At the age of 18, Mary Shelley penned the gothic horror novel Frankenstein, which would go on to inspire plays, television shows, Halloween costumes and, most notably, movies. While Universal Pictures created seven films dedicated to Frankenstein’s Monster, it’s the first three that truly stand out as being iconic. And since it’s the 80th anniversary of Son of Frankenstein, we thought it would be GOOOOD to see how Boris Karloff’s incarnations changed through the course of the trilogy.
“I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.” –
The first film to feature Karloff’s creature was released in the fall of 1931. Colin Clive’s Dr. Henry Frankenstein, whose wedding day is imminent, is completely consumed with assembling and re-animating a man from the body parts of corpses. He is assisted by his somewhat disturbed (and sometimes cruel) lab assistant, Fritz. Frankenstein’s fiancée, Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), and his best friend Victor are concerned with the amount of time Henry has spent in isolation in his lab. They decide to persuade his mentor, Dr. Waldman, to travel to the laboratory to speak with him.
Most horror fans know how the rest of the scene plays out; the trio arrives at the castle and Henry invites them to his lab to witness his hard work and dedication in action. What unfolds from there is one of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history. Lightning strikes. The table is lowered. A giant hand twitches. At first the doctor whispers in awe, “Look… it’s moving”. The fingers move and the hand rises, as does Dr. Frankenstein’s pitch. His volume rises with a great fervor until he’s screaming repeatedly, “IT’S ALIVE!”
His frenzy is so great that Victor and Dr. Waldman run to his side to prop him up and keep him from falling over. He’s overcome by his success and almost pained at “what it feels like to be God.”
“He’s childlike and unknowing, but quick to anger, making him a dangerous creature that doesn’t know right from wrong.”
It’s an exciting and intense scene, and that’s before we even get a glimpse of The Monster. When Karloff finally rises from his slab, we see him shuffle his large, boxy body into the room where Henry and Dr. Waldman are talking. His sunken cheeks and heavy lidded eyes are enough to fill a first-time viewer with dread, particularly when combined with the giant staples in his forehead and partially stitched gash on his brow. His dark, stringy hair helps cover these slightly as it hangs from his wide, flat head. His neck has an electrode protruding on either side just below his ears that helped conduct the lightning through his body that gave him life.
Although he seems to understand and obey his creator, The Monster is non-verbal, communicating only through moans and grunts as well as hand motions and gestures. As the film progresses, we see his growth through the interactions he has with different people. He’s childlike and unknowing, but quick to anger, making him a dangerous creature that doesn’t know right from wrong. Our monster has much to learn, and we see him adapt quickly in his second film.
Bride of Frankenstein (1934)
Universal’s second foray into the world of Frankenstein begins with a portrayal of Elsa Lanchester as Mary Shelley discussing her novel with Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Walton) and Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon). Lanchester had dual roles in the film, also playing The Bride at the tail end of the movie. Picking up exactly where the first left off, Mary Shelley explains to our captive audience that there is more to the story…
Colin Clive is back as Dr. Henry Frankenstein and has been saved from the burning windmill where it was believed his monster had met it’s demise. His fiancée, Elizabeth, (now portrayed by Valerie Hobson) is determined to nurse him to health and get their wedding underway. Before they can take their leave, however, Dr. Pretorius, Henry’s deranged former colleague, has his sights set on a collaboration to create a mate for the monster.
When we see Karloff emerge from the rubble of the windmill in The Bride of Frankenstein, he has noticeably changed. The dark, wispy hair that once helped to conceal his forehead staples has been burned away. His skin is marred with burns and scratches from the ordeal. His hair and clothing are singed and muddy from the fire that destroyed the windmill that trapped him at the end of Frankenstein. He is quicker to anger than before and kills two villagers right away, still on the defensive from being attacked.
“The dark, wispy hair that once helped to conceal his forehead staples has been burned away. His skin is marred with burns and scratches from the ordeal.”
Karloff’s creature wanders the countryside for a short while and comes upon the hut of an elderly man who has lost his vision. Because he cannot see, he is not appalled by The Monster like everyone else and accepts him as a friend. As the creature comes to trust his new friend, he also picks up new habits and learns new things. We see him eat soup and bread, drink wine, and even smoke! The hermit also teaches him to speak, which is rather amusing since he exclaims, “BREAD GOOD!” and “SMOKE!” as he puffs on a stogie. The Monster also shows more emotion and humanity in The Bride of Frankenstein. We see him cry as the hermit thanks God for sending him a friend and he laughs and is jovial when his elderly friend plays the violin.
Of course, when The Monster is reunited with his father and Dr. Pretorius, he exhibits these emotions and more. He is eager when he realizes Pretorius wants to give him a “friend” and is determined to make sure it happens by assisting Pretorius in forcing Frankenstein to collaborate.
When his bride is finally revealed, she is as breathtaking as she is frightful. Her shapely form is wrapped in bandages from head to toe, and her hands move slightly as she sighs. When the bandages on her face are removed enough to reveal her wide-open eyes, Dr. Frankenstein exclaims, “She’s alive! ALIVE!”
After The Bride is unwrapped and is on her feet, we see how quick and jerky her head movements are. She moves more fluidly across the room than The Monster but holds her arms out in stiff, extended motions. She’s easily startled, but still has a commanding presence with her glances, body language, and screams. As the film draws to it’s conclusion, we see her hissing as The Monster sheds another tear before pulling the lever to destroy the laboratory with them and Pretorius inside.
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Happy 80th Anniversary to Son of Frankenstein! In Karloff’s final form, we are introduced to Bela Lugosi‘s Ygor (or Igor, as he is sometimes known). Lugosi’s portrayal of Ygor set the standard for many other lab assistants to come.
Dr. Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), travels to his deceased father’s estate to reclaim his heritage and collect his inheritance. Along with his wife Elsa and their son Peter, Wolf attempts to befriend the townsfolk only to discover they are superstitious and do not trust Frankenstein family. While settling in to their medieval style castle, Wolf discovers a man living in the shabby remains of his father’s lab. The intruder quickly introduces himself as Ygor and explains that he was living in the dilapidated structure and asks to show Wolf something within his family’s crypt.
Wolf not only discovers the remains of his father and grandfather, but is also shown a comatose Frankenstein Monster, (who somehow survived the ionization and collapse of the lab from the previous film). Ygor asks Wolf to repair The Monster and make him better, and Wolf agrees to try in an effort to clear his father’s name, but not before shouting, “HE’S ALIVE!” upon realizing his father’s creation was still breathing.
“…when he glances at himself in a mirror, he becomes enraged. Perhaps he remembers The Bride’s repulsion at seeing him, or the disgust of the townsfolk.”
When Wolf does eventually get The Monster back on his feet again, we see he is a changed man. He has returned to communicating through gestures, moans, and grunts. His movements are jerky and stiff, perhaps from being still for so long. His appearance and attire have also changed and he now wears a fuzzy, with grown out back out to be a similar length as the first film.
At one point, when he glances at himself in a mirror, he becomes enraged. Perhaps he remembers The Bride’s repulsion at seeing him, or the disgust of the townsfolk. He has clearly held on to some of his emotion and humanity, despite the awful things Ygor persuades him to do. We see this when he gets angry enough that he brings young Peter to the sulphur spring to do away with him, but then has a change of heart. He is also touched by Peter sharing his books with him and gives the young boy a pocket watch from one of the people he killed for Ygor.
What’s a rampaging monster movie without an enraged, murderous monster? Each film ups the ante with the number of deaths that take place. The types of deaths and circumstances surrounding them shows us how Frankenstein’s Monster changed throughout each film. And each film had it’s share of controversy over their death scenes, no matter how many or few there were.
In Frankenstein, The Monster is tormented with fire and whippings from Fritz, who assisted Henry Frankenstein in the lab. As a result, The Monster hangs the maniacal man after a rough round of abuse. Then, after escaping from the castle, the creature comes upon a little girl named Maria who is playing by the water with her cat. She shows The Monster how to throw the heads of daisies into the water to watch them float, which he finds amusing. Without understanding the consequences of his actions, he throws little Maria into the water and sadly, she drowns. He is clearly distraught by the fate of the little girl, but doesn’t know how to fix it or deal with it. Finally, The Monster strangles Dr. Waldman when he was attempting to humanely destroy him. That brings the kill count of Frankenstein to 3 total.
Frankenstein: 3 Deaths
Bride of Frankenstein: 8 Deaths
Son of Frankenstein: 11 Deaths
The Bride of Frankenstein ups the body count (and ended up banned in some countries!) The first two characters to bite it are rather tragic. Hans and his wife are killed by The Monster after going to the windmill to see for themselves that The Monster was actually dead. Hans especially felt the need to know for certain since it was his daughter, Maria, who drowned in the first film. The Monster, enraged after being shot at and trapped in the windmill that the villagers set ablaze, attacked Hans without a second thought, drowning him, too.
Afterwards, the tosses Hans’ wife down into the rubble and water where the windmill burned down. From there, he flattens one villager with a giant boulder, clobbers a girl named Freida, and ends up killing the murderous Karl (who actually killed a young woman to obtain her heart for The Bride). Of course, at the conclusion of the film, a teary Frankenstein’s Monster pulls a lever that will destroy everyone in the lab, including Dr. Pretorius, The Bride, and himself. This brings the death toll up to 8 for The Bride of Frankenstein.
In the final film, Son of Frankenstein, we start right away with mention of six strange deaths. The villagers believe it to the work of The Monster (or perhaps his ghost) since everyone they’ve found had burst hearts. As the film progresses, we discover Ygor is directing The Monster to kill those men who voted to have him hanged for grave-robbing. He also makes The Monster kill the family servant Benson because he fears he knows too much about the revival of the creature. In the end, Wolf shoots Ygor who was trying to attack him, and The Monster gets pushed into the sulphur spring in an effort to save little Peter. Total kill count for Son of Frankenstein comes in at 11.
Will you be celebrating the 80th anniversary of Son of Frankenstein with a rewatch? Let us know which is your favourite Karloff Monster on Twitter, in the official NOFS Subreddit, and the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook.