Classic Movie Monsters vs. Modern Movie Monsters

Published 6 years ago by

classic monsters header Classic Movie Monsters vs. Modern Movie Monsters

It’s classic movie monster time! I was going to wait until Christmas to talk about this, but now seemed like a more appropriate time. We are going to compare the original black and white movie monsters (and the actors who brought them to life), against more modern versions and actors to see who comes out on top.

I know there are dozens of classic monsters, including the Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Fly, giant robots, aliens, and over-sized insects/animals, but I’m going to focus on the more famous literary monsters : Frankenstein’s monster, The Wolf Man, Dracula and The Mummy.

Let’s start with my favorite character, Frankenstein’s monster. Most people incorrectly refer to the monster AS Frankenstein – but actually, author Mary Shelley never gave the creature a name. In the 1818 novel, Shelley writes about mad scientist Dr. Victor Frankenstein and how he learns to create life. Even two hundred years ago, people were apparently concerned about man trying to play God, because her novel has some uncanny similarities to modern ethical questions about cloning. Difference is, the town’s folk aren’t storming the castle with pitch forks and torches nowadays, but rather storming the politician offices with blogs and protests (Zing!).

Frankenstein 1931 (Boris Karloff) vs. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 1994 (Robert De Niro)

karloff deniro Classic Movie Monsters vs. Modern Movie Monsters

The Frankenstein monster has been in dozens of films, even getting a bride, a son and a ghost – but none were as good as director James Whale’s original 1931 Frankenstein. The classic image of Frankenstein’s monster that we are all most familiar with comes directly from the make-up genius of Jack Pierce, while the monster himself was brilliantly portrayed by Boris Karloff.  Close your eyes and think of the Frankenstein monster – see what I mean? The film focused its story more on the creature and the town’s reaction to it and left behind the gothic romance of the novel.

In 1994, director Kenneth Branagh (Thor) changed that cinematic trend by focusing on the complicated relationship of what amounts to a father (Dr. Frankenstein) a son (The Monster) and a step-mom (Elizabeth), in his adaptation Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Branagh chose to remain faithful to the novel in his adaptation and after Dr. Frankenstein rejects his creation for the woman he loves, the monster focuses his rage and revenge in hurting Dr. Frankenstein by killing that woman. This version is by far the deepest and most emotional of all Frankenstein movies and Robert De Niro gives an incredible performance as the monster.

As time progressed, so too did the visual interpretation of Frankenstein’s monster (I particularly enjoyed Stephen Sommers’ version in Van Helsing), but they all got their inspiration from the godfather of monster movies – Boris Karloff.  For that reason alone, 1931 Frankenstein wins hands down.

The Wolf Man 1941 (Lon Chaney Jr.) vs. Wolf 1994 (Jack Nicholson)

chaney nicholson Classic Movie Monsters vs. Modern Movie Monsters

Just like Frankenstein, the Wolf Man has been in dozens of films, either as the titular icon or its many, many, cinematic progeny like An American Werewolf in London. However, make-up designer Jack Pierce proved once again that he is king of the monsters by giving us the classic image of the Lon Chaney Jr. as The Wolf Man.  In fact, because the original 1941 Wolf Man is based solely on old European folklore, rumor has it that many of the things we have come to know as true – changing during a full moon, vulnerable to silver and carrying the mark of the pentagram – were actually made up for the movie.

In original werewolf folklore, once an unfortunate soul was bitten, scratched or cursed, they would turn into a full-fledged wolf and not the two-legged human hybrid creature we call “Wolf Man.” It’s true that some films – such as The Howling, American Werewolf in London and Underworld – can “better” depict the full transformation from man to wolf because of modern-day advancements in SFX; however, all new wolf men take their cue from Lon Chaney Jr. and director George Waggner’s 1941 film.

Currently, there is a Wolf Man remake about to release in February 2010, The Wolfman (why they wouldn’t wait until Halloween is beyond me) and because I haven’t seen it yet, I can’t use it for a comparison. Instead, I’ll use Jack Nicholson’s 1994 interpretation, Wolf. The story is completely different: Nicholson is a writer who is bitten by a wolf and slowly turns into one himself. Chaney was a man attacked by a werewolf (Bela Lugosi) and turns into one as well. Although Nicholson was in better shape back then and looked great during the transformation scenes (at one point I thought he would make a great Wolverine based solely on his look in Wolf), the movie had too many flaws to ignore.

chaney deltoro Classic Movie Monsters vs. Modern Movie Monsters

This is not really a great contest, because although I liked Wolf, it just doesn’t hold a candle to The Wolf Man in terms of its leading monster. This may change if next year’s Wolfman is as good as the SFX look (see above on the right), but for now, Lon Chaney Jr. and The Wolf Man are the clear winners.

Continue reading for our comparisons of Dracula and The Mummy…

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  1. I would say Frankenstein (the monster, I know, isn’t named that but I can’t help it) is one of my all-time favorite characters, and I’m talking Karloff with Pierce’s makeup. Since I was very young, I would always look forward to every Halloween to not only decorate my home, but to go heavy on Frankenstein stuff (flat head, bolts, scars, big boots, etc.). I’d say Frankenstein ranks up there with Iron Man for me.

    Ok, I’m gonna get yelled at here, but the original Mummy was VERY boring.

    Lastly, check out my buddy Conor Timmis’ love note to Karloff’s work, KREATING KARLOFF:


  2. Alas, I must admit I’ve never seen any of the original flicks. (head bows, tears roll) I have seen all of the newer versions you mention and I like them all (including Van Helsing), except the 3rd Mummy movie with Jett Li (they should have just made a movie about the emperor because I felt the beginning of that movie was quite good).

  3. How about the MASTERPIECE “Gojira” vs. The Abomination that was the “Godzilla” remake.

  4. Just couldn’t get enough of those classic Universal monsters. The Wolfman was the best, but Frankenstein and Dracula weren’t far behind. Yet for me, the best movie was Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Today I can share that movie with my youngest daughter and introduce her to those classic monsters without her being too afraid to watch.

    And the best part about A&B Meet Frankenstein is its pretty much remake proof.

    Lastly, to Gigan300, gotta love Godzilla: Final Wars

  5. @StevenL – Don’t be too sure. There is a 3 Stooges movie in the works and they too had movies with Franekenstein. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for them to do a Jay and Silent Bob Meet Frankenstein and end up smoking weed and drinking 40′s with him while they make fun of Bush.

  6. Howard Hawks The Thing vs. John Carpenter’s The Thing.

    Just sayin’.

  7. Final Wars was just a horrible mess.

  8. There has to be Monsters! There has to be! I lioke them all and am impartial on this…can’t pick or choose.
    However Boris Karloff as Frankensteins monster is the greatest of all time.

  9. Gojira VS Clover
    think about it.

    oh and Bela Lugosi is king

  10. I cannot believe this article doesn’t even mention the Hammer horror films.

    They did Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy (as well as many others the article doesn’t cover), and I’d argue their versions of Frank and Drac are at least superior to Branagh’s and Coppola’s.

    Seriously, a debate about who was the best Dracula cannot be complete without mentioning Christopher Lee.

  11. “Cloverfield” was badass, but “Gojira” is a MASTERPIECE.

  12. The old classic monsters were re-created by Hollywood from much older folklore. And because of the innocence of that era, and the present day desensitized generation, the classic monsters will always win.

    The scariest, most intriguing creatures could be made today, and will never be as fearful as the ones of old, simply because our collective conscienceness as a society has seen it all, it takes something like….

    an economic collapse to really scare someone these days.

  13. How about Romero’s zombies?

    The most iconic monster for me would be the Franknstein or his creation, it’s like a cult figure

  14. Now if Hollywood could just do something with Dean Koontz’ Frankenstein book trilogy (the Frankenstein story brought forward to modern-day New Orleans)

  15. Can you imagine the Koontz story done properly in it’s entirety? They’d have to CGI JOCKO definately.

  16. Wow. The author of this article needs to learn about writing. This is so one-sided. As a writer you must never state your opinions as facts yet that’s all that is done here.

  17. Sacrilege! Oldman over Lugosi? Coppola’s film was visually stunning- everything else about it was garbage, from performances to plot to the absurd love story (lifted from Dark Shadows- which lifted it from the Mummy) which DOES NOT EXIST anywhere in Stoker’s novel. “Bram Stoker’s Dracula?” Not by a long shot..

  18. You are so right about the classic Universal monsters being the best. They are. Today’s so-called movie “monsters” just can’t hold a candle to them.