Frankenstein's movie history: The good, bad and ugly
05:00 AM, Jan 22, 2014
Much like the monster himself, Frankenstein’s screen history has had many disparate parts since Boris Karloff first lumbered into cinemas playing the character from Mary Shelley’s novel in 1931. With I, Frankenstein in theaters Friday, we talked with noted horror hounds to dig up the good, the bad and the plain ugly.
Frankenstein (1931): Watching the original was a pivotal moment for Steve Barton of DreadCentral.com when he first saw it as a 4-year-old. Not only did it kick off a lifelong love of horror but Boris Karloff’s iconic creature also touched Barton. “He never asked to be here, he never wanted anyone to give him life. And once he was resurrected, now there’s nobody to show him how to live. As a child, I felt he was another kid yeah, he was big and menacing, but I really, really related to him and millions of others have, too.”
Bride of Frankenstein (1935): The follow-up that brought back Karloff’s monster and introduced his mate (Elsa Lanchester, with one of the most infamous coifs of all time) was arguably the best horror sequel ever, according to Scott Weinberg, editor and film critic for TwitchFilm.com and FEARnet. “It has some absurd humor and some romantic comedy satire in there,” he says. “Bride of Frankenstein might be the Casablanca of horror films.”
Curse of Frankenstein (1957): Christopher Lee gave Victor Frankenstein’s creation stature the actor was 6-foot-5 and also a “horrifying” presence in the first Frankenstein feature in color, Barton says. “It was a really violent movie, too, for its time. You saw the stitching together and the organs in jars. To me, that was taking the classic story to the next level.”
Frankenstein: The True Story (1973): 30 Days of Night creator and horror-comic scribe Steve Niles enjoyed the made-for-TV project that featured a 22-year-old Jane Seymour and a monster that doesn’t start scary but degenerates as the Victorian-era tale progresses. “While it strayed wildly from (Mary) Shelley’s novel, it did a great job of catching the emotion of the story,” Niles says. “Plus you get to see James Mason blasted into a skeleton.”
Young Frankenstein (1974): Director Mel Brooks’ broad farce following the mishaps of Gene Wilder’s Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (that’s pronounced “Fronk-en-steen,” by the way) is the whole package for Weinberg: a hilariously contemporary film with an old-fashioned black-and-white style that’s even funny for kids. “It’s the rare comedy that has affection for the horror films it is lovingly mocking,” he says. “There’s something really beautiful and sweet about the tone of Young Frankenstein that appeals to Frankenstein fans.”
May (2002): Its Frankenstein-esque qualities don’t become apparent till the movie’s third act, but there is a variation on a theme in Lucky McKee’s modern horror classic with a gender switch and a Dr. Frankenstein-type who’s not actually a doctor. The awkward young woman at the heart of the movie is not driven by mad science, Weinberg says, but instead “inspired by loneliness to stitch together her own misshapen creature to create a friend.”
Andy Warhol’s Flesh for Frankenstein (1973): The famed pop artist was a producer on this Italian-French X-rated movie that featured sex, violence, farmhands, sex, disembowelments, monks and sex. “I know that’s like a cult favorite, but I didn’t need porn in my Frankenstein tale,” Barton says. “It didn’t fit and it didn’t work.”
Frankenstein General Hospital (1988): Most people probably can’t get past the ridiculous VHS cover for this film, which film historian Leonard Maltin once called the worst Frankenstein movie ever made in English. One of the hazards of being a public-domain character is attracting spoofs like this one where Dr. Bob Frankenstein uses a hospital basement for his experiments in creating the perfect man. “Anybody can make a Frankenstein movie,” Weinberg says, “not know anything about Frankenstein, not give a crap and call it Frankenstein Income Tax Evasion which might be better than Frankenstein General Hospital.”
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994): On the surface, director Kenneth Branagh seemed to have a good thing on his hands with an impressive cast for his take, with Helena Bonham Carter, John Cleese, Robert De Niro as the Creature and Branagh himself as Victor Frankenstein. But, for Niles, the film was “a total misfire,” he says. “They tried to make it a gothic romance, which is a terrible idea. I didn’t even care for De Niro’s monster.”
Frankenstein (2004): The TV miniseries with Julie Delpy and Luke Goss as the strong-jawed, flowing-haired monster turns 10 this year, and it’s just as “ludicrous” as one would think a Frankenstein tale would be coming from the Hallmark Channel, Barton says. “It’s just, ‘Wow. Here’s Frankenstein and he looks like the brunette Fabio.’ “
Van Helsing (2004): There’s not much at all good to say about the monster mash-up with Hugh Jackman, Weinberg says. “To me, Van Helsing was everything horror should not be.” It was pretty bad for Dracula, Mr. Hyde and every icon involved, yet the portrayal of Frankenstein was particularly egregious. “He’s like a Sloth-from-Goonies antihero in a way. To make him tragic and worthy of sympathy is one thing. To make you want to cheer for him? Eeeeauuugh.”
I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957): With its one huge eye and a ghastly patchwork face, the monster is probably Barton’s favorite in the looks department “because it’s so damn goofy,” he says. Unfortunately, to see it you have to sit through a lot of clunky dialogue. “That movie just has so many unintentionally funny lines like, ‘Speak! I know you have a civil tongue in your head! I sewed it there myself!’ “
Lady Frankenstein (1971): Things get over-the-top and a little crazy in this one, where Dr. Frankenstein dies, his daughter and lab assistant continue his experiments and fall in love, and she then transplants her beau’s brain into a servant. Odd, for sure, but it does offer “one of the coolest-looking monsters ever,” says Barton.
The Bride (1985): While it’s the classic Frankenstein myth that usually gets adapted, director Franc Roddam puts a spin on the Bride of Frankenstein tale with Sting as scientist Baron Charles Frankenstein, Clancy Brown as the monster Viktor and Jennifer Beals as the mate Eva. “I wouldn’t call it terrible as it is just an odd curio,” says Weinberg.
Frankenstein Unbound (1990): B-movie director icon Roger Corman’s last feature starred John Hurt, Raul Julia and Bridget Fonda and threw some futuristic sci-fi elements in with the old archetypes. “That has some bad and some interesting in it,” Weinberg says. “I certainly wouldn’t call it mainstream.”
Frankenhooker (1990): Boris Karloff might have turned over in his grave when this comedy came out featuring a mad scientist who, after his girlfriend is killed in a bizarre lawn-mowing accident, tries to put her back together again with the parts of dead New York City prostitutes. Suffice it to say, things do not go as planned. “That movie,” Barton says, “is in a class, and genre, all by itself.”