By Michael Arruda
Welcome back to SHOCK SCENES, the column where we look at memorable scenes in horror movie history.
We’re celebrating a birthday today.
Today we celebrate the birth— and rebirth— of the Frankenstein Monster in the Universal Frankenstein series.
We’ll be looking at the various creation scenes in the Universal Frankenstein movies. Technically, the Monster was only created once, in the first film, FRANKENSTEIN (1931) but Henry Frankenstein did such a good job creating life that his Monster in spite of the best efforts of angry villagers and exploding castles and laboratories just couldn’t seem to die. So, while the Monster would be “killed” at the end of each movie, he’d be “revived” in subsequent films.
In today’s SHOCK SCENES column, we’ll look at the Monster’s various turns in the laboratory and compare how they all stack up.
By far, the best creation scene was the first, in James Whale’s classic FRANKENSTEIN. Who can forget Colin Clive shrieking “It’s alive!!” as he watches his creation come to life. The lab equipment by Ken Strickfaden (later used again in Mel Brooks’ YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974) with its flashing lights and zip-zapping electrical sounds was strictly for show and had very little scientific relevance, but oh what a show! It set the precedent for all the Frankenstein movies to come.
Even more memorable than the whirring electrodes and blinking lights was the everlasting dramatic image of the lab table with the unborn body of the Monster lying on it rising to the top of the towering ceiling of Frankenstein’s lab making its way through a giant opening high into the sky into the raging thunder and lightning. Henry Frankenstein literally raises his unborn creation into the heavens to give it its life spark.
And when he brings the table back down to the ground, and we see the Monster’s hand moving and witness Henry Frankenstein’s reaction, “It’s alive!” it provides one of the most iconic scenes in horror movie history.
I can only imagine how terrified movie audiences were back in 1931 watching this story unfold for the first time of a dead body coming to life, and in that moment, seeing for the first time that the corpse on the table wasn’t a corpse anymore but a living being. It must have been chilling.
The creation scene in FRANKENSTEIN is not only the best creation scene in the Universal series, but it’s also the best creation scene in any FRANKENSTEIN movie period! Countless Frankenstein movies have been made since. None have matched this scene, and few have come close. The closest is Hammer’s THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) but that’s a story for another day.
James Whale’s sequel to FRANKENSTEIN, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) has the distinction of being the only Frankenstein film in the series in which the Frankenstein Monster (Boris Karloff) doesn’t spend any time on a laboratory table getting zapped with life-reviving electricity.
When the film opens, it’s revealed that the Monster survived the fire in the windmill at the end of FRANKENSTEIN, and so he’s already up and running when this movie begins. There’s no need for him to receive a laboratory “pick me up.”
Of course, there is a creation scene in BRIDE, and it’s the climactic scene near the end where the Monster’s Bride (Elsa Lanchester) is finally brought to life. As creation scenes go, it’s a good one, and the staging here by director James Whale is more elaborate than in FRANKENSTEIN, but as is often the case, bigger isn’t necessarily better. And it is bigger, as the lab set is larger, and the sequence where the lab table rises through the roof is on a grander scale than the original and includes kites flying into the lightning-charged sky.
There’s a lot to like in this scene. The dramatic electrical equipment is back again, and not only do you have Colin Clive back as Henry Frankenstein, but you also have Ernest Thesiger’s Dr. Pretorious, as well as Karloff’s Monster who’s in the lab to prompt Henry to keep working to make his bride. Heck, Clive even gets to shout “She’s Alive!’
It’s a very good scene. However, it’s nowhere near as shocking or dramatic as the creation scene in the original FRANKENSTEIN.
SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) is the first film in the series in which the Monster (Boris Karloff) is viewed as a patient in need of ongoing medical treatment. Ygor (Bela Lugosi) tells Wolf Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), the adult son of Henry Frankenstein, that the Monster is “sick” and “weak” and needs to be strong again.
The Monster “died” at the end of THE BRIDE OF FRAKENSTEIN when the entire lab blew up, but as we learn in this movie, Henry Frankenstein and his electric rays were so successful at creating life that basically the Monster cannot die- or at least he’s more difficult to kill than ordinary human beings. And so when we first see him in this film, he’s lying on a table in a semi-conscious state. In fact, he spends a lot of time in this movie in a semi-conscious state which is why a large chunk of this film is less compelling than the two movies which preceded it. The Monster isn’t up and running and scaring people until two thirds of the way into this one.
There really isn’t a creation scene in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. After some preliminary examinations, Basil Rathbone’s Wolf Frankenstein uses a much smaller assortment of electrical devices to attempt to bring the Monster back to full strength. It’s all very undramatic. SON OF FRANKENSTEIN is a very entertaining movie, the most elaborate of the entire series, but its “creation” scene is a dud and probably the least dramatic of the entire series.
The fourth film in the series THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942) saw Lon Chaney Jr. taking over the role of the Monster, replacing Boris Karloff. Chaney played all four of the major movie monsters (the Wolf Man, Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, and the Mummy) and played them well; however, his portrayal of the Frankenstein Monster was his least satisfying.
In THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, the Monster (Lon Chaney Jr.) is revived without the help of electrical equipment in a laboratory, as Ygor (Bela Lugosi) simply finds his friend buried in a Sulphur pit where he fell at the end of SON OF FRANKENSTEIN and he simply digs him out.
The more dramatic laboratory scenes come later. Ygor takes the Monster to see Henry Frankenstein’s second son Ludwig (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), who’s a doctor who treats mental illness, but no, he doesn’t hold psychiatric sessions with the Monster in this one. He does attempt to use his laboratory equipment to destroy the Monster, before changing his mind when he’s visited by the “ghost” of his father who inspires him to keep the Monster alive.
The more dramatic “creation” scene happens at the end of THE GHOST OF FRAKENSTEIN when the devious Dr. Bowmer (Lionel Atwill) conspires with Ygor to secretly transplant Ygor’s brain into the Monster in order to give the all-powerful creation a sinister mind to use on a world-conquering power trip. Alas, the actual transplant occurs off-screen, and so visually this scene has little to offer, but in terms of story, it’s all rather dramatic and exciting.
The next film in the series, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943) contains my second favorite creation scene in the entire series. Again, the Monster doesn’t need a lab to bring him back to life. This time around, Wolf Man Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) discovers the body of the Monster (Bela Lugosi) frozen in ice and simply digs him out. The Monster doesn’t even have to be revived after being frozen for all those years, as he simply steps out of the ice and is feeling as right as rain.
The creation scene once again comes at the end of the movie, a pattern which would continue for the rest of the series. This time around, Dr. Mannering (Patric Knowles) agrees to use Dr. Frankenstein’s notes to put Larry Talbot out of his misery, a plan proposed by Talbot himself, as he’s seeking release from his werewolf curse. So, they set up shop in Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein’s old laboratory from THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, and Mannering attempts to transfer Talbot’s energy (thus killing him) into the Monster, but Mannering, like all good scientists in these movies, becomes obsessed with the Monster and decides to pour all the electrical juices into the creature to bring him back to full strength.
When the Monster finally gains his strength, he smiles a sinister smile, and it’s a great moment for Lugosi’s Monster. In the original script, the Monster was supposed to be blind, a side-effect of the brain transplant at the conclusion of THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, and it’s this moment when the Monster regains his sight, which is why he smiles. All references to the Monster being blind were cut from the final print, but even so, Lugosi’s smile here is still very effective.
And what follows is the climactic battle between the Monster and the Wolf Man inside the laboratory. It’s a great sequence, one of the best in the series.
Sadly, the Monster would take a huge step backwards in the next two films in the series, as would the creation scenes. HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) is significant because it added Dracula (John Carradine) to the mix, giving the movie three monsters, as the Frankenstein Monster (now played by Glenn Strange) and the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) returned. It also marked the return of Boris Karloff to the series, although not as the Monster but as the evil Dr. Niemann, a protégé of Dr. Frankenstein, who is more insane and ruthless than any of the Dr. Frankensteins who appeared earlier. Niemann is much closer in spirit to Dr. Pretorious from BRIDE and Peter Cushing’s interpretation of Baron Frankenstein in the Hammer movies.
Alas, the Monster spends the majority of this movie as an unconscious body, lying in wait for Niemann to restore his strength. This occurs at the end of the movie, in a brief sequence, and the Monster is only on his feet long enough to be instantly chased and “killed” by the angry mob of torch wielding villagers who chase him into a pit of quicksand where he and Dr. Neimann sink to their deaths.
Ditto for the next film in the series, HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945). All three monsters return again here, but once again the Frankenstein Monster is reduced to being a reclining patient and isn’t revived until the final seconds of the movie. Very sad.
Ironically, it would take turning the series into a comedy with ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948) to return the monsters to prominence. Bela Lugosi returned as Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr. was back as the Wolf Man, and Glenn Strange finally had much more to do as the Frankenstein Monster than just lie on a table— he even gets to talk!—and so in spite of the fact that this is a comedy, the monsters all fare well.
Likewise, the creation scene in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN is also a good one. This time around, Dracula plans to put Lou Costello’s brain into the Monster. With the electrical equipment whirring and buzzing, both Lou and the Monster are strapped to tables, but when Bud Abbot and Larry Talbot burst into the lab to the rescue, Talbot turns into the Wolf Man and instantly tangles with Dracula, while the Monster breaks from his binds and promptly tosses Dracula’s sexy female assistant out a window!
Seriously, this creation scene in spite of being played for laughs, is one of the more memorable scenes in the series.
Who knew that it would take Abbott and Costello to give the Universal Monsters a proper send off? This would be the final film in the series.
So, there you have it. A look at the creation scenes in the Universal Frankenstein movies. By far, the original creation scene in FRANKENSTEIN is the best. None that followed even come close, but if I had to rank the next couple, I’d go with the creation scene in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN second, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN third, and ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN fourth. The rest hardly warrant a blip.
Hope you enjoyed today’s column, and I look forward to seeing you again next time on a future installment of SHOCK SCENES.
Thanks for reading!