No Sleep October: Alternative Frankensteins

For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.


When it comes to cinematic horror, my safe comfort zone is the world of Frankenstein. 

Sitting in the midst of the Venn diagram circles that include science, religion, philosophy, sex and cool makeup, the saga of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his creation has fascinated me since I got my claws on my first issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland.

For the 2018 No Sleep October, I wrote about the Universal Studios cycle of Frankenstein films, and my intent this year was to move on to the Hammer Frankenstein film series.

Well, as we learn time and time again from these films: What we intend to create isn’t always what we end up with.

Rather than dive into Peter Cushing and company’s oeuvre, I found myself wondering if Frankenstein: The True Story, the 1973 made-for-TV two-parter, was as strong as I remembered it. I wondered why the 2015 film Victor Frankenstein pretty much disappeared, in spite of Daniel Radcliffe’s presence. I pondered what the deal was with the low-budget Frankenstein with Carrie-Anne Moss that came out that same year. And wasn’t there a version I heard about somewhere that had Carrie Fisher as Elizabeth, the doc’s bride to be?

Burning with curiosity — and employing streaming services, YouTube and the local library as my trusted assistants — I set out to watch as many alternative Frankensteins as time would allow.

I had to put some limits on the list, of course. I decided to keep it to films that at least make some effort to deal with the creature’s original story in a way that Mary Shelley might at least partly recognize. That’s why you won’t find 1999’s Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet Frankenstein, 1965’s Frankenstein Conquers the World (essentially a kaiju Frank), I, Frankenstein (starring Aaron Eckhart) or Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (which I actually saw as a lad on a double feature with Billy the Kid vs. Dracula).

I started with Frankenstein: The True Story, important to me because it was my first exposure to the story. In fact, I still have my paperback copy of the screenplay. (Yes, screenplays were sometimes published as mass-market books back in the before times.)

My first surprise on watching it for the first time in decades came in the credits: It was co-written by Christopher Isherwood, best known for his Berlin stories that formed the basis of Cabaret.

Frankenstein: The True Story opens with the doc (Leonard Whiting, late of the Franco Zefferelli Romeo and Juliet) leaving his brother’s funeral and remarking: “If Satan could teach me how to make William alive again, I’d gladly become his pupil.” He soon joins Dr. Henry Clerval (David McCullum, first in a parade of British stars that I knew nothing about when I first saw this) in an amputation scene that combines both gruesome surgery and smart character development. Later, McCullum’s Clerval explains the Prometheus myth while lighting candles in a chandelier and chomping on bread and cheese — show the value of “business” in bringing life to familiar scenes. 

Well, not that familiar. In spite of the true-story moniker, the moviemakers clearly aren’t terribly interested in being Shelley purists.  

One of the twists here is that the Creature begins its new life in quite handsome form (Michael Sarrazin, just prior to For Pete’s Sake and The Reincarnation of Peter Proud). When he and Dr. Frankenstein first lay eyes on each other, the music swells almost romantically. He even gets a night at the opera as a coming-out event a la Eliza Doolittle at the racetrack. But with just one ambulatory severed hand later, things start to look bad. The process is reversing itself — ah, that’s what Dr. Clerval meant when he scrawled an R … in his dying note! — and the Creature’s features begin to change. Isolated and rejected, the Creature turns suicidal and takes a leap off what seem to be the White Cliffs of Dover. Things get worse with the obligatory visit to the hut of a blind man (Ralph Richardson) and the arrival of ambitious Dr. Polidori (James Mason), who had been lurking on the sidelines all along. Soon, another creature (Jane Seymour) is in the works and she too gets a coming out party — although hers is interrupted with an eyebrow-raiser (in fact, an entire head-raiser). 

Unlike Colin Clive in the Universal films or Cushing in the Hammer offerings, Whiting’s doctor is sympathetic and human in his combination of grief over his brother, youthful enthusiasm and fascination with Clerval. And, unlike in other versions, Dr. Frankenstein actually seems to care for his fiancée, Elizabeth, who demonstrates some spine. (Side note: The first killing we see occurs when Liz swats a rejuvenated butterfly.)  

The core challenge with any adaptation of this story is figuring out the underlying message. The original question about whether man should play god doesn’t quite hold up as well as it used to because it runs the high risk of coming across as anti-science. More palatable today is the question of our responsibility for the things we create. Here, Dr. F is confronted directly with the fact that he loved his creature so long as it was pretty. Once the looks go, he becomes a problem.  

All enormously entertaining so far. But just when I was about to give my 10-year-old self a time-traveled high five for loving this version, Victor and Elizabeth head out to sea. Here, the liberties taken with Shelley start to feel less justified and the action less organic. A storm commences, Elizabeth proves inventively ruthless, Polidori ends up hoisted up the mast, and the Creature sets sale for the North Pole. However, that ending, far different from Universal or Hammer or Shelley, feels right for the story told. Given variations that would come later, Frankenstein: The True Story is a remarkable achievement.

Hitting TV screens that same year, Frankenstein (from Dark Shadows honcho Dan Curtis, also the man behind The Night Stalker and Trilogy of Terror) can’t hold a candelabra to The True Story.

Airing as part of ABC’s Wide World of Mystery late-night anthology series, Frankenstein jumpstarts the story to the day before the storm, with the Creature on the slab and Dr. F (TV-movie stalwart Robert Foxworth) in search of a heart to fill its chest.

When the Creature arises, he looks more like Rik Smits than Boris Karloff. (Where Karloff spent hours in the makeup chair, Bo Svensen appears to have been in there for 10 minutes tops.) He’s as articulate as the Creature in the novel, uttering such phrases as “I have all the hurt of the world inside me” and “I am what you made me” but with variable accents and amid cheap sets (when the Creature tries to knock down a door, the wall shakes), musical accompaniment recycled from other Curtis shows and a script that seems designed to spend as much time as possible in as few places as possible. We do get an almost Of Mice and Men moment where the doc puts a gun to the Creature’s head after a “whoopsie” accidental killing. And there’s a blind girl this time with an overcomplicated family, but it feels like so much padding.

You don’t get an ocean journey to the arctic here, but you do get Willie Aames as young William Frankenstein. Nothing, though, keeps this from feeling like a sad soap opera. Two Lives to Live? Another World … Where People Don’t Chase Me with Pitchforks? I’m here all night. Tip your waitstaff.

Neither of these TV movies, though, grabbed audiences the way the 1974’s comedy hit Young Frankenstein did. 

Expertly stitching together parts from Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein, the brainchild of Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks is perhaps Brooks’ most fully realized spoof as a director. And like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein before it, Young Frankenstein made it very difficult to experience future versions of the story with a straight face. Packed with lines that have entered the annoy-your-friends lexicon, wonderfully straight-faced performances by Wilder, Teri Garr and Cloris Leachman, and the far-from-straight face of Marty Feldman, it solidified most of the clichés now associated with the Creature’s story. Today, the film’s pleasures are only tempered by the overfamiliarity of its punchlines and the fact that, no way around it, we’re expected to celebrate that the creature rapes Elizabeth … who ends up liking it.

With Young Frankenstein making it difficult to take the story seriously, it was a decade before another major production attempted fidelity to Shelley’s novel. 

The British TV version of Frankenstein in 1984 featured Robert Powell as the doctor (out-sideburning Cushing’s doctor in Curse of Frankenstein) and David Warner as his creation, with more of a burn-victim look than that of a stitched-together man. At a brisk 66 minutes (or so it is on YouTube), there’s not a lot to recommend here. The Creature wakes up, immediately takes off out of the lab, frightens some locals and has a run-in with a blind John Gielgud (killed by thieves who, in turn, are done in by the Creature). With the visual panache of one of those videos you see at a historic site, I’d only recommend it to Carrie Fisher completists. Fresh off Return of the Jedi, Fisher plays Elizabeth and even gets to sing a tune at the piano, but it’s not much of a performance in not much of a part. 

As for 1985’s The Bride, it doesn’t have much to do with either the novel or, for that matter, Bride of Frankenstein. Instead, Sting (as the doc) tries to educate his second creation (Jennifer Beals) while his first attempt (Clancy Brown) is befriended by a dwarf (David Rappaport) and joins the circus. The result is an attractive yawner.

And then there’s Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound from 1990, which follows the section of the novel where the lonely creature demands a mate from his creator (Raul Julia) and then takes revenge by killing Elizabeth. A few minor details are added, however, including a time vortex, a visiting scientist from the future (John Hurt), a KITT-like talking car and Bridget Fonda as Mary Shelley herself (who has an affair with the time traveler, saying “Percy and Byron preach free love. I practice it.”). 

Oh, and lasers. Let’s not forget the lasers.

Back to TV with 1992’s Frankenstein from Turner Pictures, which stressed the gruesome — especially in the birthing sequences. 

Familiar scenes are here; this one includes the Arctic voyage and the muder of Elizabeth. This time, the legendary stage actor who gets to be the blind man is John Mills. This creature isn’t stitched together from body parts but grown through a kind of cloning. There’s also an odd supernatural twist where the doctor (Patrick Bergen) feels the pain when the Creature (Randy Quaid) is hurt — but only sometimes. What doctor and creature mostly have in common, though, is a tendency to overact to a point of farce.

After this production, Variety critic Tony Scott suggested it was a time to give the story “a long rest.” Of course, you can’t keep a good creature down. The next major Frankenstein flick came two years later in 1994 and brought along a strong pedigree. There’s director / actor Kenneth Branagh, hot off his joyful Much Ado About Nothing. There’s an A-list creature in Robert De Niro. There’s a screenplay originally written by Frank Darabont (whose The Shawshank Redemption opened just two months earlier).

What could go wrong? Well, as Dr. Frankenstein learned time and time again, ambition doesn’t always equal achievement.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — which Darabont has publicly shaken his head about — is a bold, nearly operatic adaptation filled with frenzy, fluids and more swirling camera movement this side of a Terrence Malick film festival. 

In spite of featuring the author’s name in the title, the dominant force here is Branagh, who swings for the fences with every pitch. The scenery and set design are magnificent, the choices bold and the results akin to the Showgirls of monster movies. Just try to keep a straight face while the shirtless Dr. Frankenstein and his naked newborn Creature try to get their footing in a pool of amniotic fluid. 

It’s certainly a lot more fun to watch than 2004’s Hallmark miniseries production of Frankenstein. Here, the lesser-known leads (Alec Newman as the doctor and Luke Goss as the Creature) can’t quite compete with the bigger names like Donald Sutherland, giving the sea captain more attention then the character merits, and William Hurt as a curiously accented professor. And the effort to be truer than other adaptations to the original novel proves that it’s not always a good thing to be faithful to the source.

Bolder — and worth a look — is 2015’s contemporary Frankenstein from director Bernard Rose (Candyman, Paperhouse). Told from the point of view of the Creature (Xavier Samuel), it begins with him waking up on the slab. With the mind of a baby and the body of a man, he — like Sarrazin’s True Story creation — looks great at first. And he’s accepted by the doctors who made him (Danny Huston and Carrie-Anne Moss). But when the Creature begins to mutate, his pseudo-dad decides to euthanize him, leading to bloody deaths, an escape into the world and a life of hunting, gathering and learning the ways of the world. Variations on the girl-in-the-water and homeless friend fold into the plot, as well as an encounter with a prostitute (Maya Erskine). While never intending to kill, his trail becomes a bloody mess on his way to the home of his creators … and stays bloody once he arrives there. But somehow Rose never separates the Creature from the viewer’s sympathies. Samuel is no Karloff, but he isn’t trying to be, instead offering a fresh take on the character that works for this adaptation.

Finally — for now — there’s the much maligned Victor Frankenstein. Here, the actor playing the Creature is far less important than the one playing Igor. That’s Daniel Radcliffe, whose post-Potter choices both on screen and on stage have been nothing short of bold. Despite the title, the film primarily focuses on Igor, rescued from a brutal circus life by Victor F. (James McAvoy) after the doctor is surprised by his medical knowledge. The two soon are partnering not just on back-straightening but on life-bringing, and while critics largely accused this handsome flick as being a lesser variation on the Robert Downey Jr.-Jude Law Sherlock Holmes flicks, I found it to be big fun. 

Dare I say the best Frankenstein film since the silliness of Brooks and Wilder? OK, just said it.

Playful and surprising (especially in its variation on the bring-an-animal-to-life-first sequence), Victor Frankenstein would have benefited from more dimensions for its female characters — a problem that has plagued many a film in this genre. And its attempt at psychology for the doc becomes a bit tedious.

But for once I didn’t have a get-on-with-it feeling while waiting for the big birth. And for once I was hoping for a sequel — one that the dismal box office take of Victor Frankenstein made sure would never be made.

Instead, well, I can wait a few years to see if Jurassic Park and Mortdecai screenwriter David Koepp’s Bride of Frankenstein adaptation finds its way out of Universal’s failed Dark Universe project to become a standalone feature. Or I could watch Depraved or Frankenweenie or Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein or the animated Igor … or one of the other films that those hearty horror buffs who have made it this far will tell me I’ve missed.


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About

Lou Harry’s more than 40 books include Creative Block, The High-Impact Infidelity Diet: a novel, the recently released Little Book of Misquotations, and the novelization of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. His produced plays include Midwestern Hemisphere and Popular Monsters, and his podcast, Lou Harry Gets Real, can be heard via Apple podcasts, Stitcher and Spotify. He is Chair of the New Play committee for the American Theatre Critics Association and serves as editor of Quill, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists. Follow him on Twitter @louharry and / or visit www.louharry.com


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