All the buzz about Guillermo del Toro’s upcoming Frankenstein surrounds this question: who (with human chameleon Doug Jones onboard play the monster) will be Dr. Frankenstein? Every die-hard horror fan dreams of a Frankenstein movie with the perfect doctor-monster match. Yet, a hundred years after Mary Shelley’s novel was first adapted for the screen, we’re still waiting. Let’s take a look at some of the classic pairings.
You know all those horror-movie clichés you think have been around forever? The angry mob of torch-wielding peasants; the hilltop castle
silhouetted against a lightning-slashed sky; the hunchbacked assistant;
the blind hermit…
Well they’ve only been around since 1931.This is when it all started!
Colin Clive’s pale, trembling doctor has one great moment, shrieking “It’s alive!,” as his unholy creation stirs. It would be even better if he hadn’t been on the verge of hysteria since the beginning. It’s hard to imagine young Victor getting through gross anatomy, let alone the charnel-house slog of hacking up purloined body parts. With just the tiniest bit of exaggeration, Gene Wilder’s Young Frankenstein (1974) turned Clive’s characterization of the mad, idealistic doctor into a comic tour de force.
When you think “Frankenstein,” you’re thinking Boris Karloff. Universal makeup man Jack Pierce created the flattopped, sunken-eyed, black-lipped face; asphalt-spreader’s boots and too-short sleeves created the illusion of abnormal height and freakishly long arms. But Karloff brought the monster to terrifying, heartbreaking life: from the awkward, stiff-back walk to the hands rotated awkwardly at the wrist, his wordless, darkly soulful performance captures the essence of a creature baffled by the world and uncomfortable in its own flesh.
Doctor: 3; Monster: 10
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
The first Hammer Film in the lush, lurid gothic-horror franchise reimagined the classic in living color and featured boundary-pushing gore, eye-popping bosoms, and the future dynamic duo of British horror: Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.
Cushing’s icy Victor von Frankenstein epitomizes the single-minded man of science. He’s unruffled by gore, unfettered by bourgeois morality, unmoved by appeals to all things holy, and unwilling to quit, no matter how many times his experiments go awry. Plus, you could amputate limbs with his cheekbones.
Strike 1: The assets that make a premiere Dracula — feral grace, commanding sensuality, and a lean and hungry look — can’t be embodied by a misshapen, man-sized newborn with a damaged brain. Strike 2: Phil Leakey’s lumpy scar makeup. Strike 3: mucky bandages better suited to a mummy movie. Lee never had a chance.
Doctor: 10; Monster: 2
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)
Behold, the clash of the titans: Irish wunderkind Kenneth Branagh (who also directed) faces off against American method actor Robert De Niro, in the “most faithful adaptation ever” of Shelley’s novel.
Branagh’s testosterone-fueled Victor Frankenstein has the ego of a god, along with a physique well-suited to working bare-chested and in leather pants. He’s such a volcano of manly energy that he’s exhausting to watch.
De Niro’s monster, like Shelley’s, is articulate and thoughtful. No damaged or criminal brain here. But that New York accent is distracting. Ditto the creature’s stylish leather coat. Who knew you could find cenobite fashion gear hidden behind a scrubby 18th-century bush?
Doctor: 5; Monster: 5
Frankenstein: The True Story (1973)
Not really…in fact, not at all — if by “true” you mean faithful to the source. And while novelist Christopher Isherwood’s screenplay is literate and sometimes clever, it’s also campier than an Art Deco drag ball.
Leonard Whiting’s Dr. Frankenstein is convincingly young. The actor was only 23, and Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein is well into his reanimation experiments while still in school. But then, as now, rich boys with male-model looks rarely frittered away their golden youth in libraries and chemistry labs. It’s hard not to wonder why Whiting’s doctor isn’t out tripping the light fantastic.
The costumes say 18th century, but Michael Sarrazin’s lush-lipped good looks scream ’70s glam. Which makes his degeneration from perfect creature to battered, deformed wreck all the sadder. Especially since he has a first-class brain trapped beneath the icky makeup.
Doctor: 4; Monster: 4
Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (1974)
Rude, lewd, crude, and 99.9 percent Andy Warhol-free, Paul Morrissey’s X-rated mash-up of Shelley goth and Serbian politics includes gratuitous gore (by Alien‘s Carlo Rambaldi), incest, Eurotrash perversity, and fun 3-D effects.
For sheer incandescent, go-for-broke onscreen lunacy, Klaus Kinski couldn’t have bettered Udo Kier’s performance as Baron von Frankenstein, who’s creating a perfect Adam and Eve to spawn a Serbian master race.
Italian sexpot Dalila di Lazzaro and non-actor Srdjan Zelenovic are easy on the eyes, but there’s a reason they’re billed as “Male Zombie” and “Female Zombie.”
Doctor: 6; Monsters: 2