It’s the spooky season once again folks, and that means it’s time to dust off the movies you’re too scared to watch the rest of the year. And where better to start than with the classics? The Universal monster movies of the 1930s and ‘40s shaped American horror film, and they in turn borrowed a lot from the German Expressionist films of the previous decade. For fans of the genre, all of the Universal Monsters – Dracula, the Mummy, and the Invisible Man, among others – are essential viewing. If this is new territory for you, I recommend starting with the granddaddy of them all: Frankenstein. Huge franchises are not new to Hollywood, and the Universal Monsters were the original “shared universe” films. With so many sequels, I’m going to rank all of the original series of films with “Frankenstein” in their titles – it’s almost a chronological list, but that’s to be expected, isn’t it?
- Frankenstein (1931)
The original vehicle for Boris Karloff’s stardom, Frankenstein is (for my money at least) the best film in the Universal Horror stable. For a film just over an hour long, it packs in an incredible number of iconic lines, scenes, and characters: Jack P Pierce’s stunning make up on Karloff’s impressive frame (aided by heavy lifts in his boots), the Monster’s striking balance of terror and pathos, Colin Clive’s intense performance (“It’s alive!”), and Dwight Frye’s horrid lab assistant, Fritz, the forerunner of the Igor archetype. The movie isn’t a faithful adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel, and it’s not as frightening today as it was in 1931, but it holds up better than many of its contemporaries and is a must-see for any horror movie fan who is curious about the genre’s early days.
- Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
It may surprise you, but ranking this sequel after the original is contentious; many fans feel that it’s superior. After all, it’s got more impressive special effects (the tiny people in jars), an actual musical score, a delightful opening featuring the Shelleys and Lord Byron, two major Universal monsters, and of course Ernest Thesiger’s delightfully campy Dr. Pretorius. Bride isn’t exactly a horror film – it’s marked by director James Whale’s dark sense of humor, and presents the Monster more sympathetically than the first film did. It’s fantastic, but ultimately the first one is spookier, and that means it will always be #1 in my heart.
- Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
The only (intentional) comedy on our list, this one features the Universal Monsters more as supporting players. Abbott and Costello are revered as classics for a reason – this movie is still hilarious. The plot is obviously very silly, with real monsters being confused with wax monsters, pie fights, and other shenanigans. Abbott and Costello are very funny, of course, but much of the joy of the film comes from seeing these usually-dour monsters in a much lighter movie. While Glenn Strange plays the Monster, Lon Chaney Jr. reprises his role as the pitiable Wolf Man, and Bela Lugosi returns to play Dracula for the first (and only) time since the original film. This movie was mixing horror and comedy long before Sam Raimi entered the scene, and while it has no real scares to offer, it’s a treat for genre fans.
- Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Basil Rathbone (as the delightfully named Wolf von Frankenstein) is the original doctor’s son, who moves back to his tiny hometown. Rathbone is clearly phoning this in, and so is Karloff, who was done with the role after this movie. Saving the movie from disaster though is Bela Lugosi as Ygor, a blacksmith who survived hanging, and has trained the Monster to kill the town leaders who’d condemned Ygor to die. Lugosi gets to exercise his comedy chops in this role, and it’s clear that he was talented in funny roles (if only they’d ever be given to him). The film also boasts striking sets, with gorgeous use of shadows and Expressionistic angles. Most of the leads seem bored, and this one often feels lower budget than its fellows, but it’s still entertaining in a campier way.
- Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
This movie is much more about the Wolf Man (it’s the first sequel to the 1941 film), but it’s a lot better than you’d expect from that title. It firmed up some of the mythology we associate with Hollywood werewolves: unlike the first film, Larry’s transformations only occur on the night of the full moon. The plot contrives to have the monsters fight at the end, of course, which is even more bizarre since Frankenstein’s creation has been apparently preserved in sulfur and is now blind – although they don’t tell you that in the movie. The iconic image of the Monster lurching with arms completely outstretched comes mostly from Lugosi’s performance in this film, but it takes on a quality of the absurd when the Monster has no in-story reason for moving like that.
- House of Frankenstein (1944)
After Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, it makes sense that they’d try to get more monsters into one film, so you end up with two short movies jammed into one – a short story involving Dracula (played here by John Carradine) followed by a practically unrelated story that’s more or less a rehash of the last time the Wolf Man met the Monster. Boris Karloff is back in this one, playing a new role, and Larry Talbot’s got a new love story that’s kind of sweet. It’s an enjoyable enough movie for those (like me) who’ve got affection for low-budget monster movies.
- Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
Honestly, this one is just boring. It’s Lon Chaney Jr.’s turn to play the Monster, and he gives it a good go, but the characters around him are all quite boring, and the plot bizarre but not in the fun way. Of all of them, it’s definitely the most skippable.
Other Notable Frankensteins
Obviously there have been countless adaptations of Mary Shelley’s novel (some looser than others) in the years since Universal’s offerings, so here are a few more significant movie treatments.
- Young Frankenstein (1974): Arguably Mel Brooks’ best and funniest film, it lovingly parodies the Universal Frankenstein films – best enjoyed when you’ve seen the sequels as well, but it’s hilarious even if you’ve never seen the original. Career-best performances from Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman supported by the brilliant trio of Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, and Terri Garr (with Peter Boyle as the Monster) – you couldn’t ask for a better comedic cast.
- The Curse of Frankenstein: Peter Cushing is chilling as a much more malevolent Victor Frankenstein who will straight-up murder people. Christopher Lee’s Monster is intimidating, but not nearly as sympathetic as Karloff’s. Still, from Hammer Films, you know to expect an entertaining blood bath.
- Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Kenneth Branagh’s version, like most of his adaptations, is nothing if not ambitious. In some ways he stays true to Shelley’s novel, although even he can’t escape the influence of earlier movie versions. De Niro is a pretty memorable Monster, and Branagh’s wild energy is a good fit for the title role, so it’s worth a watch for fans of the novel. To non-fans it might be a bit boring and overlong.
- Frankenstein Unbound: This one is hard to describe – it’s got time travel (to the past AND the future), Victor Frankenstein and his creation as well as Mary Shelley and her circle. It’s an odd, odd film, and I can’t exactly call it a horror movie, but it’s certainly… certainly something. The only stranger version may be Andy Warhol’s Flesh for Frankenstein.
- I, Frankenstein: Abs.
So what do you think, Franken-fans? Do you agree with my assessment? Did I leave your fave Frankie out entirely? For those less-versed in Frankensteinia, hopefully you now have enough information to have a Frankenfest of your very own this Halloween.