He’s green and lumbering and he’s not the Hulk. He’s Frankenstein’s Monster, though he often goes by his maker’s name. And while he’s one of the Halloween season’s most recognizable icons, he’s worn more faces than you might realize.
Seeing Shelley’s Unseen Creature
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus, published in 1818, offers surprisingly few specifics about the Creature’s appearance.
Overly ambitious scientist Victor Frankenstein sees its “dull yellow eye” open when he animates “the lifeless thing.” He mentions that its long, “lustrous” black hair and pearly white teeth contrast with its “shriveled complexion and straight black lips.” But Victor is too shocked by what he has made to look on it for long: “I had selected his features as beautiful… [but now] breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.”
Fortunately, generations of makeup artists and actors have freely shown us their versions of what Victor couldn’t bear to behold. From the novel’s first stage adaptation in 1823, the Monster has taken a multitude of forms.
The 2015 movie Victor Frankenstein, for instance, gave him a name – “Prometheus,” evoking the original novel’s subtitle – and envisioned him as a bald, bare-chested, barely clothed brute, his muscular frame streaked with scars and studded with metal, broken shackles on his wrists and ankles. Critics and audiences weren’t kind to the film overall, but its Monster was a triumph of practical movie magic and a memorable modern take on the character.
Pierce and Karloff’s Classic Creature
Actor Boris Karloff and makeup artist Jack Pierce created the Monster by which all others have been and forever will be judged for director James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein, the second of Universal Studios’ immortal monster movies. The flat head (with hinges to suggest Dr. Frankenstein opened and closed it “like a pot lid,” said Pierce, when adding the brain), the protruding brow, the sunken cheeks (created by removing Karloff’s dental bridge), the bolt-pierced neck – Pierce’s work seamlessly accented Karloff’s naturally striking features, and seared itself into moviegoers’ memories. Karloff’s performance, which still inspires both dread and empathy in viewers, completed the illusion. “It’s alive… It’s alive,” indeed!
The Monster and His Mate
In Shelley’s novel, the Creature threatens Victor with calamity when the scientist refuses to create a companion for him: “Shall each man… find a wife for his bosom, and each beast has his mate, and I be alone?… Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful. I will watch you with the wiliness of a snake, that I may sting with its venom. Man, you shall repent of the injuries you inflict.” Victor begins but ultimately abandons his manufacture of a mate, provoking the Monster’s wrath.
But In 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein, again directed by Whale, Frankenstein finishes a bride for his Creature. Actress Elsa Lanchester spends only about four minutes onscreen as the Bride, but what an indelible impression she makes, aided by more meticulous work from Jack Pierce. Lanchester once told an interviewer, “For a whole hour he would draw two lines of glue, put a red line down the middle, then start making up the white edges of the scar… After the scar came the eyebrows and the hair… they placed a cage on my head and combed my own hair over that cage. Then they put the gray-streak hairpieces in afterwards.”
Lanchester sells the look with her rigid, rapid head movements and, of course, her piercing scream when the Bride’s intended “groom” attempts to touch her. The Bride’s image every bit as iconic as the Monster’s.
It’s even inspired some ghoulish glamour art! This statue, based on illustrator Ted Hammond’s work and sculpted by Barsom Manashian, is proof of the continuing spell of fear and fascination the Bride can cast!
Christopher Lee and The Curse of Frankenstein
In 1957, Hammer Studios in England released The Curse of Frankenstein, the first of its eventual seven films focused on the Frankenstein myth. Curse starred two thespians who would become especially well known to science fiction and fantasy fans: Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein, and Christopher Lee as his Monster.
Cushing played Frankenstein more than once, but Curse marked Lee’s only outing as the Creature. In 2014, Time magazine called it “one of his scariest performances, aided by facial makeup that, with its open wounds and mismatched eyes, transforms Lee into one of the most hideous-looking Frankenstein monsters ever.”
The Monster that Mary Shelley unleashed into the world almost two centuries ago continues to stalk us, and we willingly invite it to. As long as its story and the questions that story raises – about the nature and meaning of life, the promise and perils of science, and the responsibility living beings bear to each other – intrigue us, Frankenstein’s Monster will continue to wear new faces.
What’s your favorite version of Frankenstein’s Monster, and why? Let’s talk in the comment section below!