The conception of Frankenstein’s monster is said to have occurred during a rainy visit to the Swiss city of Geneva. There, among dark skies, rain pelted windows, and the rumble of nearby thunder, Mary Shelley and company exchanged their most horrific and intriguing stories. After weaving a tale that entranced her audience, Shelley was encouraged to expand upon it, and thus the science fiction genre was born.
Such influential texts are almost destined to be told and retold in every way that humans can possibly imagine. The tale of Frankenstein and his monster has been adapted for music, and for the stage. For radio and television alike. The story made its first cinematic appearance impressively (albeit, perhaps somewhat expectedly) early in the history of filmmaking in 1910, just 15 short years after the Lumière brothers premiered their iconic Exiting the Factory.
If this were the only significant cinematic credit to the monster’s name, then perhaps the story might have met a different fate. Perhaps it might have faded into society’s background, doomed to be known only by devout science fiction fans, or by college freshmen forced to study literature’s Romantic Era. But of course, that simply isn’t what happened.
In 1931, Universal Studios produced a full length feature based on the novel that saw immense success both critically and with audiences, thrusting Frankenstein and his monster back into modern and mainstream spotlight. In almost all respects, Frankenstein set the stage for the on-screen horror genre. It is this film that society has to thank for the monster’s iconic visual interpretation—the flat-headed, sickly-skinned Goliath with bolts jutting from its neck. Aesthetic elements from this project still influence decisions made in Hollywood today. It was the start of something amazing, responsible not only for sparking Boris Karloff’s career, but also for inspiring a series of sequel and spin off films that are best compared to the abundance of today’s MCU.
Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein are direct sequels to the original Universal Studios film, the reception of which was, like their predecessor, largely positive. Bride, especially, is revered for its humor and thoughtfulness. While the themes of this movie don’t always hold up to modern day standards, it still holds the honor as one of the greatest sequels in film history. Many a fan have argued that you cannot watch Frankenstein unless you intend to follow it with Bride, and with good reason. The two complete and enhance one another.
The third in the trilogy, Son of Frankenstein still saw large success, but ultimately altered the future of the franchise. Karloff is said to have renounced the script for concerns regarding a respect for the monster. He felt his character was being treated poorly, merely a pawn in its own story. As such, he promised to never play the role again—a promise which would prove fulfilled over the years.
After Karloff’s departure, the franchise started down a hard decline. The role of the monster was recast not just once, not twice, but three times, filled by horror film legends who just couldn’t seem to find the heart of the character. Production values dwindled as Universal spiraled down a hole of largely unsatisfying crossovers featuring the Wolfman and Dracula. In the world at large, another war was on the horizon and the fear of another depression loomed in the minds of all. People simply did not seek out horror as they once did, and they certainly didn’t seek out mediocrity. The final nail in the coffin of Universal’s grand era of monster movies was when they were played for laughs in the Abbott and Costello films like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
Roughly a decade after Universal’s adaptations began to die out, an English-based studio took the reigns. Over the course of the next fifteen years, Hammer Film Studios released a series of six significant Frankenstein films. During this time, there were also a number of lesser known Frankenstein titles such as I was a Teenage Frankenstein, Frankenstein’s Daughter, and Frankenstein: The True Story. Each of these films varied in quality, narration, and adaptive success, but on the whole, none of them seemed to be able to navigate the story in a way that felt as comfortable and thorough as the original Universal films.
The light that seemed to shine at the end of this tunnel was 1974’s Young Frankenstein. Starring Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks, this movie satirized the beloved Universal films, playing to the hearts of longtime horror fans. It was a turning point in modern Frankenstein adaptations that seemed to remind creators what made the story so appealing to begin with: humanity, hope, and humor. This reminder sparked a period of solidly constructed adaptations, including but not limited to The Bride and the unfailingly faithful Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
As our movies change and adapt, so too do our stories alongside them. Earlier cinematic iterations largely seemed to focus on world building, production, and the beauty in storytelling. Modern retellings oftentimes rely more on action sequences, horror elements, and progressive plots. Stories like Frankenstein provide humanity with a lens through which we can observe our world, and allow us to see the slow and gradual changes that may have been invisible over time.
These movies offer a wide spectrum, and while each certainly builds off of the one before it, their retellings are all so powerfully unique. It’s fascinating to see the growth of the field and of the audience, especially in cases such as this one with such drastic differences. In the case of Frankenstein, it seems only one thing has remained the same across the years: it was a dark and stormy night.
Monsters Unleashed: The History of Frankenstein
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