“But if you talk like that, people call you crazy.”
THE FANTASTIC FILMS OF FRANKENSTEIN
There are few cinematic monsters that garner the same reverence as Frankenstein’s. From straight adaptations of Shelley’s original novel to thinly-veiled excuses to have a bankable name, there is no end to the amount of films surrounding the infamous Frankenstein. And, while 90% of anything is junk, there is a special place most of Frank’s films sit, a realm of junk food by way of LSD. From the highest of artistic highs to the lowest of the Z-grade schlock, Frankenstein in cinema has few peers.
To say I’ve been inspired by the property is a bit of an understatement, I’ve run off quite a few friends and relatives getting deep in the weeds on the Universal catalog and that energy has led me to co-writing a Frankenstein series of my own with my friend, Wells Thompson (Frankenstein the Unconquered is currently on Kickstarter, read the bottom of the article for more details!). Today, I’d like to take you on a trip through the best of the best (or, y’know, my own most biased version of such a list). We’re gonna be traveling through some territory you may disagree with, but feel free.
I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957)
“Answer me! You have a civil tongue in your head! I know…I sewed it in there!”
The golden age of the B-Movie is in full swing with this astoundingly low-budget film from American International Pictures and Herbert L. Strock. Produced just a scant five months after AIP’s previous “hit” I Was a Teenage Werewolf, the film follows a decidedly villainous Professor Frankenstein as he tours colleges as a guest lecturer in hopes of finding young, fresh parts to build his cadaverous monster.
Full of melodrama, blown out mics, and more washed-out film stock than you can shake a (severed) limb at, this drive-in monstrosity is worth checking out if you’re into the kind of late-night drivel that sits at the foundation of horror pictures. Decent monster design, surprising body horror for the era, and an alligator should ensure you have at least a modicum of fun with this hastily constructed Frank flick.
Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965)
“The lucky ones are dead.”
A science-fiction war film that features no Victor Frankenstein, no Frankenstein monster, and a total of zero gothic castles, this cult classic is perhaps the most tenuous when considering Frankenstein properties. But the sheer gall at attempting a mess of this caliber is something, I think, to admire.
Martians need to capture human females in an effort to repopulate their decimated population and send a space monster to combat the only thing standing in their way: the military space android made from human parts named Frank Saunders. After being shot down by the Martian artillery, Frank is horribly scarred and becomes the titular monster and begins his fight with the space monster for the fate of the world. If you’re not already convinced, there is nothing I could say further that would get you to watch this mess of a film. You’re either in, or you’re out. Embrace the schlock.
Now, onto the lightning-infused life of the thing. We’ll be counting down from five (with a little surprise at the end), so hold onto your hats as we start out with:
#5: Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet Frankenstein (1999)
“Don’t touch the cap.”
I told you at the top of the article this was a list with a heavy bias, right? Well, now you get to see the fruits of that ominous threat. I ran this VHS tape (along with its sequel, Alvin and the Chipmunks meet the Wolfman) until the film strip turned white. But, while this decision is 95% based on nostalgia, I can’t help but feel there’s actually something of merit here if you can get past the obnoxious chipmunk voices (a big ask, I know). This is a chance to see Frank in a light that isn’t outwardly horror-based. We get to see the promise of Frank and Maria from the 1931 film given life as the monster befriends the chipmunks and shows how kind we all can be if we all just accept each other for our differences.
As odd as it sounds, this film feels like the natural endpoint to an alternate universe where Frankenstein was accepted as a human being. Call it nostalgia, call it idealism, but this is kind of the ending I’d love Frankensteins of all worlds to strive for.
#4: The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)
“[He’s] No-one. He hasn’t been born yet.”
When Universal shuttered their horror branch in the mid-1950s, it left a gothic hole in the world of cinema. Thankfully, Hammer Productions stepped up to the plate to ensure that sleepless nights were still possible for the late-night faithful. Revenge is the direct sequel to their original film, The Curse of Frankenstein, and manages to do what few sequels can: elevate the original while charting its own path. Brilliant performances, vibrant color (a welcome addition to the genre that Hammer leaned into), and visceral horror all add up to be one of the crown jewels of the Hammer era.
If you’re a Universal Monster purist, I can understand holding onto the purity of the original line. But you owe it to yourself to at the very least pop this one on the boob tube. Hammer holds the reins with a gleeful confidence that is always hard to come by.
#3: Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965)
“This heart is a living thing.”
Nazi scientists? Check. Implausible atomic science? Double-check. Giant kaiju action? Buddy, you better believe it. Now, my tokusatsu preferences may be showing here, but I can’t recommend Frankenstein Conquers the World enough. Originally a pitch pitting Frankenstein against King Kong and, later, Godzilla, the film features a young boy caught in the Hiroshima attack fusing with the heart of the original Frankenstein monster (please ask) and becoming a massive beast that must confront a familiar kaiju of Godzilla fame, Baragon, in an effort to protect the few friends he has. It’s wild. If you love old-school giant monster movies, this just might be the perfect Frankenstein movie for you. If you don’t, then I…well, I…why are you even here?
#2: Young Frankenstein (1974)
“It’s pronounced Fronkenshteen!”
Few (if any) parodies would ever be in a conversation about surpassing their source material. But, possibly in a class all its own, sits Young Frankenstein. A send-up of the Universal films of old while still carrying the all-important strand of reverence that all good parodies have, this masterpiece from Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder has everything a Frankenfiend could want. Authentic camerawork, timely editing, and jokes that make your ribs hurt elevate this to something more than just a simple comedy film. It’s one to study, to admire, and, hopefully, to inspire. Far too many artists take themselves and their inspirations too seriously, but, thankfully, Brooks isn’t one of them. You’d be hard-pressed to find any Frankenstein media as clever, sincere, and straight-up funny as this.
A QUICK ASIDE:
Okay, look, we’re at the end of the list and I’m sure there’s a fair question bursting from your reanimated frontal lobes: “Is he gonna pick Frankenstein or Bride?” It’s a natural inclination, of course. They’re the two greatest pieces of Frankenstein media outside of the original novel and they deserve to be on any “Best Of” list. But here’s the thing: I couldn’t, in good conscience, make this entire list filled with nothing but the Universal catalog. I could, of course, but where’s the fun in that? So, I’ve waited until now to stretch my legs and show you guys that, sitting firmly at the top of any Frankenstein conversation are the entire slate of Universal Frankenstein pictures. Are all of them good? God, no. But they are the bedrock of everything that follows. The scars, the bolts, the forehead…it’s all here. So, in lieu of choosing just one Universal film to sit at my top, here, in quick succession, are my Top Five Universal Frankenstein Films of the Top Spot of the Frankenstein Film List. We’ll workshop the title. But, in the meantime:
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
“You think I’m insane. You think I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
The first of many monster mash films, this entry in the Universal slate begins the first cinematic universe long before Robert Downey, Jr. got involved. Featuring Lon Chaney, Jr. once again reprising his iconic role of the Wolfman and (in an odd change of pace) Bela Lugosi of Dracula fame as the Frankenstein monster. This isn’t exactly a great film, and the fight everyone came to see lasts maybe…five minutes? At the end? But the chance to see Chaney ham it up alongside Lugosi is enough for this fan.
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
“This is place of the dead. We’re all dead here.”
If you want to see the film largely responsible for Young Frankenstein, look no further. The third of Universal’s Frankenstein films, this is a fantastic cap to a trilogy. Featuring Boris Karloff in his third (and final) portrayal of the infamous monster, the film follows the titular son of Frankenstein, Wolf, as he inherits his father’s estate and finds the remains of the psychotic experiments within. Bela Lugosi plays a mean Ygor and has a great chemistry with Karloff that would inform their entire careers together. As far as a finale goes, you can’t get much better.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
“Dummy nothin.’ It was smart enough to scare me.”
Sure, Young Frankenstein is the poster child of comedic Frankenstein films. But what if I told you there was a film that was even more hilarious, charming, and wild? Well, you won’t believe me because it doesn’t exist, but Abbott and Costello does a damn good job trying. Starring the famous comedy duo encountering not just Frankenstein’s monster, but Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and the Wolfman (Lon Chaney, Jr.)! Another monster mash of a film, but with the slapstick that keeps your ribs hurting, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Iconic gets thrown around a lot, but few times is it ever more appropriate. This is THE defining cinematic Frankenstein, the film that launched a thousand imitations. Boris Karloff delivers the first of his many iconic performances as the monster with Colin Clive not far behind as Henry Frankenstein. There is nothing to say about this picture that you can’t find from a hundred books, documentaries, and video essays. This is required viewing, regardless of if you’re a fan of monsters and horror. This is art, plain and simple.
#1: Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
“We belong dead!”
But this is just a liiiitle bit better. Bride of Frankenstein proves, once again, that Frankenstein sequels slap harder than any other. Karloff returns to the role he was born to play and elevates the performance to Shakespearean levels (well, almost). Colin Clive returns as Frankenstein and is more subdued than previous, as we make room for the real star of the show: Elsa Lanchester as the Bride. Though only on-screen for a scant few minutes, she has become an iconic image of cinema that has lasted nearly a century. Like the film before it, Bride takes what should be schlock and lifts it up into the realm of gothic, cinematic art. Skip this at your own peril.
Thanks for indulging me, I’m glad you enjoyed this list (presumably), but no, we should get to the thing I was probably supposed to be promoting this whole time:
“For you cannot kill a thing that has never lived.”
We all know how Mary Shelley’s original novel ends: upon finding the object of his rage, Victor Frankenstein, dead in the arctic, the monster of legend leaps into the frigid waters and prepares to die, his vengeance taken from him by pure chance. But from those icy waters is born a new legend. One of blood and scars and hate. Thawed from the ice five hundred years in the future, the monster awakens to a bombed-out apocalypse as hideous as himself and sees that maybe, just maybe, he can find peace. Of course, peace is impossible for the beast known as Frankenstein, and he begins a crusade of renewed vengeance across the wasteland, bringing with him the only peace he knows: the swift cut of a blade.
Frankenstein the Unconquered is a tale of rage, toxicity, and the lies we tell ourselves as we look in the mirror. Full of blood, blades, and beasts, this is Frankenstein by way of Conan, and it’s something I think every fan of the famous monster can find a piece to love. Is it pretty? You bet. Is it deep? We sure hope so. Isn’t this just crass self-promotion? Hey, do we tell you how to write YOUR listicles? Head on over to Frankenstein the Unconquered on Kickstarter and back the next big hit for the Franken-faithful. Something tells me that if you’ve made it this far, you’ll be glad you did.