Happy 200th, Frankenstein

On a dark and stormy night 200 years ago, Mary Shelley created Frankenstein. Traveling through Europe, visiting among other places Frankenstein Castle near Darmstadt, Germany, together with her future husband Percy, Lord Byron and the writer John Polidori, Shelley came up with the idea of a scientist who finds a way to reanimate a corpse. When visiting Lake Geneva in mid-June 1816, she was challenged by her company to create a good horror story. A very dramatic dream helped Shelley shape the tale that was published two years later as “Frankenstein”.

The now-classic story may be two centuries old, but is still very much alive. Let’s take a look at how movies and TV have kept the monster vibrant ever since the early 1900s:

  • The silent version: This 1910 film, 12 minutes long, is the first adaptation of Mary Shelley’s story. The monster itself is thoroughly unimpressive. But watch the creation of it three minutes in; visual effects put flesh on a skeleton in a cool, creepy way.

  • The classic: Frankenstein became cinema history with James Whale’s two pictures, Frankenstein (1931) and the masterful Bride of Frankenstein (1935). So much of it was iconic; Colin Clive as the mad genius, the look of his laboratory, Boris Karloff as the ultimate movie monster (even more influential than Bela Lugosi as Dracula) and Elsa Lanchester as the Bride who hisses at her mate. The horror was evident, but the tragedy of the story was equally forceful.

  • The Hammer version: Perhaps not the greatest chapter of the 1950s Hammer reinvention of the Frankenstein tale, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) nevertheless introduced Peter Cushing as the scientist and was popular enough to spawn many sequels. Notable in the way focus lies on Frankenstein as the star, not the creature itself.

  • The black monster: Say hello to the 1970s. Say hello to blaxploitation. Say hello to Blackenstein (1973).

  • The funny monster: Mel Brooks’s definitive masterpiece is Young Frankenstein (1974), his spoof of the Shelley story, starring Gene Wilder as the scientist, Peter Boyle as the Monster and Marty Feldman as Igor the assistant. One of the funniest movies ever made, it was also kind of a reinvention as this new generation of Frankenstein was so reluctant to embrace his family’s past that he started calling himself “Fronkonsteen”.

  • The De Niro monster: Director Kenneth Branagh wanted to create a majestic, Victorian horror movie that was close to Shelley’s original. Robert De Niro was hired to play the monster. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) was worth a look, but the monster became too much of an odd, De Niro-esque creature.

  • The animated monster: Kids have appreciated the comic antics of Kevin James as the monster (or rather, simply, “Frank”) in the Hotel Transylvania movies.

  • The new monster: Aaron Eckhart played the creature in I, Frankenstein (2014), a failed 3D reinvention. However, there’s still hope. Universal is launching a series of horror movies, a reboot of sorts. We’ll see what they end up doing with Frankenstein’s monster.

  • The TV monster: The triumphant return of Victorian horror came in the shape of a TV series, Penny Dreadful. The series, created and written by John Logan, came to an end yesterday. One of its greatest aspects was the touching creature played by Rory Kinnear, who had one of the most memorable introductions on a TV show in recent years. His first, hate-filled, line to the scientist: “Your firstborn has returned… father”.
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