The Weirdest Versions of Frankenstein in TV, Literary, and Film History
Victor Frankenstein is but one of many weird adaptations of Mary Shelley's novel.
Frankenstein is, arguably, the greatest of all monsters. There’s a sense in which the very name “Frankenstein,” applied not to the scientist but to his creation, has become virtually a synonym for “monster,” for something created but uncontrollable, something that destroys its maker, something grotesquely out of place in the natural world.
Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel was adapted for the stage by 1823, and for the movies, in a version by Thomas Edison starring Charles Ogle as the Monster, by 1910. But the image conjured up by the name Frankenstein for most of us is the classic bolt-necked, greenish-skinned beanpole with the coffee-can-shaped skull, mimed so memorably by Boris Karloff in the original 1931 Universal movie version (he got to growl a few words in 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein, but was inarticulate again in 1939’s The Son of Frankenstein).
With last year’s ridiculous but not dull revisionist buddy-picture version Victor Frankenstein out on Blu-ray this week, let’s take note of some of the countless other pop-culture permutations of this indestructible patchwork man. Here are a few that come to mind as the weirdest:
John Tenniel/Punch, or the London charivari
The Irish Frankenstein
This cartoon, which appeared in Punch in the wake of 1882's Phoenix Park Murders, allegorically depicts the Irish as monstrous terrorists, though, being a "Frankenstein," it also implies that their monstrousness was ultimately England's creation. It was the work of the great illustrator John Tenniel, far better known for his pictures for Alice in Wonderland than for this ugly and reactionary, though beautifully-drawn, smear.
Tenniel was fond of this device when depicting Irish revolutionaries, however. In 1870 he offered the "Irish Caliban," comparing opponents of English rule to Shakespeare's subhuman beast, and in 1885, Tenniel depicted Irish nationalist leader Charles Parnell as the "Irish Vampire.”
This was one of three attempts by Dell Comics, in 1966, to spin the movie monsters then in a Renaissance of popularity into comic-book superheroes. The other two were Dracula and The Werewolf. None of them caught on; all three ran just three issues each.
The title character of Frankenstein was the super-strong Monster, revived a century after his creation. Taking the impenetrable alter-ego “Dr. Frank Stone” and donning a handsome mask to hide his green-skinned face, Our Hero does battle with the nefarious likes of the tiny, bald-pated Dr. Freek.
Another attempt, this one slightly more successful, at Frankenstein as a superhero was this Hanna-Barbera cartoon from the mid-'60s. The Frankie in question was a giant flying robot who, under the guidance of his young pal Buzz, battled bizarre villains for truth, justice, and so forth.
The title character was rumblingly voiced by Ted Cassidy — Lurch on The Addams Family, and Ruk the robot on Star Trek’s “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” — who would have made a great Frankenstein in live action. Cassidy also provided the vocalizations for the Hanna-Barbera cartoon Godzilla, which presumably makes him the only actor ever to have played both of these monsters.
Giant Japanese Frankenstein
This is not to say, however, that the Frankenstein Monster has never been a Japanese-style kaiju. The 1965 Toho effort known in the U.S. as Frankenstein Conquers the World concerns a boyish giant generated by the presence of the Frankenstein Monster’s unstoppable heart, stored at Hiroshima during the explosion of the atom bomb (the Nazis had given the still-ticking organ to the Japanese as the end of WWII neared).
At the film’s climax, the hapless mega-Frankie scraps with the Godzilla-ish reptilian monster Baragon, hence the Japanese title Furankenshutain Tai Chitei Kaiju Baragon. The movie is familiar to legions of insomniacs, but not everybody knows it spawned a sequel.
A few years ago, the Oscars show featured talking heads of famous people discussing their earliest movie memories. Brad Pitt recalled being taken to see a movie featuring “a good Gargantua and a bad Gargantua,” and that the good Gargantua had to sacrifice himself at the end. He’s thinking, of course, of the 1966 Japanese kaiju film known in the US as War of the Gargantuas, but titled Furankenshutain no Kaiju: Sanda tai Gaira. Released in the US in 1970, it’s vaguely a sequel to 1965’s Frankenstein Conquers the World.
The character who inspired Mr. Pitt with his selflessness was Sanda, the brownish, mountain-dwelling “Good Gargantua,” who does battle for humanity's sake with his greenish, sea-dwelling, people-gobbling brother Gaira in that movie. I was taken to it by my long-suffering mom, for all I know on the same day as Pitt (he’s only about a year younger than I am, which is probably why I’m often mistaken for him). I remember it spooked me slightly more than the Japanese monster pictures usually did. Accidental byproducts of the Frankenstein-ian experiments in the earlier film, these shaggy anthropoids with their ugly ogre-ish faces and their Cain and Abel dynamic, plus the goriness of Gaira’s eating habits, combined to make this one grimmer and nastier than the typical Godzilla fare.
Also, there’s the matter of the horrible song in the clip above, which has been occupying space in my cranium for four decades.
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