Friday, 21 October 2016

Screen versions of Frankenstein

With Daniel Radcliffe and James McAvoy teaming up on the big screen, Bernard Rose winning awards with his indie modern version, and The Frankenstein Chronicles unfolding on TV, it's fair to assume that audiences are still interested in the character of Frankenstein. Like Sherlock Holmes, it has been adapted on all types of media and with various tones, and there seems to be no limit to what can be done with the name and the concept behind it. Mary Shelley's original book, however, has rarely been directly adapted, and almost never faithfully. Whereas The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Sign of Four have been done many times on film and TV.

My favourite Frankenstein movies, by far, are the Hammer ones. I discovered the first, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), when I was 13, and watched the others in no particular order, as it wasn't particularly easy to put your hands on these movies on VHS in the 90s. I would be hard pressed to say which one I prefer, so I would simply point out that Evil of Frankenstein, the third in the series, is my least favourite. The others are all gems, even the underappreciated comedy Horror of Frankenstein, the only one without Peter Cushing. Cushing is fascinating as the Baron in all six films in which he plays him, and one can only wonder what would have happened if Shane Briant had been allowed to take up his mantle after the last outing, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell. Well, at least he is given a new opportunity to shine in the world of Frankenstein, with his role of Burgermeister Simon Helder in Sherlock Holmes vs Frankenstein.

This is not to say that I don't enjoy the Universal Frankensteins. James Whale's movies are the first versions I saw, at age 9 or 10, and there's no argument that they're both classics. But unlike Hammer, where the quality has been constant and the storylines creative, the Universal saga has an almost systematic decrease in quality (both in production values and script), to the point where the last movie is a pathetic farce with Abott and Costello, the poor man's Laurel and Hardy. I know this last
film is often considered a good comedy, but I've never understood why, and I'd rather rewatch the cheesy but straightforward previous mashups House of Dracula and House of Frankenstein. One of the most interesting thing about watching the whole saga is to see how they reflect the careers of certain actors: Boris Karloff plays the monster in the first three movies, then leaves the role, and shows up later as a scientist in House of Frankenstein. Bela Lugosi however, who turned down the part of the monster in the first film, plays Igor in Son of Frankenstein and Ghost of Frankenstein, then gets "downgraded" to the part of the monster, and finally comes back as Count Dracula in the Abbott and Costello movie. Finally, Lon Chaney Jr. was the first to reprise the part of the monster after Karloff, and then gets stuck as the Wolfman Larry Talbot in all subsequent outings.

Son of Frankenstein
1973 was not only the year Hammer released its final Frankenstein (Monster From Hell), but also the year of two major Frankenstein films: Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein and Andy Warhol's (or rather Paul Morrissey's) Flesh for Frankenstein. Both refreshing, but both were simply paying a homage to one of the established traditions: Young Frankenstein was a comedic remake of 1931 Frankenstein combined with Son of Frankenstein, and Flesh was little more than a trashy Hammer film, with the Baron being portrayed by Udo Kier as an immoral nobleman who likes to stack body parts in his lab. It was also in 1973 that the overlong TV movie Frankenstein: the True Story tried to adapt Mary Shelley's novel for the first time.

But it wasn't until the 1990s that such attempts occured again. Of course there was the 1994 blockbuster with Robert de Niro and Kenneth Branagh (and John Cleese!), but it came off as a bit pretentious, and not all that faithful to the book. I much preferred the TV movie produced two years earlier by David Wickes, with Patrick Bergin as Baron Frankenstein. Still not the most faithful version, as this honour goes to the 2004 mini-series directed by Kevin Connor (who happens to support our film!)

Connor's version came out the same year as Van Helsing, which was a fun throwback at the old Universal mashups with Dracula, a werewolf and Frankenstein's monster going at each other's throats.

And in recent years, the most enjoyable Frankenstein movie I've seen was... Tim Burton's Frankenweenie! You just can't beat a black and white stop-motion gothic extravaganza.

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