It’s Alive!!!: Frankenstein-Universal’s take on a literary horror classic.


We all know the story, possibly one of the greatest works of horror fiction, penned by Mary Shelley and adapted countless times for the big and small screen alike. The version we are all the most familiar with is undoubtedly the Universal take from 1931 directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff as the monster.

Following hot on the trails of the success Universal had with Dracula starring Bela Lugosi, they optioned an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s seminal novel. Lugosi was intended to play the part of the creation but turned the role down after disastrous make up tests that left Lugosi with little faith in the picture, also the fact he wanted to play the role of Frankenstein not that of the creation probably had more than a little part to play in Lugosi’s decision. It was a choice he would sorely regret in the years that followed. The role instead went to British actor, Boris Karloff who made the role his own. Original director Robert Florey was replaced in the lead up to production by Whale who had requested the project as part of a new deal he had inked out with Universal and producer Carl Laemmle Jr. Florey, coincidentally enough was moved over to Bela Lugosi picture ‘Murders In The Rue Morgue’ as consolation for losing Frankenstein.

Frankenstein was a success for Universal. Up to the time Dracula was released the studio had made losses to the tune of $2.2 million, Frankenstein grossed $53,000 domestically in its first week going on to amass $12 million. This saw the dawn of the Universal horror boom, movies such as The Mummy and The Wolf man soon followed along with the inevitable sequel to Frankenstein, ‘The Bride Of Frankenstein’ regarded in some circles as a superior film and certainly one of the great movie sequels of all time, Whale & Karloff both returning to the scene of their previous triumph.

Ask someone for their atypical picture of Frankenstein’s monster and they will describe a lumbering bulk with a flat topped head and electrodes protruding from his neck, this vision was the work of makeup artist Jack Pierce. It was a design so iconic that now when you mention Frankenstein’s monster all you can picture in your head is Pierce’s design. Alongside the make up, Pierce implemented some visual tricks to fool the eye of the viewer, The arm length of Karloff’s jacket was shortened and did not match to give the illusion of lengthened, mismatched limbs. Boosts were placed in Kaloff’s shoes to add even more to the actors imposing stature. Little tricks like these are undoubted genius when you consider that you don’t immediately notice them until they are pointed out to you. 

It is a story that has elicited remakes, spin-off’s, spoofs and TV adaptations of varying degrees of success with rumour abound that Universal wish to make a return to the story soon, The original Universal picture is still seen as the benchmark all others have aspired to replicate to this day. Not bad for a horror movie cobbled together for a quarter of a million bucks and little expectation of such a revered and lasting legacy.

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