Quick now, which is the first monster that comes to mind when you think of Halloween? For many readers, it is probably Dracula, first made famous by Bela Lugosi and later by Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman. Or maybe it’s The Wolf Man, a monster first brought to us through the talents of Lon Chaney, Jr. For younger readers and for fans of contemporary horror, it might be the demon from Hereditary, or Pennywise the clown from the It series of films.
Those are all logical, reasonable, and understandable answers. I find all of these monsters compelling and intriguing, all part of the long legacy of on-screen horror.
For me, the monster that first comes to mind during the Halloween season is Frankenstein, or more accurately, Frankenstein’s Monster. That’s mostly because Frankenstein was my favorite costume during my trick-or-treat years in the 1970s. I wore a slew of costumes in those formative years, including vampires, ghosts, and skeletons, but my favorite was one of those Ben Cooper Frankenstein costumes. Yes, in retrospect, we realize how bad those cheap costumes were, but we certainly didn’t think that back in the day. In the 1970s, that was all we knew when it came to Halloween costumes—and we thought the Ben Cooper threads were pretty damn cool.
Costumes aside, I also happened to love the Frankenstein Monster. I saw images of him everywhere, in Famous Monsters of Filmland, in books, and on television reruns in the form of the old Universal classics. The image of Frankenstein fascinated me, from his hulking stature (he seemed about 10 feet tall to a young child), his lumbering walk, and his frightful facial features.
So I guess it’s only natural that this year’s Halloween season has me thinking about the various portrayals of Frankenstein over the years. There have been many, including the relatively recent effort by Rory Kinnear on the excellent Showtime series, “Penny Dreadful”, and the portrayal by Sean Bean in the underrated “Frankenstein Chronicles”. Some of the other recent efforts have not been as good, such as the subpar I, Frankenstein, with the otherwise talented Aaron Eckhart. There have also been some successful comic turns, including Peter Boyle’s wonderful portrayal of The Monster in Young Frankenstein and the iconic work of Fred Gwynne as Frankenstein lookalike Herman Munster during the two-season run of “The Munsters”. And Hammer Films has also taken successful turns with Frankenstein, while utilizing the talents of Christopher Lee, among others.
All of that brings us to the inevitable question: which Frankenstein is the best? In some ways, it’s an impossible question to answer, since there are no set standards or criteria. All we have are opinions, which we hope are informed but are also based on our own preferences and biases. But that’s OK. Those shortcomings have never stopped us before, and they won’t stop us here either.
I’ve come up with a list of my five favorite Frankensteins, ranked from fifth to first. Only one comes from the last 30 years, with the rest representing the best of the Universal Studios portrayals from the 1930s and forties. That’s my line of Frankensteins—and I’m sticking with it.
As accomplished as DeNiro has been during his long career, he is not an actor that we associate with the genre of horror in general or the Frankenstein Monster in particular. But that doesn’t make his work as The Monster in the 1994 film, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, any less impressive. DeNiro’s Frankenstein is far more hideous to look at than any of his Universal Studios predecessors, with a face full of stitches, cuts and scars, a chest featuring a zipper-like stitching from top to bottom, and a body full of deformities.
Beyond the look, DeNiro plays Frankenstein as a monster without much of a soul, full of rage and hate, and ready to inflict violence with his supernatural level of strength. That strength is manifested through special effects, creating a level of gore that is nearly unprecedented in a Frankenstein film.
In the hands of a lesser actor, such a brutal and somewhat one-dimensional portrayal of Frankenstein might not have worked, but the talent and range of DeNiro make it believable. At one point, DeNiro’s Monster openly weeps, giving him at least a small dose of humanity. DeNiro is also given the added burden of dialogue; his character can speak, and does so with intelligence, delivered in an appropriately halting fashion by DeNiro. It also doesn’t hurt that the movie is a good one, with an excellent supporting cast and a faithful adaptation to the written word of Mary Shelley.
Lon Chaney, Jr
We tend to think of Chaney in his werewolf regalia, but he did take on the role of Frankenstein one time during his long and prolific career. It came in 1942, with the premiere of The Ghost of Frankenstein. This was the fourth of the Frankenstein films from Universal, but the first that did not feature Boris Karloff in the lead role. With the monster reins now handed over to Lon Chaney, Jr, Frankenstein took on a slightly different look, but a far different feel, signaling a change in the series of films that would continue through the late 1940s.
While the makeup that Jack Pierce applied to Chaney made him look similar to Karloff, the actor’s size and stature made him appear even more brutal, and more intimidating. In some scenes, the 220-pount Chaney looms so large over other characters that he seems the size of an NFL linebacker. He is truly frightening, even when he does not speak, and even when he does not move.
Where Chaney falls short of Karloff is in the lack of emotional range that we saw from Boris during the first three films. Chaney plays The Monster as angry, but without any sensitivity and without any ability to attract our sympathy. Perhaps that was the fault of the script, or director Erle C. Kenton, but it does make Chaney’s Frankenstein too one-dimensional. Still, his Frankenstein is certainly frightening and intimidating, and those are attributes that any film monster must have.
For me, the third-best of the Frankenstein Monsters is the man better known for his work as vampires. This might come across as surprising to horror fans, because no one—and I mean no one—thinks of Frankenstein when they hear the name of Lugosi. We think of Dracula, and we remember the hunchbacked Ygor, and the various mad scientists and human villains that Lugosi played during his iconic career.
Lugosi was supposed to have played Frankenstein in the original 1931 film, but turned down the role over his dislike of the costuming and the lack of dialogue. Years later, after Lugosi’s prime, he received a second chance in 1943’s Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man. In what would be his lone portrayal of The Monster, Lugosi gives us something distinct and creative. Lugosi’s Frankenstein provides us with a series of painful facial expressions that are quite different from predecessors Karloff and Chaney; he always seems to be groaning or moaning, or screaming. It was also Lugosi who also came up with the idea of having Frankenstein walk with his arms extended, so as to show that The Monster was actually blind. The blind nature of Frankenstein, which was part of the original script, was later removed through the editing process, thus confusing viewers as to why Lugosi’s Monster walked the way that he did. Regardless of that confusion, the Lugosi “walk” became the prototype for future portrayals, leading young fans to imitate Frankenstein by walking with their arms fully extended.
The original script also had Lugosi speaking, but that was removed because his accent and manner of speaking did not fit the Frankenstein Monster. As a result, we are left with a silent Monster, making it similar to all of the previous films (except for The Bride of Frankenstein). The heavy editing also limited Lugosi’s screen time, lessening the impact of his Monster. But during those moments when he is seen in Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, Lugosi succeeds in making a strong and unique impression. His performance remains underrated.
At number two, we have the man who played The Monster on film as often as Boris Karloff did. Better known for his appearances in cowboy films, Strange appeared in 1944’s House of Frankenstein, 1945’s House of Dracula, and in the 1948 classic, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
Although Strange never had any spoken lines as The Monster, and generally wasn’t given as much to do as Karloff did in his portrayals, I’ve always enjoyed Strange’s work in playing Frankenstein’s creation. At six-foot-five and 220 pounds, he had just the right size, giving The Monster the proper level of intimidation, something that was noticed by Universal Studios makeup man Jack Pierce. Strange wasn’t the actor that Karloff was, but he gave The Monster a brutish strength and a level of intimidating power that nearly matched that of Lon Chaney.
Strange was also good at expressing the anguish and the pain that The Monster felt. That gave Frankenstein some susceptibility and weakness. We have some sympathy for Strange’s Monster, as he endures the suffering that comes with being a monster born from the body parts of others.
From a purely physical standpoint, Strange captured the look of The Monster so perfectly that it became the basis for Universal Studios’ commercial usage of Frankenstein images on licensing products. In the 1960s and seventies, Universal chose to use Strange’s Monster image for a long line of plastic models, board games, and other memorabilia. And when Karloff died, the New York Times mistakenly ran Strange’s image in its obituary. To this day, some fans continue to mistake Strange’s Monster for Karloff’s. That’s not an insult to Karloff, but instead a tribute to the lasting imagery that Strange gave us.
In a choice that should come as no surprise, it is the great Karloff who emerges as the best of the Frankensteins. Over the course of three films, Karloff mastered the ability to make Frankenstein frightening, while also making us feel sympathy for him, at least at times. As so many film critics have said, Karloff gave The Monster a soul, something that many lesser actors would not have been able to do.
It’s rather remarkable what Karloff accomplished, particularly in the first film, given the circumstances of the day. He was already 44 by the time that Frankenstein premiered, but was still a virtual unknown in Hollywood, even though he had been making movies for over a decade. Universal Studios apparently thought so little of him that they failed to invite him to the premiere of the film in New York City.
In retrospect, such a snub seems unconscionable, but it pales in comparison with what Karloff faced during the actual filming. Director James Whale treated Karloff poorly on set during the making of the first Frankenstein. Allegedly jealous because of the attention that Karloff was receiving during the filming, he made Karloff perform numerous takes of the scene in which he carries Henry Frankenstein (played by Colin Clive) up a steep hill. Karloff became exhausted during the repeated takes, which were completely unnecessary.
In spite of such treatment, Karloff nailed the performance, and then reunited with Whale in 1935 for The Bride of Frankenstein, a film that gave The Monster the power of speech, only adding to the challenges for Karloff. He then came back for a third time in Son of Frankenstein, the weakest of Karloff’s performances, but still an effort that was well above average and entertaining enough to sustain audience interest in the franchise.
In playing Frankenstein on three occasions, Karloff gave The Monster a pathetic streak and a dose of vulnerability, while still maintaining the mad penchant for violence that put anyone who crossed his path into the circle of danger. While there have been admirable successors, it was that ability to juxtapose those contrasting qualities that maintain Karloff’s status as the King of the Frankenstein Monsters.
Check out what Bruce is up to on his Facebook page: Ghostly Gallery.
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