“I busied myself to think of a story,” wrote Mary Shelley in the preface of her classic novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. “A story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart.” Today marks the author’s 217th birthday. She is remembered most for her 1818 gothic tale, celebrated as one of the earliest science fiction works. Shelley’s story has inspired dozens of adaptations. We revisited a few of our favorites.
The Curse of Frankenstein
The first in a series of Hammer Films’ trademark gothic horror movies, and the studio’s first color film, 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein was created to rival the classic monster movies produced by their competitor across the pond, Universal. The film made Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee horror cinema legends, alongside American greats Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi. Audiences were riveted by Lee’s imposing monster who evoked pity and terror. Cushing is known for playing heroic vampire killers, but his Baron Victor Frankenstein has a wicked side. The Curse of Frankenstein’s success led to multiple monster movie sequels in which other creeps and fiends were resurrected from the classic horror playbook.
Ken Russell’s phantasmagorical twist on the real-life 1816 summer residence of Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, and John Polidori at the Villa Diodati depicts a debauched gathering worthy of mad poets and dark romantics.
Thomas Edison’s Bronx film studio produced the very first Frankenstein film adaptation, a 16-minute silent short film. Edison caved to moral pressures and aimed to focus on the creature’s “mystic and psychological problems,” shunning all horror elements. This synopsis of the studio’s intent was printed:
To those familiar with Mrs. Shelley’s story it will be evident that we have carefully omitted anything which might be any possibility shock any portion of the audience. In making the film the Edison Co. has carefully tried to eliminate all actual repulsive situations and to concentrate its endeavors upon the mystic and psychological problems that are to be found in this weird tale. Wherever, therefore, the film differs from the original story it is purely with the idea of eliminating what would be repulsive to a moving picture audience.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
Universal’s days as a horror empire were waning when the studio’s first monster movie parody was released, starring comedic duo Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein spawned a series of movies in which the funnymen meet classic movie monsters from the Universal canon. It’s a treat to see Lon Chaney, Jr. and Béla Lugosi reprise their roles as the Wolf Man and Dracula. There are a lot of laughs to be had in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, but there is an aura of somberness over the production. Lugosi was deep into his drug addiction by then. The film also marked the last time he would play Dracula on the big screen (unless you count his cape-wearing “Ghoul Man” in Ed Wood’s Plan 9). Boris Karloff refused to play Frankenstein again (or even see the film), so Glenn Strange took over the role.
Sting takes on the mad scientist role in The Bride, creating the perfect woman named Eva (played by Flashdance-era Jennifer Beals) for his monster (the underrated Clancy Brown). Franc Roddam’s (Quadrophenia) take on the Frankenstein tale was poorly received, but dreamy cinematography, beautiful location shooting, and a circus subplot create a rich atmosphere.
Flesh for Frankenstein
Paul Morrissey and Antonio Margheriti’s psychosexual, Grand Guignol adaptation of Mary Shelley’s story is packed with Italian B-cinema talent, a raving Udo Kier, and Warhol Superstar Joe Dallesandro.
Horror-exploitation god Frank Henenlotter’s hilarious Frankenhooker is worth it for the running “Wanna date?” gag featured throughout the film.
Roger Ebert on the outstanding Mel Brooks comedy Young Frankenstein:
In his two best comedies, before this, “The Producers” and “Blazing Saddles,” Brooks revealed a rare comic anarchy. His movies weren’t just funny, they were aggressive and subversive, making us laugh even when we really should have been offended. (Explaining this process, Brooks once loftily declared, “My movies rise below vulgarity.”) “Young Frankenstein” is as funny as we expect a Mel Brooks comedy to be, but it’s more than that: It shows artistic growth and a more sure-handed control of the material by a director who once seemed willing to do literally anything for a laugh. It’s more confident and less breathless.
Bombshell actress Rosalba Neri stars as Baron Frankenstein’s daughter in this atmospheric, sleazy version of the classic story.
If you like your lumbering creatures on the softcore side, also try Jess Franco’s The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein, which has its moments, but is far from Franco’s finest.
The Bride of Frankenstein
Elsa Lanchester donned the now iconic lightning-streaked hairstyle for The Bride of Frankenstein—a rare film sequel that manages to outperform the original. James Whale was reluctant to film a follow-up to his 1931 movie Frankenstein, but the promise of creative freedom was too tempting to turn down. He ultimately created this masterpiece—full of pathos, comedy, expressionistic set pieces, beautiful art direction, a wonderful Franz Waxman score, and unforgettable performances.
Gods and Monsters
A semi-fictionalized account of Frankenstein director James Whale’s last days that reconstructs the making of Bride of Frankenstein. “What especially elevates it is the razor-sharp cleverness of [Ian] McKellen’s performance, which brings unusual fullness and feeling to a most unusual man,” the New York Times wrote.