Revisiting Universal’s Frankenstein movies

From the classic original to the end of its run in the 40s, we take a look back at Universal's Frankenstein movies...

Following on from my exhaustive analysis/rant on the Mummy movies, here are my (hopefully) more coherent thoughts on their stablemates, the Frankenstein series (1931-1948). Unlike my last feature, I’m sticking to the ‘classic’ era of Universal Frankenstein movies — so no Hammer (unlike the Mummy, Hammer did not have the rights to Universal’s version of the monster), no Young Frankenstein (produced by Twentieth Century Fox) and no Van Helsing (because NO).

With Universal moving the pieces into place for a new franchise based on its classic monsters, this feature is especially notable, since it will allow me to analyse Universal’s previous attempts at an all-star Monster Team-Up. Before all that, we’ll go back to the beginning.

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It’s 1931, and Universal is coming off the success of Tod Browning’s Dracula, and gearing up for their follow-up — a story about a man playing God, and the crude Adam he created.

Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931)

Mad scientist: Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive). Clive’s performance set the template for the mad scientist archetype, but it is surprising just how complex and human his portrayal is when compared with the popular caricature often attributed to him. Considerably more sympathetic than Peter Cushing’s Victor, Clive’s Henry is a brilliant man undone by hubris. Clive was a famously nervous performer who required a few belts to get going (a factor which accounts for his considerably broader performance in the sequel), but he imbues Henry with a vitality and sympathy few of his successors would match.

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The Monster: Others have tried, but no one has managed to reach the levels of pathos Boris Karloff gets with a single whimper. Over eighty years on, Boris Karloff remains the gold standard for his ability to humanise the inhuman. With his pitiable moans and pained, stilted gestures, Karloff strikes a balance between child-like innocence and animalistic aggression that make the Monster feel strangely alive and believable. No matter how horrific he appears, or how deplorable his actions are, Karloff’s Monster remains extremely pitiable.

Igor sighting: Igor in all but name, Fritz (Dwight Frye), with his hunchback, is the archetypal mad scientist stooge. He is arguably more of a villain than either Henry or the monster. He is shown actively engaging in antagonising and torturing the helpless Monster (terrifying him with fire, and whipping him while he is chained to the wall). Ultimately he is probably more responsible for the Monster’s aggressive behaviour than anyone else.

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Review: One of the classics of the Universal Monster series, Frankenstein is far funnier and more atmospheric than you would expect of a movie made in the thirties. Cinematically, it is a far better movie than its stablemate, Tod Browning’s Dracula.

At just over 70 minutes long, it manages to pack in everything you need for a satisfying movie: good characters, an involving story and a strong sense of style. And for the time, it is incredibly dynamic and impactful. The opening sequence, in which Henry and Fritz rob a grave and cut down a hanged man, is terrifically bleak. And the finale, in which the Monster flees into the mountains, is a masterpiece of art direction.

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Final verdict: While it is not as polished as its sequel, Frankenstein remains a horror classic.

Bride Of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935)

Mad scientist: Clive’s Frankenstein gets his thunder stolen by Ernst Thesiger’s batty Dr. Pretorius. Simpering, arch and ironic, Thesiger is a delightfully off kilter character who embodies this film’s sophisticated sense of camp.

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Working in the same field as Henry, Dr. Pretorius has created several homunculi — miniature human beings (and a mermaid!) — and wants to continue Frankenstein’s work.

The Monster: Saved from death by a flooded basement, Karloff’s monster returns. Both more murderous (he kills two people within seconds of his first appearance) and more sympathetic than before, this is the most complex and well-realised version of the much-abused character.

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Due to his injuries in the previous movie, he has lost hair exposing the staples holding his skull together. Taken in by a poor blind man, the Monster learns to speak and begins to evolve into a more human character.

To increase viewer sympathy (and parody the religious opposition to the Monster), Whale turns the creature into a Christ-like figure — this is especially obvious in the scene when the Monster is caught and chained up.

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Igor sighting: Dwight Frye returns, but instead of the hunchback Fritz, he plays Karl, a neanderthal-like henchman of Pretorius’. He helps Pretorius do his dirty work, including finding a ‘fresh’ heart for the Bride. Frye’s boss-eyed performance is distinct from the sadistic Fritz, and — despite being less malignant — somehow even creepier. He ends up tossed off the top of Pretorius’ castle. Karl’s role was cut down significantly during the editing process, which limits his impact — I honestly forget about him until he popped up at the climax.

Review: Released four years later, and yet it feels more like twenty. In every respect, Bride Of Frankenstein is an improvement over its predecessor. The story is more complex, the direction more dynamic and inventive, and the cast of characters even more colourful and fascinating than before.

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Karloff’s Monster and Thesiger’s Pretorius are the highlights, but the whole cast is, pound for pound, terrific.

Final verdict: One of the great sequels, Bride Of Frankenstein is one of the darkest, funniest, and most unique horror films ever made.

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Son Of Frankenstein (Rowland V. Lee, 1939)

Mad scientist: He’s not mad, but he is a scientist. Basil Rathbone stars as Henry’s son Wolf. Having grown up in England without his father (who died while he was too young to remember him), Wolf’s desire is to restore his family name.

The Monster: Kitted out in an unflattering wooly vest, the Monster has regressed from the semblance of humanity he gained in Bride. The implication is that his injuries from prior rampages have dulled his brain. We do learn that he is basically immortal, and he has become incredibly strong. While prone to rage, Ygor is able to control him. Unlike the previous movies, the Monster is a willing serf for Ygor’s mad schemes.

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Igor sighting: Or Ygor, in this case. Played with relish by Bela Lugosi, Ygor is a former assistant of Wolf’s father. Caught following the Monster’s rampage, he was hanged. The execution was botched and now he lives with a grotesquely misshapen neck.

Review: I cannot think of another franchise that manages to complete a perfect hat-trick of having three great films in a row (Bourne maybe?).

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Lionel Atwill and Lugosi are the standouts — Atwill plays the village’s chief of police, Krogh. He is a victim of the monster, losing an arm in a previous rampage. Unlike so many of this archetype, he genuinely believes that Wolf is a good man, and tries to act as a buffer when the village folk start getting into lynch mob mode. Once it is clear that the Monster is loose, he leaps into action mode. Atwill’s performance is terrific — it’s too bad they didn’t think to bring the character back in the sequels (though Atwill returned in most of them before his death in 1946, he never played Krogh again).

The continuity with this entry is incredibly sketchy. Castle Frankenstein looks nothing like Henry’s residence from the first two films, and the Monster was never shown tearing a child’s arm off. All that aside, Son Of Frankenstein is a terrific picture that more than holds its own with its predecessors.

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And while the production design is completely different, it is extremely evocative and atmospheric. It has a more obvious expressionistic influence — the mansion interiors are cavernous and oppressive, with exaggerated angles and shadows and blank space. Even the town meeting hall feels more like an inquisitorial court, with council members seated in high booths, looming over proceedings.

If there is a bum note, it is the kid playing Wolf’s son — everything you hate about child actors in the Forties times 100.

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Trivia: Peter Lorre was originally set to play Wolf Frankenstein.

Final verdict: Criminally ignored, while it does not sync up perfectly in terms of continuity, Son Of Frankenstein is the perfect final chapter to the original ‘trilogy’. If the series had ended here, it would have completely satisfying.

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The Ghost Of Frankenstein (Erle C. Kenton, 1942)

Mad scientist: This one is a two-for. On the one hand, you have Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Ludwig Frankenstein, the second son of Henry and brother of the previous movie’s Wolf. Unlike his brother, he has the good sense to refuse to involve himself with the Monster. Unlike the other members of his family, Ludwig is a respected medical practitioner who is a valued member of the community. In the end, he is convinced by his father’s ghost(!) that he can improve the Monster by giving him a new brain.

The real mad scientist of the piece is Dr Theodore Bohmer, Ludwig’s colleague. Played by Son of’s Lionel Atwill, he has far less compunction about meddling with the Monster. The mentor of Henry Frankenstein, Dr Bohmer is tortured by his failed attempt to transplant a human brain — a procedure which destroyed his reputation but acted as a building block for other surgeons to learn from. Attracted to the idea of correcting his pupil’s failure, Bohmer is all-too eager to get his hands dirty.

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The Monster: Lon Chaney Jr. is most famous for playing the Wolf Man and Lenny from the first version of Of Mice And Men. He was the first actor to step into Boris Karloff’s big boots. Chaney is not able to emote as much through the makeup as Karloff, but he does far better than his successors.

Indeed, his role may actually be more fleshed-out than Son Of Frankenstein. Unlike the previous film, where the Monster was just a lackey, here the Monster has an understandable motivation. He is looking forward to getting a new brain and even picks out his own candidate — an innocent young girl he befriends after seeing her get bullied by the bigger kids. It is an interesting and disturbing idea, and the scene in which Ludwig gets the child to safety is one of the few times where the film is genuinely scary. The best part is when Ygor tries to hold the door closed to prevent the Monster from entering the lab with the girl. The Monster pushes the door open until Ygor is crushed against the wall.

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In the end, Dr Bohmer replaces the chosen candidate’s brain (a good man who the Monster previously killed) with someone else’s…

Igor sighting: Making a second appearance as deranged, half dead Ygor, Bela Lugosi once again plays the real villain of the piece. They don’t explain how he managed to survive being shot dead in the last movie, but it’s good to see him again. Yoga’s plan this time is transplant his own brain into the Monster’s body — and with the help of Dr Bohmer, he succeeds.

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Once he is revived, Ygor becomes a genuine super villain and Lon Chaney Jr finally gets to act. Though Lugosi provides the voice, Chaney’s evil leer under the Monster’s heavy lidded makeup is terrific as he goes about smashing up the lab and beating up Ludwig. He even turns the tables on the torch-wielding mob — using Ludwig’s poison gas to asphyxiate them as they try to enter the lab.

Sadly, just as the movie becomes amazing, Ygor goes blind — his blood type is different from the Monster’s and the body has started to reject the transplant. Igor promptly strangles Bohmer and tosses him into a control panel. The panel explodes, the building catches fire and Ygor-Monster is crushed under debris. Ignominious.

Review: Like Bride Of Frankenstein, Ghost Of Frankenstein feels like a continuation of the previous movie. And while the movie is nowhere near as good as that classic, it’s far better than the b-movie let down it’s made out to be.

For one thing, it has a cracker opening. Following Wolf’s departure, a mob of villagers lay siege to Castle Frankenstein. While Ygor tries to hold them off by toppling masonry on their heads, they set explosive charges at the base of the castle walls and blow it up. Igor survives the explosion and makes a welcome discovery — the Monster has survived its fall into the sulphur pit and has been encased in the hardened lava(?). The mob’s explosion breaks up the ground, allowing the Monster to break free. As the diabolical duo flee, the castle explodes again and crumbles behind them.

Not to demean the rest of the movie, but the story does feel like a treatment for a great movie. It moves quickly and is never boring, but it lacks the depth and character of the original ‘trilogy’.

However, what it lacks in nutrition, Son Of Frankenstein makes up for in fat globs of sweet cheese. The opening scene where the Mayor of Frankenstein meets with the mob is hilariously matter of fact, Lugosi chews all the scenery he can, the Monster kills plenty of people and smashes a lot of furniture, and the climax puts the bang in slam-bang.

Trivia: This film sees the introduction of Visaria, a location which will become the main locale for future Universal horror movies.

Final verdict: While it is not at the level of the previous films, Ghost Of Frankenstein is an enjoyable romp with a few good ideas up its sleeve. Watch it for Ygor-Monster alone.

Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (Roy William Neill, 1943)

Mad scientist: Dr. Mannering (Patric Knowles), a local doctor who tends to Larry Talbot after he is discovered passed out in Cardiff. This character is completely inexplicable. At first, he is just a doctor caring for a patient — he is calm, empathetic and believably disbelieving of Talbot’s tales of being a werewolf. This characterisation holds until the third act when he suddenly decides to juice up the Monster for… some reason.

The Monster: Bela Lugosi was in the running for the role of the Monster back in 1931, but it would be over a decade before he got a shot at the part. On this evidence he should have passed. The Monster is just a stumbling, clumsy oaf who gets in the way of the other characters — you could cut him out and have the same movie. Lugosi’s version is possibly the most ineffective incarnation to this point.

Igor sighting: None, sadly.

Review: 

The first of Universal’s Monster mashups, this is a solid sequel to The Wolf Man, but an underwhelming entry in the Frankenstein saga. Despite the fact that a good deal of the movie takes place at Casa de Frankenstein, and we get introduced to another of the doctor’s progeny in Baroness Elsa Frankenstein , this movie is pretty uneven for a team-up (BTW do any of these siblings know each other exist?).

It’s a shame, because the bones of this story could have made for a great meeting of the monstrous. Buried after his father killed him at the end of The Wolf Man, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr) is woken by two grave robbers who foolishly break into his crypt and remove the wolfsbane from his coffin — all during a full moon. Uh oh. Realising that his condition has rendered him immortal, Talbot begins to search the world for a way for him to die.

Making Talbot the hero is the best aspect of this film, since he has an understandable and relatable motivation for finding Frankenstein’s research. It is a nice side-step away from the established formula, and Chaney’s performance remains extremely sympathetic, as he desperately hunts for a cure.

Trivia: Apparently, the Monster is still meant to be blind (following the events of Ghost Of Frankenstein), but any reference to this was removed during editing (as was a scene where the Monster spoke).

Final verdict: Ugh. The addition of Lon Chaney Jr gives this movie a much needed boost, but overall Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man is not nearly as fun as its title suggests. The final battle takes up literally seconds of screentime.

House Of Frankenstein (Erle C. Kenton, 1944)

Mad scientist: Dr. Neimann, played by Boris Karloff. A fan of Henry Frankenstein’s work, he has been in prison for 15 years after he attempted to transplant a man’s brain into a dog. After a freak storm destroys the prison, Neimann and his hunchbacked companion Daniel escape. They come upon a travelling ‘show of horrors’ which includes the skeleton of Dracula (John Carradine) as the star attraction. Killing the proprietor, Neimann takes his place and uses the show as a cover for the vengeance he seeks on the men who sent him to prison.

As his first act, Neimann resurrects Dracula and enlists his services to destroy his enemies.

After Dracula kills his first target, Neimann moves on to Castle Frankenstein to locate the good doctor’s records. He also finds the Monster and the Wolf Man, frozen in ice following their battle at the end of the previous movie. He manages to revive the Wolf Man, but the Monster remains comatose. Enlisting Larry Talbot’s (Lon Chaney jr.) aid, Neimann returns to his lab to commence resurrecting the Monster.

The Monster: Played for the first time by stuntman Glenn Strange, the Monster makes only a brief appearance in this film, and is only re-animated at the climax. Reportedly coached onset by Karloff, Strange’s Monster is not around long enough to make a real impact.

Igor sighting: Fritz. Karl. Ygor. And now, Daniel (J. Carrol Naish). A more sympathetic assistant than the previous films, he helps Neimann because he hopes the doctor can make him look like a ‘real’ man. Cast as a Quasimodo-style character, he even falls in love with a Gypsy woman, whom he rescues from a whipping. Despite these qualities, he is just as murderous as his predecessors. And when his beloved falls for Larry Talbot, Daniel becomes increasingly jealous.

Review: This movie is basically The Avengers of Universal Horror, with Boris Karloff as Nick Fury. Following the success of their first team-up, Universal assembled their classic troika for the first time. And while he does not play the Monster, Karloff is terrific as the real villain of the piece. Completely sociopathic in his dedication to proving his theories right, Neimann is willing to do absolutely anything to achieve his goals – and has enough powers of persuasion to make anyone follow him. Despite having no supernatural abilities whatsoever, Dr. Neimann is one of the great unsung Universal Monsters.

John Carradine, though more accurate in appearance to the literary version of Dracula, lacks the menace of Lugosi. The character is also poorly used — he is simply a stooge for Neimann’s killing spree, and winds up caught about halfway through the picture. He doesn’t even get to meet the other monsters, so the movie never really gets the team-up the picture advertises.

The story structure of this movie feels very odd. The first 30 minutes feel like a separate movie — featuring Neimann and Dracula. Once Dracula is dead, and Neimann has fled to the village of Frankenstein, it feels like another movie starts — complete with a new supporting cast.

What is consistent is Neimann, and his ability to make the monsters think that he will help them, which prevents the disjunction between ‘Part One’ and ‘Part Two’ feel as jarring as it could have been.

Final verdict: While it is only 70 minutes long, House Of Frankenstein is a pretty fun and involving movie. All of the characters have believable reasons for aiding Neimann, and when those motives conflict with his, the movie goes from merely enjoyable to flirting with greatness. Karloff is superlative in the lead, and makes for the best out-and-out villain of the series. The movie is not up there with the first three, but it comes damn close.

House Of Dracula (Erle C. Kenton, 1945)

Mad scientist: Dr. Franz Edelmann (Onslow Stevens) is not a villain like his predecessors, but his sanity is constantly in question for reasons that will soon be clear. In a slightly odd conceit, Edelman has gained a reputation for curing monsters. Dracula comes to him seeking a cure for his vampirism and Larry Talbot arrives seeking a cure for his lycanthropy. Eventually, the doctor is infected by a transfusion of Dracula’s blood and becomes a vampire. Undone by his own hubris, Edelmann is an interesting spin on the idea of the mad doctor — unlike the other mad scientists in the series, his motives come from a genuine desire to help his patients and an overconfidence in his abilities to cure their afflictions. It is ultimately this overconfidence which does him in.

The Monster: Played again by Glenn Strange, the Monster turns up about twenty minutes in, back in a coma. Found by Talbot and Edelmann, still clinging to Dr Neimann’s skeleton, he is carted back to the lab. Resurrected at the climax, Talbot ends the Monster’s resurrection by dumping a rack of chemicals on him. The Monster disappears in the inferno of Edelmann’s castle. Easily the most inconsequential of the Monster’s appearances in the series.

Igor sighting: Nina (Jane Adams), Edelmann’s nurse has a hunchback but is otherwise totally benign — she winds up strangled to death by the crazed Edelmann. Like her employer, Nina is another spin on the established formula — however, little is made of this. Nina’s role is relatively minor compared to the assistants in previous movies.

Review: Following the enjoyable House Of Frankenstein, this film seeks to continue in a similar vein (heh heh heh). Once again set in Visaria, House Of Dracula benefits from an intriguing premise — what if Dracula and the Wolf Man wanted a cure? — but as usual, the Monster takes a backseat. This is no bad thing (except for this article), since the other monsters more than make up for his lacklustre appearance.

Following his rather limp performance in the previous film, John Carradine really steps up his game this time around. Perhaps it is a better script, or maybe director Erle C. Kenton figured out how to use him properly, but either way, Carradine makes for an eerie and terrifying Dracula that manages to stand apart from Bela Lugosi’s more famous interpretation. Sadly, he is undone by the character’s stupidity (next time, don’t hide your coffin in the basement of the people you are trying to kill).

Sadly, he is undone by the character’s stupidity (next time, don’t hide your coffin in the basement of the people you are trying to kill).

As with most of the films in this series, the film’s strongest elements is Lon Chaney Jr. As Larry Talbot, he is finally able to be the hero he wants to be — cured of his lycanthropy (at least until the sequel), he leaps into action to save the villagers from the vampiric Edelmann and the revived Monster.

Final verdict: Like its predecessor, House Of Dracula is considerably better than its reputation would suggest. While it lacks the presence of Boris Karloff, and some of its plot strands don’t pay off, it makes up for this with an interesting plot and new ideas. If there is one criticism, it is as vehicle for Frankenstein’s Monster. It really isn’t one, and his presence here is not that interesting or necessary. However, as a movie in itself, House Of Dracula is a solid late-period offering from Universal’s classic Monster series. If the series had ended here, it would have been a decent finish — at least if it weren’t for two morons named Bud and Lou…

Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein (Charles Barton, 1948)

Mad scientist: Dr Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert) is the closest thing to a mad scientist here, though she seems pretty sane — just extremely evil. A partner in crime with Dracula, her plan is to replace the Monster’s brain with a less psychotic, and simpler mind that will be easier to control. She has already found the perfect lame brain, her dotting boyfriend Wilbur (Lou Costello). After Dr Neimann, Dr Mornay is the most duplicitous of the mad scientists — she’s basically a femme fatale, seducing a hapless dupe so she can use him for her experiments.

The Monster: Glenn Strange makes a final appearance as the Monster. With this film, he matched Karloff’s number of appearances. Despite his experience in the role, Strange never really had a chance to put a stamp on the character.

Igor sighting: None, but not really necessary. Halfway through the movie, Mornay tries to back out of her deal with Dracula and winds up as his hypnotised stooge, so you could make the argument that she fills both roles.

Review: Wow. This movie is really good. After a series of inconsistent (though enjoyable) sequels, this is the last truly great Frankenstein movie of the Universal ilk. Or, to clarify, the last great movie he appears in.

For while it might have Frankenstein’s name in the title, this is Dracula’s show. Stepping in for John Carradine, Bela Lugosi makes a long delayed but triumphant return to his most famous role. Despite visibly ageing since his first appearance, Lugosi is as magnetic as ever, and seems to be having a great time with the more comedic bent of this film. While he plays it totally straight, his menace is leavened with a degree of irony that makes the movie just that bit funnier.

Lon Chaney Jr. returns as the tragic Larry Talbot — here, he is trying to hunt Dracula and the Monster down to destroy them once and for all. This film would mark the final appearances of Lugosi, Chaney Jr. and Strange as their respective monsters, and to the filmmakers’ credit, they are played totally straight. It may seem odd, but it does feel like Abbott and Costello stumbled into the middle of a Universal horror movie. And somehow, it never feels jarring.

Trivia: Apparently, Glenn Strange injured himself during shooting and so Lon Chaney Jr. had to step into the role while he recovered. You can see him in the scene where the Monster throws Dr Mornay through a window and in the ending, throwing barrels and boxes at our heroes.

Final verdict: If you are willing to overlook the complete change in tone, it is a solid finale to the revered Frankenstein series.

And that’s the Frankenstein series done. Final thoughts? Overall, really impressive. I had a little trepidation after my experience with The Mummy series(s), but in terms of quality and sheer entertainment value, the Frankenstein movies are leaps and bounds above. The James Whale films are classics, but the real surprise is how enjoyable rest of the movies are. Son Of Frankenstein is fantastic and deserving of a reappraisal — it more than stands up with Whale’s films, while the Houses Of Frankenstein and Dracula are fun. While they are clearly made with fewer resources than the thirties films, all of the movies are filled with interesting ideas, characters and cool spins on the formula. And to top it all off, you get a great horror comedy in Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein. It’s the perfect send-off to a great franchise.

If this new Universal Monsters shared universe can be half as entertaining as these movies are, then they’ll be on the right track.