Frankenstein in the Modern Era
Mary Shelley’s creation, Frankenstein, will never truly die.

January 5, 2009
by Grey Smith and John E. Petty

Now that Frankenstein had reached iconic status since its introduction by Shelly, it lent itself to parodies and reinterpretations.

In Frankenstein Conquers the World (Furankenshutain tai chitei kaijű Baragon, 1965), a savage homeless boy, living in Hiroshima 20 years after the dropping of the atomic bomb, finds the heart of the Frankenstein Monster, brought to Japan by a circuitous route in the last days of the war and eats it. As a result, the boy mutates, growing to a massive size, and battles Baragon — the latest giant monster to threaten Japan. Directed by Ishiro Honda with special effects by Eiji Tsubaraya, the team that brought Godzilla to life a mere decade earlier, this is a fun film, although the Frankenstein connection is, at best, tenuous. In many ways, this is the closest to “Frankenstein vs. Godzilla” we’re ever likely to get.

The Creature branched out into science-fiction with Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1964), a strange tale about robot astronauts and lascivious aliens. No less bizarre was Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1965), a horror/Western made by the infamous director William “One Shot” Beaudine, in which the legendary badman spurns the love of Dr. Frankenstein’s granddaughter with predictable results.

Even more outrageous was Andy Warhol’s Flesh for Frankenstein (1974), a soft-core porn film starring Udo Kier and Monique van Vooren as Baron and Baroness Frankenstein. For violence, gore and sex, this film more than earned its XXX rating.

Even Frankenstein couldn’t escape the blaxploitation craze of the 1970s. Inspired by such tremendously popular films as Shaft (1971) and Superfly (1972), funk was the thing in the Swingin’ '70s. Once the horror genre was mined successfully with Blacula (1972), starring William Marshall, it was only a matter of time before Blackenstein — aka Black Frankenstein (1973) — rose from his slab. Appropriately, Dr. Stein’s lab set uses prop pieces from the original Universal film, virtually the only thing these two treatments have in common.

In an early attempt at a “mini-series,” TV viewers were treated to a two-night event, Frankenstein: The True Story, in 1973. Although the production, which boasted an all-star cast of James Mason as Polidori, Leonard Whiting as Dr. Frankenstein, Michael Sarazin as the Creature, David McCallum as Henry Clerval and a very young Jane Seymour as Agatha, the Creature’s intended, had virtually nothing to do with Mary Shelley’s original story, it is, nevertheless, an enjoyable production that provides a very different take on the Creature and his story.

Perhaps the greatest Frankenstein film since the Golden Age, released in 1974, was Mel Brooks’ hilarious spoof, Young Frankenstein, starring Gene Wilder as the original Doctor’s descendant, Peter Boyle as his creation and Marty Feldman as the ever-present Igor. Filmed in black and white to re-create the look and feel of the original Universal films, and using many of the original props and set pieces, the love and admiration that the filmmakers obviously felt for their source material comes through loud and clear in each and every frame.

Since Young Frankenstein, the classic movie monsters have been almost entirely replaced by a new breed of fiend — the slasher. Films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), have terrified audiences with blood, gore and body parts instead of atmosphere. Instead of patchwork creatures born from the power of a raging storm or European nobility with a taste for blood who live in Gothic castles, today’s monsters stalk the heartland or the abandoned summer camp, armed with machetes, chainsaws, razor knives, or other such visceral means of dismemberment and destruction. The special effects are certainly better, but many aficionados of the Golden Age still yearn for a return to films like Bride of Frankenstein (1935), with its emphasis on theme and character rather than sheer body count.

Still Going

Still, Frankenstein hasn’t been entirely absent from the silver screen in recent years. Frankenstein Unbound (1990), based on the novel by Brian Aldiss, is an enjoyable film that introduces the concept of time travel into the Frankenstein mythos.

The well-intentioned, but in the end unwatchable, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) suffers from director Kenneth Branagh’s sense of self-importance and ego, making the film visually impressive but eventually soulless — “a tale..full of sound and fury; signifying nothing.”

The Creature also made an appearance in the Hugh Jackman vehicle, Van Helsing (2004). While visually very impressive — obviously designed with the inevitable action figure in mind — the character came across as little more than a whiny, annoying child.

On Sale

Through it all, movie material featuring Frankenstein and his monster has continued to prove popular with collectors. A one sheet for the 1931 Universal film brought $189,759 in a March 2004 Heritage auction, while a half sheet from the same movie sold for $25,300 in March 2005.

Heritage set a world record for the sale of a single lobby card in November 2004, when the title card for Bride of Frankenstein sold for an astounding $46,000, with a title card from Frankenstein not far behind, realizing $33,460 in March 2007.

Universal horror paper tends to be the “gold standard” of the poster-collecting hobby, with Frankenstein material leading the pack in both rarity and desirability.

Universal has, in recent years, taken part in a revival of its classic monster characters, reissuing the films in pretty new DVD packages, licensing the likenesses for a variety of merchandising efforts, including U.S. postage stamps. While Frankenstein and his shambling creation might not have the box office presence they once enjoyed, history has shown us clearly that Mary Shelley’s creation will never truly die.

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