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!).
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.
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.
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.