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Undead Again and Again: Why We Can’t Let Go of Frankenstein’s Monster

The lurching evolution of a creature whose purpose has always been to make us confront the concept of death (well, mostly, at least)

Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus has its origins in the gloomy summer of 1816, and a now-famous gathering of vacationing friends who decided to entertain each other with scary stories. Then 18, and still Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley wasn’t exactly in the company of literary lightweights — her fellow participants included her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. But it would be her story, the tale of a scientist who attempts to one-up God by creating human life out of lifeless matter, that would strike a chord. 

Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s unholy creation embodied both a wariness about the Enlightenment’s claims that science and reason could answer any question, and the Romantic movement’s desire to upset received wisdom and overturn the order of the day. He was a monster created by a brilliant author, drawing from a particular moment in history. 

Nearly 200 years later, he would be played by a shredded-to-the-max Aaron Eckhart as a demon-fighting badass.

How did that happen? In truth, it’s not even the strangest chapter in the long film and TV afterlife of Frankenstein’s Monster, the nameless creature Shelley described as a towering ghoul with watery eyes, covered in yellow skin that “scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath.” Over the years he’s been made alternately horrific, cuddly, pitiable, fearsome, comical and disgusting — and sometimes several of the above at once. He’s also proven resilient, open to one reinterpretation after another, as with this week’s release of Depraved, a new spin on the old story from inventive indie horror director Larry Fessenden, that touches on contemporary issues.

Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s Monster started to take on lives of their own almost from the moment Shelley published her book (initially anonymously, partly out of fear of losing custody of her children). The first stage production appeared in 1823 and others followed. But as with the monster himself, it would be technological innovations that gave Frankenstein a second life. Shelley’s novel had already achieved immortality, kickstarting modern horror fiction and more or less creating science fiction. But it took movies to make Frankenstein’s Monster a star.

The first Frankenstein movie is nearly as old as film itself. Shot in the Bronx and released in 1910, the Edison Studios production billed itself as “a liberal adaptation from Mrs. Shelley’s famous story,” and that’s no joke. Running less than 15 minutes, the film condenses the action and ends with the Monster looking at himself in a mirror, then disappearing for reasons unknown (maybe it’s because the Monster, as played by the hardworking silent-era actor Charles Stanton Ogle, looks so bizarre, with his spider-like hands and wiry hair). Long thought lost, the only known print of the film resurfaced in the 1970s in the hands of eccentric Wisconsin collector Alois F. Dettlaff, who refused to let anyone touch it. Years later, the Library of Congress got their hands on it and restored it, but only after Dettlaff’s 2005 death (his corpse, it should be noted, didn’t return from the grave to prevent its restoration).

Other silent versions, all believed to be lost, followed, but the Monster’s brightest stardom still lay ahead of him. In the early 1930s, Universal Pictures opted to go all-in on monsters, a decision that paid off almost immediately. Released in November 1931, Frankenstein whetted the public’s appetite for more dread-filled visions to come. In shambled Boris Karloff, whose interpretation of the Monster would be the touchstone for all Frankenstein’s Monsters that followed (even those who played against it). A graceful English actor with a delicate speaking voice (you know it from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which he narrated), Karloff became a lurching beast made of confusion and anger, beneath the now iconic flat-top and neck-bolts make-up of genius designer Jack Pierce

Directed by James Whale, the film creates an unsettling atmosphere rich in gothic trappings, but it’s the decision to make the Monster more pitiable and childlike than evil that makes it a masterpiece. Sure, the Monster murders a child and lashes out at the slightest provocation, but he doesn’t really have the opportunity to learn any other way. The poor guy never had a chance.

Karloff and Whale reteamed four years later for the even-better Bride of Frankenstein, in which the not-as-dead-as-he-seemed-to-be-at-the-end-of-the-last-movie Monster returns and demands his creator (Colin Clive) fashion him a companion. Now capable of speech, and far more peevish than before, Karloff’s Monster remains sympathetic, particularly in a climactic scene of rejection in which he meets his Bride (Elsa Lanchester) only to be reminded that he’s an unholy creation that no one could ever love. 

Karloff returned to the role, sans Whale, for the stylish Son of Frankenstein before handing the part off to others for future sequels and crossovers like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and The House of Frankenstein, the latter a team-up with the Wolf Man and Dracula (Universal’s monster movies were kind of like the MCU years before the MCU).

The fun 1948 film Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein breathed life into the careers of two different Universal mainstays: Frankenstein’s Monster and the venerable comedy team of Abbott and Costello. It also made the Monster a punchline: If Bud and Lou could survive an encounter with him, how scary could he be? So began a process of making Frankenstein’s Monster kind of, well, cute. Thanks to television and publications like Famous Monsters of Filmland, the 1950s and early 1960s saw the rise of a whole culture dedicated to adoring monsters. Frankenstein’s Monster was no longer a feared fiend to be encountered at the movie theater — he was there when you turned on Chiller Theatre on a Saturday evening. He was a model kit you built in your room. On the radio, he did the mash. He did “The Monster Mash.”

He also had a wife and kids, or at least, a character who looked an awful lot like Frankenstein’s Monster did on the early-1960s sitcom The Munsters. As played by Fred Gwynne, Herman Munster bore a strong resemblance to Karloff’s Monster, and that was no accident — Universal produced the show and fashioned the characters after some of their most famous creations. The Monster’s domestication didn’t end there. He appeared again in Mad Monster Party?, an amiable feature-length animated goof created by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass, the team behind Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and other stop-motion animated specials. (Playing his creator, Baron Boris von Frankenstein: none other than Boris Karloff.)

Other comedies and lighter treatments would continue the deghoulization in the decades the followed, some inventive, some dull. Mel Brooks lovingly spoofed Universal Monster movies in general, and Son of Frankenstein in particular, via the hilarious Young Frankenstein, featuring Peter Boyle as a soulful (and tuneful) Monster created by Gene Wilder’s reluctant heir to the Frankenstein (or “Fronk-en-steen”) legacy. In the Spielberg-inspired 1987 film The Monster Squad, he’s part of a gang of classic monsters terrorizing some suburban kids (they eventually get the better of him, but he at least looks great, thanks to an effects team that included Stan Winston). Tim Burton would pay direct homage to Universal’s Frankenstein twice, first via the short film “Frankenweenie,” then later with the animated feature of the same name, both the story of a kid who brings his dog back from the dead. Meanwhile, as voiced by Kevin James and named “Frank,” the Monster recently took up residence in the Hotel Transylvania films.

Yet even as one strand of movies and shows tamed Frankenstein’s Monster, another took him back to his horrific roots. In the mid-1950s, the British production company Hammer decided that what had worked for Universal two decades earlier might also work for them. They made the commitment to horror and came out swinging with the 1957 film The Curse of Frankenstein, starring Peter Cushing as Dr. Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as his shambling creation. Both would go on to serve as anchors for many Hammer horror films that followed, all taking their cues from this Terence Fisher outing. 

The Curse of Frankenstein immediately establishes the Hammer trademarks: arch performances, gothic atmospherics, garish colors and more blood and gore than audiences were used to seeing. It’s spooky and a little nauseating: Lee’s Monster looks far more corpse-like than Karloff’s and Frankenstein’s lab is filled with jars and beakers of what looks like gray hot dog water preserving all manner of organs, tissues and other gross material. Sequels followed, and while Lee would move on to other monsters, Cushing remained a mainstay in a series of films that, with English politeness, continued to push the boundaries of gore as standards grew less restrictive in the 1960s and 1970s.

Inspired by Hammer’s more serious approach, other films tried to get to the undead heart of Frankenstein’s monster. The 1980s saw Sting take on the role of Victor Frankenstein in The Bride, and three films (Gothic, Haunted Summer and Rowing with the Wind) attempted to retell the fateful gathering that led Shelley to write Frankenstein

Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 film Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein should have been the culmination of these efforts. Given a big budget and an all-star cast (Robert De Niro as The Monster! Helena Bonham Carter as Victor Frankenstein’s Bride-to-Be!) Branagh should have created a Frankenstein for the ages. Instead, it’s mostly a slog, hampered by Branagh’s hammy work as Victor Frankenstein, heavy-handed Freudian symbolism and a sluggish pace. (A strong middle section in which De Niro’s Monster roams the countryside on his own suggests the better film that might have been.)

The years since haven’t been particularly kind to Frankenstein’s Monster. A would be franchise-starter, I, Frankenstein landed with an unimaginative thud, and Universal’s attempt to revive its monsters via the ill-fated Dark Universe imploded before Bill Condon’s Bride of Frankenstein remake even started filming (rumored to have starred Javier Bardem as the Monster and Angelina Jolie as his Bride, it could only have improved on The Mummy). That said, Condon’s Gods and Monsters, a fictionalized look at James Whale’s final days, is certainly worth your time.

Nonetheless, we undoubtedly haven’t seen the last of Frankenstein and his creation (or of fun riffs on the same, as evidenced by the amazingly titled David Harbour-starring Netflix special Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein). Shelley’s novel has strong roots in the early 19th century, but the story has proven remarkably adaptive, and meaningful in new ways to each succeeding era. Maybe that’s why the best Frankenstein movie isn’t an adaptation at all but a film about what the Monster means. 

Released in 1973, near the end of the Franco regime, Spanish director Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive captures the turning point in the life of Ana (Ana Torrent), a six-year-old who becomes obsessed with Frankenstein’s monster after seeing a screening of Frankenstein in 1940. Not fully understanding what she’s seen, she comes to believe the Monster real, and as she tends to a wounded soldier on the run from Franco’s forces, the Monster becomes both a kind of guiding spirit and an embodiment of death, a concept she doesn’t fully grasp. 

But then who does? Our rational mind might accept what death means, but part of us will always reject it and wonder if it can be beat, a thought both wondrous and wrong. Frankenstein’s Monster, in just about every form, gives shape to this strange impulse. We can fear him or we can make a joke of him, but nothing will make him go away.