Aaron Eckhart in ‘I, Frankenstein”/Photo © Lionsgate
Coming to theaters on January 24 is “I, Frankenstein,” the latest in a long line of movies to feature Frankenstein’s creature, the somewhat sympathetic monster first brought to life in Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel, Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus.
In Shelley’s novel, the nameless creature is a hideously deformed giant who seeks redress for the slights perpetrated upon him by his creator, Baron Victor Frankenstein. In “I, Frankenstein,” the monster – portrayed by the not-so-monstrous Aaron Eckhart – is a tough guy drawn into a futuristic conflict between demons and gargoyles fought in the streets of an ancient city. The action film has very little to do with Shelley’s novel, but fidelity to source material has never been a factor in other successful Frankenstein films – including the original.
Director James Whale’s “Frankenstein” is the ur-classic of films based on or inspired by Mary Shelley’s novel, and it is the one that has had the strongest and longest-lasting impression on pop culture. The script was based on an original play by Brit Peggy Webling, who had authored it on behalf of Dublin actor and producer Hamilton Deane. (Incidentally, Deane grew up not terribly far from the family of Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, and in 1924 wrote his own adaptation of Stoker’s book. Deane also made his 1899 stage debut with the Henry Irving Company. Irving, an actor, supposedly inspired Stoker’s Dracula. Stoker had been Irving’s estate manager, which implies a lot about his employer.) Webling’s play was later adapted for the screen by John L. Balderston, who went on to write the screenplay for the 1931 adaptation of “Dracula.”
Whale’s “Frankenstein” has impacted the public perception of Shelley’s monster more than any other film. Ironically, most of these perceptions are the result of goofs in the production. Webling’s play referred to the monster itself as “Frankenstein,” and the flat-top head most of us associate with the monster was the result of a malfunction with actor Boris Karloff’s make-up.
“The Curse of Frankenstein” (1957)
“The Curse of Frankenstein” was British powerhouse horror studio Hammer Film’s first color feature. It features Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as his creature. A great deal gorier than the original novel upon which it is loosely based, Terence Fisher’s film depicts Frankenstein as a ghoulish murderer who, upon killing his creation, revives it again to send after an enemy. The film sparked a number of sequels from Hammer Films, which also became well-known for its series of Dracula films starring Lee.
“Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein” (1973)
Famed pop artist Andy Warhol “produced” several films, including this very loose adaptation of Shelley’s novel. Rated X upon its release, Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein – aka “Flesh for Frankenstein” – is a gory tale of sex and death in which a randy Baron Frankenstein (married to his sister, no less) strives to create the perfect man and woman from discarded body parts for less than noble reasons. The Baron’s lust cannot be sated, though, and everything ends in a bloodbath of sex, murder, and suicide. Notable more for its giallo-esque sensibilities and over-the-top gore rather than any degree of faithfulness to the novel, this rebellious piece of cinema nonetheless has its fans.
“Young Frankenstein” (1974)
It’s hard to imagine Frankenstein as a laugh-out-loud comedy, but comedic genius Mel Brooks did, and this film stands as one of the genre’s classics. Gene Wilder stars as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, grandson of Victor Frankenstein. After having worked for most of his life to distance himself from his grandfather, Frederick eventually gives in to his curiosity and decides to resume the latter’s experiments. The results are hilarious. The film is especially memorable for a song and dance sequence in which Frankenstein and his tone-deaf creature (played by Peter Boyle) perform “Puttin’ On the Ritz” for a shocked audience.
“The Bride” (1985)
“Quadrophenia” writer-director Franc Roddam’s retelling of Frankenstein features musician Sting as Baron Charles Frankenstein, Clancy Brown as the Monster “Viktor,” and Jennifer Beals as the monster’s would-be bride. Like “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein,” “The Bride” explores themes of death, ownership, and sexual obsession. The Baron has promised his monster a bride, but after he creates Eva, he chooses to keep her for himself. The monster, vowing revenge, destroys the Baron’s laboratory and flees into the countryside where he later joins a circus. The Baron becomes increasingly possessive of Eva and embarks on a plan to mold her into the perfect wife. Meanwhile, the monster plots his revenge. Considered a critical failure at the time of its release, The Bride has since become something of a cult classic.
“Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” (1994)
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is perhaps the most faithful adaptation of Shelley’s novel, but the film’s director, Kenneth Branagh, still takes a fair number of liberties. Featuring Robert De Niro as the monster and Branagh himself as Viktor Frankenstein, “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” is marred by a sluggish tempo and a certain hammy quality to Branagh – and, truth be told, De Niro’s – performances. Nonetheless, Branagh’s commitment to bringing Shelley’s tale to screen in a more or less complete state is to be admired, even if the final product isn’t perfect.