This weekend’s I, Frankenstein finds Aaron Eckhart portraying the occasionally neck-bolted wonder as a martial arts warrior embroiled in a demon-gargoyle war — but before you scoff out of hand, we feel the need to point out that ol’ Frank has found himself in a variety of seemingly strange cinematic situations, from arranged marriage to consorting with Abbott and Costello, and not all of them turned out as badly as they probably should have. In that spirit, we’ve decided to devote this week’s list to a decidedly non-comprehensive overview of some of the best Frankenstein movies ever made. A tall order? Certainly. But with the Tomatometer as our guide, we think we’ve turned up a dozen Frankenstein flicks that lumber with the best. Get Igor, ’cause it’s time for Total Recall!
How you feel about Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein may depend on how you feel about Frankenstein — because while it’s one of Abbott and Costello’s funnier pictures, it’s fairly abysmal as a horror film, given the light treatment it affords the monster (not to mention Dracula, played by Bela Lugosi; the Wolfman, played by Lon Chaney, Jr.; and the Invisible Man, “played” by Vincent Price). Basically an excuse for the star duo to run around a creepy castle taking pratfalls while trying to avoid Dracula’s plans to put Costello’s brain in the monster’s body, it’s a far cry from the straight horror of the franchise’s proud early installments. On its own merits, however, it earned applause from critics like David Conner of the Apollo Guide, who wrote, “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein shows off both the comedy team and the monsters at their best, ranking in my book with Ghostbusters as one of the best horror-comedies ever.”
Bride of Frankenstein‘s poster screamed “The monster demands a mate!,” but it could just as easily have read “The studio demands a sequel!” Fortunately, returning director James Whale wasn’t in a rush to churn out any old follow-up; in fact, he initially turned down the gig, feeling like he’d “squeezed the idea dry” the first time around. Finally, after years of rejected screenplay drafts, Whale and Universal had something they could agree on: Bride of Frankenstein. The rare horror sequel that matches or exceeds its predecessor, it follows the adventures of the monster (again played by Boris Karloff) after he narrowly escapes death in the mill fire at the end of the first film — as does his creator (Colin Clive), only to be shanghaied by his mentor (Ernest Thesiger) into building the monster a bride (memorably played by Elsa Lanchester). “Whale’s erudite genius brings it all together,” applauded Empire Magazine’s Simon Braund. “He sculpts every nuance of self-parody, social satire, horror, humour, wit and whimsy into a dazzling whole, keeping every one of his fantastical plates spinning until the tragic, inevitable finale.”
Long after Universal turned Frankenstein into comedy fodder, Hammer Studios used the tale as grist for its cinematic breakthrough: 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein, starring Peter Cushing as an altogether more malevolent Dr. F and Christopher Lee as a thoroughly memorable version of his monster. The end result proved tremendously influential for British horror cinema, and spawned a series of Cushing-led sequels in the bargain; as Kim Newman later observed for Empire, “In its best scenes, it adds dynamism and British grit to a genre that had previously tried to get by on atmospherics and mood alone. It manages to be shocking without being especially frightening, and its virtues of performance and style remain striking.”
Featuring Andy Warhol in the producer’s chair and Udo Kier as an altogether different kind of mad doctor, 1973’s Flesh for Frankenstein used Mary Shelley’s classic as the springboard for a 3D schlockfest wherein instead of creating one lumbering monster, Frankenstein builds himself a pair of sex-crazed breeders who set about birthing him his very own race. Add in heaping helpings of incest, necrophilia, and a subplot involving a stable boy (the suitably lusty Joe Dallesandro) tasked with satisfying Frankenstein’s wife (Monique van Vooren), and you’re left with a movie so wildly over the top that most critics had no choice but to give in; it is, as James Kendrick wrote for the Q Network Film Desk, “pure camp taken to the highest extremes with a careful and purposeful hand.”
“Wanna date?” Anyone who set foot in a well-stocked video store during the early 1990s had to have run across a “talking box” copy of Frankenhooker, Basket Case director Frank Henenlotter’s enthusiastically weird horror/comedy about an amateur scientist (James Lorinz) who accidentally murders his girlfriend (Patty Mullen) and then sets about rebuilding her with parts collected from the corpses of crack-addicted local hookers he’s blown up with a uniquely lethal home-brewed strain of the drug. Unfortunately for our “hero,” his undead sweetheart wakes up with a predilection for streetwalking, and before you know it, there’s a ticked-off pimp in the lab. “It thinks it’s funnier than it is,” cautioned Ken Hanke of the Asheville Mountain Xpress, “but it’s still pretty funny.”
It wasn’t the first Frankenstein film — that honor goes to J. Searle Dawley’s 1910 short — but it’s unquestionably the definitive one, featuring a number of additions that have since come to be part of the monster’s legend (including makeup artist Jack Pearce’s distinctive flat-headed design). Led by Boris Karloff’s starmaking performance, the James Whale Frankenstein terrified audiences to the tune of $12 million at the box office, giving Universal a healthy one-two monster punch with Dracula in 1931 and spinning off a lengthy series of sequels, reboots, and remakes that continues today. Writing after its debut, Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times called it “A stirring grand-guignol type of picture,” recalling that it “aroused so much excitement at the Mayfair yesterday that many in the audience laughed to cover their true feelings.”
Nearly 30 years after a young Tim Burton was fired by Disney for daring to create a freaky live-action short about a young boy who reanimates his dead dog, the studio reached back out to Burton for a stop-motion 3D horror/comedy that took the original, buffed it out to feature length, and turned it into an unlikely critical winner that also managed to put up $67 million at the box office despite falling into the “too young for adults, too scary for kids” trap that studios have been steadily edging away from since the original Gremlins. And even though it represented the umpteenth reworking of the Frankenstein story, most critics were too charmed to care; as Connie Ogle argued for the Miami Herald, “The best thing about an animated monster movie with this much heart is: It’s alive. In the best possible way.”
Lon Chaney, Jr. took over the role of the monster for 1942’s Ghost of Frankenstein, a sort of road trip buddy picture that sent him on the run with the demented crook-necked Igor (again played by Bela Lugosi, who had somewhat ironically turned down the opportunity to play the monster in the 1931 film) to once again wheedle the reluctant son of Frankenstein (Cedric Hardwycke) into performing an experiment against his better judgment. This time around, Igor wants the monster to receive a fresh brain — Igor’s — and although he initially has other ideas, the doctor eventually gives in, with predictably disastrous results. “It gets the job done with admirable efficiency, no excess of imagination, and all in a compact 67-minute frame, and you really wouldn’t want it to be any longer than that,” wrote a mildly enthusiastic Tim Brayton for Antagony & Ecstasy.
Hammer Studios’ second Frankenstein film again featured the icily cool Peter Cushing as the troubled doctor, who opens the film hiding in a small town where he hopes to finally be free to conduct his experiments — only to be discovered by a rival doctor, who instead ends up collaborating with Frankenstein on a new monster. Do things go horribly wrong? Of course they do, but Revenge of Frankenstein‘s predictable denouement didn’t deter praise from critics like Time Out’s David Parkinson, who called it one of Cushing’s best performances and wrote, “the Baron becomes a kind of Wildean martyr, alternating between noble defiance and detached cruelty.”
The cult movie to end all cult movies, 1975’s Rocky Horror Picture Show reimagines Frankenstein as a bawdy, omnisexual musical about a pair of young lovers (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) who wind up the unwitting houseguests of the lingerie-sporting transvestite Doctor Frank N. Furter, who unveils his dim-witted (albeit hunky) creation before murdering Meat Loaf. Never destined for box office greatness — yet still probably playing the midnight show at your local oddball-friendly theater — Rocky Horror Picture Show has earned the love of legions of shouting, prop-throwing fans over the years, as well as critical approval from scribes like Time Out’s Trevor Johnston, who bemusedly observed, “A string of hummable songs gives it momentum, [the] admirably straight-faced narrator holds it together, and a run on black lingerie takes care of almost everything else.”
Boris Karloff booked his final appearance as the monster in 1939’s Son of Frankenstein, which was more or less rushed to theaters after the original re-captivated audiences as a reissued double feature with Dracula in 1938. The movie’s rather crass origins peek through in the plot, which strains the limits of credulity even for the third installment in a monster movie trilogy (Frankenstein’s son inherits his estate and is persuaded to reanimate the monster by a vengeful townie, played by Bela Lugosi), not to mention a deliriously hammy performance by Basil Rathbone in the title role; like the monster itself, it’s the kind of thing that really shouldn’t have been brought to life, but it ended up becoming much more than the sum of its motley parts. “Predictably, with four of the horror genre’s most sinister presences in the cast, this is highly entertaining,” wrote Time Out’s Geoff Andrew, “but Rowland Lee (who made the wonderful Zoo in Budapest) creates a sumptuous, atmospheric tale worthy of following Whale’s originals.”
Plenty of Frankenstein movies have wandered into camp, but none have been as purposely laugh-out-loud funny as Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. Starring Gene Wilder as the doctor’s grandson, Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronkensteen,” thank you very much), Cloris Leachman as the duplicitous Frau Blucher, Marty Feldman as cinema’s most perfectly bug-eyed Igor, and Peter Boyle as the soft-shoeing monster with sweet mystery, it sends up the classic tale’s mythology with deep affection and sweet, irresistibly silly aplomb, rendering all further Frankenstein spoofs instantly irrelevant. “Some of the gags don’t work, but fewer than in any previous Brooks film that I’ve seen, and when the jokes are meant to be bad, they are riotously poor,” chuckled Vincent Canby for the New York Times. “What more can one ask of Mel Brooks?”