an admirable character, he is certainly a colorful one, and one can easily imagine Whale taking a great deal of pleasure in imagining how horrified the censors would have been had they realized all the things that he had gotten past them.[9]

The Bride reacts to the first sight of her intended mate.

A Brief (and Partial) Survey of Other Frankenstein Films

Beyond Bride of Frankenstein, the Frankenstein story has inspired a wide range of films, becoming an international pop cultural franchise of its own. This franchise initially included some direct sequels from Universal, beginning with Son of Frankenstein (1939), the first Universal Frankenstein film not directed by James Whale. Perhaps for that reason, this film clearly marks the beginning of a decline for the original Frankenstein franchise, despite the return of Karloff as the monster and the addition of a preposterously overacting Basil Rathbone (as the title character) and an effectively smarmy Bela Lugosi as his assistant Ygor, who pretty much steals the show from the monster. Here, the son of the original Dr. Frankenstein is a modern professor who decides to return to the family’s ancestral castle to escape the tedium of “classrooms and faculty meetings,” thus introducing the first in the film’s series of horrifying images. The poor monster, who always gets killed in the end, is again resurrected, this time by a manipulative Ygor, but both are eventually killed by Rathbone’s young Dr. Frankenstein. The monster, in particular, is knocked into a boiling pit of sulfur that anticipates the vat of molten metal at the end of Terminator II. The film is still pretty entertaining, though marred by over-the-top delivery of sometimes near-ridiculous dialogue. For example, police inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwell, with a balky prosthetic left arm that seems to have been borrowed later by Dr. Strangelove), confronts Dr. Frankenstein with “Where is the monster? Where is he? I’ll stay by your side until you confess! And if you don’t, I’ll feed you to the villagers like the Romans fed Christians to the lions!” Frankenstein responds with a dramatically indignant, unintentionally hilarious retort: “I wouldn’t put it past you!”

With House of Frankenstein (1944), it became clear that Universal’s Frankenstein franchise had finally jumped the shark. No wonder Karloff bolted from Universal soon afterward to go to work for Val Lewton at RKO. Here, both Karloff and Lon Chaney, Jr., appear, though neither plays the monster, who in fact, has a fairly small role in the film, which also features appearances by Dracula (John Carradine) and the Wolf Man (Chaney) in a completely contrived and cobbled-together attempt to get as many famous monsters in one film as possible. Karloff plays a mad scientist (not named “Frankenstein,” though) who has been imprisoned for attempting to transplant the brain of a human into a dog. He escapes and encounters both Dracula and the Wolf Man as he attempts to resurrect the monster and follow in the footsteps of his hero, the original Dr. Frankenstein. Dracula (by sunlight), the Wolf Man (by a silver bullet), the monster and Karloff (by sinking into quicksand) are all killed off—as, pretty much, was the original Universal franchise.

House of Frankenstein was the first in a series of mashups with which Universal attempted to squeeze a bit more mileage out of its classic monsters. At least one of these, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) is actually pretty good—considered by some to be a classic of film comedy. It’s a far cry from the pathos of the original Universal Frankenstein films, though, as Abbott and Costello do their standard schtick amid a gang of monsters that includes Bela Lugosi (returning as Dracula), Lon Chaney, Jr. (returning as the Wolf Man), and Glenn Strange (as Frankenstein’s monster, which he had also played in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula). Strange, by the way, was prominent enough as a Frankenstein actor that Karloff’s 1969 obituary in the New York Times was erroneously accompanied by a picture of Strange as the Monster.

In 1957, the Frankenstein franchise was rebooted in Karloff’s native Britain with the release of The Curse of Frankenstein from Hammer Film Productions. Here, Peter Cushing stars as Baron Victor Frankenstein, while Christopher Lee plays his monster. Lee is actually on the screen relatively little (and a frame narrative leaves open the possibility that the monster never existed at all), but this is a very effective, full-color presentation of the Frankenstein story, even if it doesn’t quite match up to the Whale/Karloff original, partly because the colorful mise-en-scène can’t quite match the Gothic/Expressionist black-and-white visuals of the original, and partly because the monster is both less sympathetic and less imposing. Indeed, despite that fact that the 6’ 5” Lee himself was a far more imposing physical specimen than Karloff, the monster here looks rather spindly, almost more an anticipation of Johnny Depp’s Edward Scissorhands (whom he clearly influenced) than an echo of Karloff’s definitive monster. Lee would soon rise to stardom as Hammer’s Dracula, but Cushing dominates this film as the mad scientist whose work goes awry (partly because he apparently still hasn’t learned to handle brains more carefully). However, most of Baron Frankenstein’s problems seem to arise from his difficulties in gaining proper cooperation from his friend and former tutor Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) and his servant girl and mistress Justine (Valerie Gaunt). In the end, Frankenstein is sent to the guillotine for killing the demanding Justine (who threatens to reveal his mad-scientist secrets if he doesn’t marry her), even though he claims the monster did it, while Krempe declines to verify the Baron’s story about the existence of the monster (possibly because the monster never existed, but more likely because he wants to make off with Frankenstein’s bride Elizabeth). The Baron, however, evades execution, as we learn in the first sequel, The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958). Curse was, in fact, the first of seven Hammer Frankenstein films; it’s a classic, possibly the best Frankenstein film not directed by Whale, and one that nicely demonstrates the richness of this basic story, which seems to be able to support almost unlimited variations.

In addition to the Hammer films, a variety of Frankenstein films have continued to appear over the years. Of the direct adaptations, two of the most notable are Mel Brooks’s spoof Young Frankenstein (1974), which nicely exploits the comic possibilities of the story, and Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), a relatively big-budget effort that attempts (as the title suggests) to return to the original novel rather than simply building on Whale’s films. Young Frankenstein is a comic classic, one of the great horror comedies of all time. Branagh’s visible sumptuous film has its moments as well, especially in Robert De Niro’s compelling performance as the Monster (now called the “Creature”), though many critics felt that it did not really succeed as a horror film.

The Bride (1985) got a great deal of attention when it was released, partly because of the presence of the rock star Sting as Baron Frankenstein, now renamed Charles, for no particular reason. It also drew a lot of critical venom, and with good reason. Here, the Monster runs away with a dwarf and joins the circus, which pretty much indicates the ridiculousness of this version. Meanwhile, as the title indicates, there is much focus on the Bride (Jennifer Beals), now named “Eva,” and now quite beautiful. Not surprisingly, she still rejects the Monster, so Charles decides to keep her for himself, training her Pygmalion-style to be the perfect woman. In what might have been a feminist statement, though, she quickly develops a mind of her own, partly because Charles has taught her to think of herself as his equal, teaching her that “a woman should do as she pleases, just like man.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t practice what he preaches—and even tries to rape her when she resists his advances. Luckily, the Monster saves her, kills Charles (by tossing him off a tower, of course), and then takes her off on a romantic trip to Venice. These two were made for each other, after all.

Also worth mentioning is Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound (1990), in his first credited turn as a director in nearly twenty years. Based on a novel by Brian Aldiss, it’s an attempt to punch up the science fictional aspects of the Frankenstein story by introducing a scientist of the future (played by John Hurt) who follows in the footsteps of the original Dr. Frankenstein by pursuing scientific research that leads to dangerous consequences. In this case, Hurt’s character (Dr. Joe Buchanan) is accidentally hurled back in time to early nineteenth-century Geneva, where he meets the original Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Raul Julia), as well as Mary Shelley (Bridget Fonda) and the monster. Mayhem predictably ensues, and eventually Buchanan zaps Frankenstein’s castle with his high-powered laser and returns to the future (pursued by the monster, who also eventually gets zapped), only to find a world devastated by the cataclysmic results of his research. A box-office flop, Frankenstein Unbound is neverthelessCorman’s best-looking movie. It’s a bit tedious in places, but an interesting concept that has gained something of a cult following over the years.

The 2014 film I, Frankenstein at least makes a point about the variety of movies that can be made from the Frankenstein story, though it doesn’t achieve much else. This film returns the action to the late eighteenth century, but now converts the monster into an action hero battling against an invading army of demons seeking to conquer the world. But this film loses almost all of the texture of the original, basically using the Frankenstein name simply as a tool for marketing an undistinguished string of computer-generated action images. Reviewers largely trashed it, and rightfully so.

The 2015 film Victor Frankenstein was a relatively big-budget effort, though it, too received mostly negative critical responses. Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of this film is that—despite the titular focus on Frankenstein (played by James McAvoy)—it shifts much of its emphasis to Frankenstein’s assistant Igor (Daniel Radcliffe). Now Igor turns out to be a brilliant surgeon, rescued from the circus and “cured” of his hunchback by Frankenstein. Igor even gets the girl, while Frankenstein flees into hiding in Scotland after the British authorities (spearheaded by a religious fanatic police inspector) disrupt their attempts to build and artificial man, here named Prometheus. Prometheus, however, turns out to be a particularly uninteresting Monster and only spends a few moments alive before being killed, while the film as a whole is clearly an attempt (largely unsuccessful) to jazz up the story in the manner of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009), partly by moving the story forward in time to the late Victorian era and partly through peripatetic postmodern editing.

Speaking of moving forward in time, one distinct subgenre of Frankenstein films involves moving the story forward into the present time of the making of the film. For example, Karloff would return for one such film in Frankenstein 1970 (1958), though this one actually moves the action (per the title) into the future. Here, Karloff plays Baron Victor von Frankenstein, a scientist whose body has been broken by torture at the hands of the Nazis, though he has resumed his work after their demise. In particular, he is working in the family business of trying to make an artificial man—this time one who is a replica of himself sans the damage done by the Nazis. Unfortunately, the Frankenstein fortune has been depleted, so, to finance his work (which includes buying an atomic reactor, rather than using lightning, to charge the creature), he is allowing a Hollywood film crew to shoot a television special in his castle to mark the 230th anniversary (not clear where or why they came up with these particular dates) of the work of the original Dr. Frankenstein—who thus turns out to predate Mary Shelley’s novel by nearly eight decades, which seems a bit early. Of course, it all goes terribly wrong. Karloff is terrific (and only a little over-the-top), and the whole film is quite enjoyable, despite how it sounds.

A 2004 made-for-TV film (actually a pilot for a series that never materialized), simply entitled Frankenstein,was one of a number of narratives that transferred the Frankenstein story into modern times—in this case present-day New Orleans. Here, scientist Victor Helios (Thomas Kretschmann), said to be the real-world inspiration for Shelley’s original Victor Frankenstein character, has survived (along with his Monster) for over two hundred years thanks to the application of his advanced scientific knowledge. Helios, meanwhile, has also made a bride for himself (played by Ivana Miličević) and a number of other artificial humans, toward the eventual goal of replacing the entire human race with a race of his own creations. The plot, however, is primarily a police procedural—with a vibe vaguely reminiscent of the 1995 film Seven—as police detectives attempt to solve a series of grisly murders related to Helios’s plot. This film has its moments, but its basic premise seems a bit far-fetched, even for a Frankenstein movie. Moreover, because it was originally a pilot, very little is resolved in the film, which seems to stop midstream in the telling of its story—as Helios’s original Monster (here called Deucalion, played by Vincent Perez) agrees to help the police in battling against his maker.

Another modernization that illustrates the versatility of the Frankenstein story is the 2014 international co-production Frankenstein’s Army, though here the modernization extends only to then 1940s. Here, a Nazi mad scientist descended from the original Victor Frankenstein creates an array of colorfully gruesome creatures for use as weapons to help repel the Soviet invasion of Germany at the end of World War II. A great deal of imagination seems to have gone into the visual design of the creatures, which are part biological and part mechanical. Not much else really works in this film, though, including the found footage format, which seems mostly like a gimmick.

The 2015 film Frankenstein, from experienced horror director Bernard Rose, is perhaps the best of the films that transplant the story into the modern world. Here, Danny Huston and Carrie-Ann Moss play Victor and Elizabeth Frankenstein, a husband-and-wife research team who create an artificial man. This time he’s a good-looking one, though he initially has the mind of an infant, given that he was just created. Then, due to errors in cell replication, the man (whom they name “Adam”) begins to deteriorate, and the Frankensteins eventually decide to put him down, even though Adam has developed a bond with Elizabeth, whom he calls “Mom.” Adam proves to be surprisingly resilient, though, springing back to life and escaping into the outside world, where he suffers a number of abuses so horrific that they border on torture porn—as when he is brutally beaten and killed by a sadistic cop (only to again spring back to life). Given such scenes, it is no surprise that this film completely drops the humorous aspect of Whale’s films. It does, however, replicate (or perhaps even exceed) Whale’s creation of sentiment for the Monster, whose heart-wrenching experiences include cleverly modernized re-imaginings of many key scenes in both of Whale’s Frankenstein films. For example, the blind hermit in Bride is here replaced by a blind, homeless bluesman, played by Tony Todd, who became a legend in the horror film world for his title role in Rose’s Candyman (1992). There’s also a clever recreation of the scene with little Maria. This time the girl survives, but Adam’s pet dog is brutally killed by the police in the same sequence. In the course of the film, meanwhile, Adam becomes quite articulate, and even serves as the narrator for much of the action, though he never quite overcomes his childlike innocence, despite all that happens to him, leading to a tragic and fiery conclusion.

Another effective modernization of the Frankenstein story is Depraved (2019), directed by horror film auteur Larry Fessenden. Set in modern-day New York, this film has very much the feel of a contemporary horror story, with a bit of an Indie vibe, while at the same time including a number of clever nods to Whale’s originals. Here, Henry (David Call) is a former field medic who served in the war in the Middle East, where he became obsessed with the idea of being able to reanimate the dead. The real mad scientist here, though, is one Polidori  (Joshua Leonard), who is funding Henry’s research, which he hopes to monetize. This name derives from that of John William Polidori (1795–1821), a physician and writer who was associated with the Romantic movement and who was present at the Geneva gathering in which Mary Shelley conceived of Frankenstein in 1816. Polidori is also often considered the father of the modern vampire story due to his writing of “The Vampyre” (1819), generally considered to be the first modern vampire story.

Depraved thus manages to work in some very contemporary issues (such as the war in the Middle East and capitalist exploitation) while tracking Whale’s films surprisingly faithfully. For example, the emphasis on Henry’s battleground experiences echoes the impact of World War I on Whale. Meanwhile, the Monster of this film (played by Alex Breaux) manages to achieve some of Karloff’s sympathetic portrayal, if on a grittier and somewhat less poignant scale—perhaps (oddly enough) because Breaux’s Monster (again named Adam) seems more human than did Karloff’s monster.

Finally, it should be noted that there is a whole family of films that were inspired by the Frankenstein story but are not direct adaptations of it. This category includes the cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), in which Tim Curry, as the mad scientist Frank-N-Furter, delivers one of the most spectacularly campy performances of all time, thus emphasizing the gay subtext of Whale’s films. Frank-N-Furter’s musical numbers are the heart of the film, while the plot involves his creation of a piece of beefcake, Rocky Horror (Peter Hinwood), for his own sexual pleasure. Another over-the-top film with strong resonances of the Frankenstein story is Re-Animator (1985), though that film is ostensibly based on a story by H. P. Lovecraft. Here, Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) is a medical student whose research involves an experimental formula that restores the life force and thus brings corpses back to life. Unfortunately, the subjects always seem to be murderously insane when re-animated in this way, which predictably leads to significant problems. Perhaps even more outrageous (though less fun) is Frank Henenlotter’s Frankenhooker (1990), in which medical school castoff and would-be mad scientist Jeffrey Franken (James Lorinz) makes a remote-controlled lawn mower that accidentally chops up his pretty-but-chubby fiancée, Elizabeth Shelley (former Penthouse Pet Patty Mullen). Luckily, Franken is able to retrieve her head intact, then spends the rest of the film blowing up a series of hookers by dosing them with super-crack, collecting the resulting carnage to assemble a new body for Elizabeth.

Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990), mentioned above, begins as a mysterious inventor (played by horror legend Vincent Price) converts a piece of machinery into an artificial man (the title character, played by Johnny Depp) but has died before completing the project, leaving the man with scissors (part of the original machinery) for hands. Edward then wanders into a conformist suburban community, has predictable misadventures, but then finds favor when his Scissorhands turn out to be useful for things like creating topiary and giving interesting haircuts. In the end, though, he falls out of favor and is proclaimed dangerous, then chased out of the community as the suburbanites take on the role of the enraged villagers of Frankenstein. Conveyed essentially as a fairytale, this film is also a whimsical piece of postmodernist art.

One of the best of these is Lucky McKee’s May (2002), which has become a cult classic in the horror-film world. This film’s protagonist, May Canady (Angela Bettis), is a lonely young woman who was bullied in childhood because of her lazy eye and who remains something of an outcast in adulthood. Ultimately, her inability to connect with others drives her to commit a series of murders and then use her skills (she works as a vet tech and sews for a hobby) to reassemble the bodies into one hybrid using her favorite parts from each body. She hopes, thereby, finally to have a friend, thus placing her somewhat a hybrid position herself, sharing characteristics of Frankenstein and of the Monster.

At the other end of the spectrum from May is the horror comedy Patchwork (2015), in which a mad scientist (for some reason) works at combining parts from different individuals (or even different species, as when he creates an “owl-cat”) into new hybrid creatures. The film focuses on three young women who are combined into one body and also share a single mind, while also maintaining their separate individual consciousnesses, sometimes battling with each other for control. Things predictably go very, very wrong, with the hybrid woman going on a murderous spree of revenge against men who have wronged them/her. Nevertheless, in the end the women triumph, forcing the mad scientist to make them a new hybrid man as a mate. Any potential feminist message in the film is thus blunted by the notion that the ultimate goal of a woman should be to find a compatible man.

It should also be noted that there is an entire family of films that draw upon the science fictional aspects of the Frankenstein story to explore the creation of artificial “life,” though these films often involve artificial intelligences that are not necessarily biological. There are, for example, clear Frankensteinian elements in such science fiction classics as Blade Runner (1982) and its long-awaited sequel Blade Runner 2049 (2017). The same might be said of the Robocop sequence of films, beginning with the 1987 original, though the Frankenstein connection there is a bit less clear and direct. The genetic engineering dramas Splice (2009) and Little Joe (2019) also fall in the category of science fiction films clearly influenced by the Frankenstein narrative, as does the particularly effective artificial intelligence drama Ex Machina (2014).

Finally, the Frankenstein “franchise” is very much a multimedia one, with films being joined by comic books, novels, television series, and so on. For example, the Showtime series Penny Dreadful (2014–2016) has a particularly interesting and inventive take on the stories of Frankenstein, the Monster, and the Bride. Meanwhile, the classic sitcom The Munsters (1964–1966) features Herman Munster (Fred Gwynne) as a particularly lovable version of the Monster. In addition, the Frankenstein story has even made its way into American children’s culture, as in Franken Berry Cereal or Burton’s animated, kid-friendly film Frankenweenie (2012). The extent to which this story (and especially its central Monster) has penetrated day-to-day culture is indicative of the way the story addresses a number of fundamental issues in a very compelling way. (For a more comprehensive and fairly recent survey of Frankenstein narratives, see Friedman and Kavey.)

The Frankenstein figure has moved into the worlds of children’s cereal and TV sitcoms.

WORKS CITED

Friedman, Lester D., and Allison B. Kavey. Monstrous Progeny: A History of the Frankenstein Narratives. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016.

Hollinger, Veronica. “Hideous Progeny and Reproductive Futurity.” Science Fiction Film and Television Vol. 11, No. 2, Summer 2018, pp. 166-167.

Morris, Gary. “Sexual Subversion: The Bride of Frankenstein.” Bright Lights Film Journal (July 1, 1997). https://brightlightsfilm.com/sexual-subversion-bride-frankenstein/#.XnLIqBNKiu4. Accessed March 18, 2020.

Skal, David J. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. Rev. ed. New York: Faber and Faber, 2001.

Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.

NOTES


[1] Van Sloan had also been used to deliver an epilogue at the end of Dracula, thus linking the end of that film directly to the beginning of Frankenstein.

[2] Though a pre-Code film, Frankenstein still had its struggles with the censors. One concession was the addition of this warning prologue.

[3] In Shelley’s novel, Dr. Frankenstein is named “Victor.” Apparently, the name was changed for the film because the name “Henry” made the scientist seem more sympathetic. On the other hand, another character, who seems rather sympathetic (if a bit insipid), is now named “Victor.”

[4] See Skal for a good account of the film’s battles with censorship (137–39).

[5] Much of Rick Worland’s chapter on this film is devoted to its Expressionist style (157–175).

[6] One might note, however, Veronica Hollinger’s suggestion that the Bride’s screaming reaction to the Monster might partly derive from her realization that her body has been “constructed specifically to serve the interests of the male characters in the movie” (166).

[7] The inscription on the tomb being robbed indicates that this woman died in 1899, suggesting that the film is set some years later than that, perhaps during World War I, an event that exercised a powerful impact on Whale, who captured in the war, becoming a prisoner of the Germans. As Skal notes, Whale’s two Frankenstein films can be seen as a sort of “cultural dumping ground for the processed images of men blown to pieces, and the shell-shocked fantasy obsession of fitting them back together again” (186). The film Gods and Monsters (1999), which focuses on Whale’s last days, emphasizes the impact of the war on Whale’s imagination, especially in Bride.

[8] Whale, in fact, fenced quite directly with Joseph Breen, the Code’s head enforcer, during the pre-production phases of Bride. See Skal (186–191).

[9] See Morris for a useful discussion of the film’s gay subtext—and of the ways in which it subverts conventional notions of family and gender roles in general.