Frankenstein in the Movies : From A to Z
As any “smart assed” fan of classic horror knows, the name Frankenstein represents the creator while the “Monster” refers to the creation. But with the advancement of pop culture, the name Frankenstein has come to represent the corpse like man stitched together from the limbs of the dead. Brought back to life by a scientist looking for the secrets to eternal life. A man with a look that was created behind the scenes at Universal Studios by the legendary Jack Pierce and brought to life in a star making performance by Boris Karloff.
And so an iconic image is born.
With Mary Shelley’s novel going through one adaptation after another since Edison’s 1910 film that was thankfully rediscovered, there are multiple ideas I could probably come up with for each letter excluding the usually tough minded Q, X and Z. But I’ll give it my best shot and hopefully come up with a few surprises you didn’t see coming.
After all this is purely off the cuff and there are plenty of choices that I went with you may have altered. L is for….. Lugosi ….. Lee? C is for …. Colin …. Christopher? You see my dilemma.
A is for …. Atwill.
Lionel Atwill was a regular on the horror circuit from the 1930’s up until his death in 1946. Though he starred in films opposite Marlene Dietrich and Errol Flynn he’ll always be known for his roles in ghoulish films like Murders In The Zoo and Mystery At the Wax Museum. But standing above all others is his performance as Inspector Krogh in Son of Frankenstein. “One doesn’t easily forget, Herr Baron, an arm torn out by the roots.” Atwill would also appear in The Ghost of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman and both monster rally’s House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. It’s unfortunate that each film saw him playing different roles making his iconic one armed Inspector a one-off.
B is for …. Boris. Was there any doubt? Not much I can add to the well covered career of Boris Karloff and his connection to the Frankenstein legend. A journeyman actor gets a break when cast in the role of the Monster, a character Boris would come to call his friend. Following that he assumes the mantle of Lon Chaney starring in The Mummy, The Mask of Fu Manchu, The Black Cat and countless other thrillers. He would of course be forever identified with the Monster playing him in both sequels, The Bride and The Son of Frankenstein. He’d return to the series in the enjoyable House of Frankenstein and in a bit of black humor, takes on the role of the creator in 1958’s low budget Frankenstein 1970. He’d return to play his friend one last time in a memorable episode of Route 66 alongside Lon Chaney as The Wolfman and Peter Lorre as …. well, Peter Lorre.
C is for …. Colin Clive.
“It’s Alive! It’s Alive! It’s Alive!” With just 18 films to his credit and passing away at only 37 years of age in 1937, Colin Clive, cemented his status in horror cinema portraying the tormented Henry Frankenstein in 1931’s classic and the ’35 follow up, The Bride of Frankenstein. Horror fans can also find him as the pianist, Orlac, in Mad Love that plays witness to one of Peter Lorre’s most celebrated roles.
D is for …. Denberg.
The blonde babe in all those cool photographs with Peter Cushing was Miss Susan Denberg. No the posed stills were not actually in the film, Frankenstein Created Woman, but they sure made for great stills in the monster magazines and hardcover books on Horror films I’d get from a magazine shop and the library as a kid. Apparently Miss Denberg’s career went off the rails following her association with Hammer and she’s all but a footnote now in film history. If she is indeed still alive (some claim she isn’t) it’s too bad she hasn’t made the rounds of classic horror festivals with her fellow Hammer beauties, Caroline Munro and Veronica Carlson.
E is for …. Elsa.
Lovely Elsa Lanchester took on a dual role in 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein, that of Mary Shelley in the opening prologue and then playing the title role, The Bride, in one of cinema’s most identifiable make-up designs. EVER. Miss Elsa was married to Charles Laughton by the time of this production and they would remain a couple until his death in 1962. She’d pass away in 1986 and for me always had a charming, flighty personality on screen that made her easily identifiable and equally memorable.
F is for …. Frye. Dwight Frye not only played Renfield to Lugosi’s Dracula in 1931 but then signed on to play the hunchback, Fritz, to Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein. Yes it’s Frye who made the initial mistake stealing the abnormal brain that ended up in the skull of Karloff’s Monster. From there he became his tormentor until the tables finally turned. Frye would also score minor roles in The Bride and Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. According to the IMDB he has unconfirmed bits in The Son and The Ghost of Frankenstein as a villager. Carrying a torch I suppose? Dwight will of course be best remembered to classic horror buffs for the laugh he gave us as the fly eating Renfield.
G is for …. Ghost.
Released in 1942, The Ghost of Frankenstein saw Boris Karloff retire his Monster allowing for Lon Chaney Jr. to step into the giant sized boots and grease paint with the aid of Jack Pierce. Once the 1940’s hit, Lon was the apparent heir to Universal’s stable of Monsters. A fairly direct sequel to Son of Frankenstein, the film saw the return of Lugosi’s Ygor as the Monster’s caregiver and all around best buddy guiding him from one killing to the next. Directed by Erle C. Kenton the film employed a solid cast that includes Ralph Bellamy, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Evelyn Ankers and Lionel Atwill to compliment our two icons of horror, Lon and Bela.
H is for …. Hammer Films. In 1957 when the little known company based in England settled on bringing an all new version of the Mary Shelley story to life in bold bloody color titled, The Curse of Frankenstein, the dye was cast for a second wave of classic horrors worldwide. With Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein and Christopher Lee signing on as his Creation, the Dynamic Duo of Horror were born. The studio would release 7 Frankenstein films in total. 6 with Dear Peter as the Baron and one reboot that didn’t catch on with Ralph Bates taking on the role in 1970’s The Horror of Frankenstein.
I is for …. I Was a Teenage Frankenstein. Title says all in this low budget 1957 drive-in special from producer Herman Cohen.
J is for …. Julia.
When Roger Corman returned to directing in 1990, he cast the late Raul Julia as Victor Frankenstein in the cleverly plotted Frankenstein Unbound. A story that sees a time traveler and fellow scientist from the future, John Hurt, sent back to the days of Mary Shelley and the man who inspired her to write her novel. A bearded Julia plays his Victor coldly and will enlist Hurt and his knowledge of the future to further his experiments in creating a mate for his Monster with the stitched eyes.
K is for …. Kiwi Kingston.
2 K’s come in handy for this entry. Mr. Kingston took on the role of Baron Frankenstein’s “Monster” in the 1964 Hammer title, The Evil of Frankenstein. Of all the Hammer outings the make-up look on Kiwi is closer than any other to the Universal Monster design created by Jack Pierce. Kiwi was signed on to play the latest Peter Cushing creation following a stint in the wrestling ring. If size is what the studio wanted, they found it in the 6 foot 5 New Zealand born wrestler. He’d appear in one more minor role in a Hammer outing, 1965’s Hysteria. After one more bit in They Came From Beyond Space it was back to the square jungle.
L is for …. Lugosi.
According to legend, Bela Lugosi turned down the role of the Frankenstein Monster. He wanted to play the role of the creator and not the lumbering man behind the makeup. That didn’t work out but Bela still ended up in the original Universal series in the spirited role of Ygor opposite Basil and Boris in Rowland V. Lee’s 1938 sequel Son of Frankenstein. It was to become one of Bela’s most memorable roles and he all but steals the film from his famous co-stars. He’d return as Ygor in 42’s Ghost of Frankenstein and even take on the role of the Monster in 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. Sadly his turn as the Monster is less than memorable though that’s not entirely his fault due to some last minute decisions in the production that damaged his interpretation of the now famous character. This is an essay in itself so for more on the production I’d recommend any number of books including Greg Mank’s must have book on Karloff and Lugosi or Tom Weaver’s equally prized Universal Horrors.
M is for …. Michael Sarrazin. Canadian born, Michael Sarrazin, appeared in one of those fondly remembered television events of the 1970’s, Frankenstein : The True Story. Released in two parts in 1973, Sarrazin played the Monster to Leonard Whiting’s Dr. Frankenstein. A first rate production I recall seeing as a child and like many in my age bracket, it’s a film they’ve loved ever since. The twist is that Sarrazin is “born” perfect and will slowly begin to decay turning against his creator when abandoned. A splendid cast was assembled for this classy event that includes James Mason, David McCallum, Jean Seymour and Agnes Moorehead, Ralph Richardson and even John Gielgud.
N is for …. Naish.
J. Carrol Naish. He was nominated for two Academy Awards and had over 200 credits to his name yet when cornered I’ll always refer to him as “Good Friend Daniel” the hunchback who aids Karloff’s Dr. Neimann in The House of Frankenstein. He’ll even kill when Karloff gives him the order yet he’s the character who will elicit a great amount of sympathy from us when his deformed hunchback falls in love with a beautiful Gypsy girl played by Elena Verdugo who has her eyes set on Chaney’s Lawrence Talbot. Naish would weave his way through most genres as an actor but fans of horror cinema may also recall seeing him in some Inner Sanctum mysteries, The Beast With Five Fingers and ending his career in the Al Adamson cult hit, Dracula vs. Frankenstein released in 1971. In that final film Naish plays the Mad Scientist from a wheelchair joined by a mute Lon Chaney in his final go around as well.
O is for …. Oscarsson. Swedish born Per Oscarsson (1927-2010) comes to mind due to the film Terror of Frankenstein aka Victor Frankenstein playing the late show quite often when I was a kid. It’s a 1977 release that saw the actor playing the Monster opposite Leon Vitali’s Victor. If memory serves it plays it close to the novel though a revisit might help to jog my memory. I haven’t seen it in a number of years but I did recently locate it on DVD so that revisit might not be too far off.
P is for …. Peter Cushing.
The Gentleman of Horror. When Peter signed on to play Baron Frankenstein for Hammer in 1957 he put his career on the fast track to becoming an icon of horror cinema. Unlike the Universal films of the 30’s and 40’s, Hammer’s series of Frankenstein films followed the Baron/Peter as opposed to the Monster. With all his props and gadgets at hand, Peter, brought an arrogance and black humor to the films that remains the heart of the series. The films are as follows, The Curse of Frankenstein, The Revenge of F, The Evil of F, F Created Woman, F Must Be Destroyed and F and the Monster From Hell. There’s even a cameo he made as The Baron alongside Christopher Lee’s Dracula in the 1970 comedy, One More Time.
Q is for …. Quaid. Cousin Eddie himself, Randy Quaid, found himself under the make portraying The Monster opposite Patrick Bergen’s Victor in the made for cable 1992 version of Mary Shelley’s tale of The Modern Prometheus. Adding a touch of class to the production is Sir John Mills as the blind man befriending Quaid’s Monster. The film is available through the Warner Archive if you’re a completist ….. like me.
R is for …. Rosalba.
Miss Rosalba Neri aka Sarah Bay is surely a name/figure well known to fans of Euro Horrors. Not only did she star as a sexy temptress vampire in The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973) but took on the role of Lady Frankenstein in the trashy 1971 favorite. When Joseph Cotten’s Baron kicks the bucket, his daughter Rosalba will have to take over the family business slicing and dicing corpses and looking to create a master race. Clothing purely optional.
S is for …. Strange.
Glenn Strange had the final say on the Universal series of Frankenstein films. In both House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula he found himself strapped to a gurney as The Monster for the majority of the films as Karloff and Onslow Stevens tried to bring him back to life in time for the final reel. He had a bit more fun playing the Monster in the send up Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) in what proved to be the final go around for both Glenn and the series. If it weren’t for those three appearances as The Monster, I guess he’d be a footnote in westerns. He played in an untold number of B’s as secondary outlaws and coach drivers. But then came Gunsmoke where he found himself playing Sam the barkeep at the Long Branch Saloon from 1961 to 1973.
T is for …. Thesiger. Along with Karloff, Whale and Miss Lanchester, Ernest Thesiger (1879-1961) was also British born and signed on to The Bride of Frankenstein as the memorable Dr. Pretorius. It’s his twisted scientist who gains the Monster’s trust and blackmails Colin Clive into creating a mate for the Monster. You will of course recall the little people Thesiger has bottled up in one of the film’s more amusing scenes. “Sometimes I have wondered whether life wouldn’t be much more amusing if we were all devils, no nonsense about angels and being good.”
U is for …. Udo Kier.
A favorite among cult film enthusiasts, Mr. Kier, was born in Germany, 1944. With an astounding 267 IMDB credits to his name and still going strong there are two titles that have always stood above the rest for me and I imagine a good many horror buffs. His performance as Dracula in 1974’s Blood For Dracula aka Andy Warhol’s Dracula and his turn as Baron Frankenstein in Flesh For Frankenstein aka Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein. These films were highly sought after in those early days of the VHS craze and that’s in large part to stills we youngsters would see in books and magazines on horror flicks. Plenty of blood and nudity had us on a hunt to find them. Among his many other cult favorites are Suspiria, Mark of the Devil, The Story of O, Blade and even Ace Ventura : Pet Detective.
V is for …. Van Sloan. Edward Van Sloan (1882-1964) not only played Van Helsing to Lugosi’s Dracula in the 1931 film but he along with Dwight Frye also appeared in Universal’s Frankenstein of the same year. In this outing Van Sloan is cast as Dr. Waldeman, the elderly professor to Colin Clive’s student who seeks to put an end to the young man’s experiments and dissect his creation. His demise is a memorable one in this landmark horror film.
W is for …. Whale.
Having directed Journey’s End with Colin Clive starring followed by Waterloo Bridge, James Whale turned to the Mary Shelley story and laid claim with Carl Laemmle Jr. to wanting the job of bringing the Monster to life. According to legend that left Robert Florey without a directing gig so he took up with Lugosi who didn’t get the role of the scientist and certainly didn’t want the Monster’s part to make Murders In the Rue Morgue. Whale scored the huge hit with Frankenstein and went on to direct The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man and of course The Bride of Frankenstein. All three with a delicious brand of black humor. Whale quit making films in 1941, died in ’57 and in 1998 Ian McKellen would play Whale in the critically acclaimed Gods and Monsters scoring an Oscar Nomination.
X is for …. X-Ray
Basil Rathbone as the “Son of Frankenstein” uses what amounts to an x-ray machine to see just what is keeping Boris’ Monster from mobility and being his fully functional self once again. Bela Lugosi’s Ygor is looking on with great interest if he is to have his friend regain consciousness and help him seek vengeance against those that attempted to hang him . “Because I stole bodies… they said…”
Y is for …. Young Frankenstein. Can there be any doubt that I’d pick this classic Mel Brooks comedy as my representative for the letter Y? For my money, alongside Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the greatest horror/comedy/satire/remake of them all. I did say remake for those unaware. The film is largely a send-up of Son of Frankenstein with some bits thrown in from other films in the Universal series. Gene Wilder is the perfect fit to play the Rathbone role, “it’s pronounced “Fronkensteen.” Then we have Peter Boyle as The Monster, Madeline Khan, Marty Feldman as Igor, Cloris Leachman, Kenneth Mars sending up Lionel Atwill’s Inspector Krogh and even an unbilled Gene Hackman as the kindly old blind gent in the cottage that teaches the monster compassion and just how hot soup can be. A bona-fide comedy masterpiece.
Z is for …. Zucco.
George Zucco enjoyed a career that straddled big budget films for the majors as a character actor and playing lead roles in low budget fodder for the likes of Monogram alongside Bela Lugosi. At Universal Studios, Zucco, appeared in three of the four Kharis films but only found his way into one of the Frankenstein films, House of Frankenstein, released in 1944. More of a cameo, he portrayed Professor Lampini, a man who had a travelling house of horrors. Not for long. Dear Boris makes quick work of Zucco and assumes his identity as a backdrop to his revenge motives and seeking out Dr. Frankenstein’s records and secrets to eternal life.
So how’d I do? I know I didn’t squeeze Sir Christopher Lee in here and I’m ashamed of myself as a fan of both his and the classic monsters of movies. Feel free with some alternate choices.