The Vampire Can Easily Replicate its Species, not so in the Frankenstein Genre
The first is obvious.The vampire’s bite ensures that the monster can be anyone at some point. This is why we can begin in 1800 with Stoker’s aristocratic count and end up with Kathryn Bigelow’s van full of creatures in 1985’s Near Dark. With Dracula, it’s no longer a specific monster, it’s a genre. Yet Frankenstein is a unique and contained two-person community involving the Dr. and his creation- which makes it more difficult for endless variation and re-interpretation.
The 1931 Boris Karloff Film Version Is Everyone’s Default Perception of What the Monster Looks Like
Second; the literary description of each monster by the authors curiously comes into play- and here’s where it gets fascinating. Whereas Stoker clearly describes the appearance of his monster as an aristocratic, bushy eye-browed, slavic man with a pikes peak, Shelley only gives us indications of what her monster looks like based on other people’s reactions. From her novel all we know is that people run screaming when they see the creature, and that even the creature himself recoils when he first sees his own glassy reflection from a Swiss winter lake. So what does Shelley’s creature look like? That’s up to you as Shelley cleverly left that to your imagination.
Enter James Whale. Aside from the brief 12 minute silent film in 1912, Whale is the first director from a major studio that takes a crack at Shelley’s monster on the big screen. And what he comes up with has changed the course of not only film history but Western pop culture regarding the perception of what the monster looks and sounds like. Since Whale’s collaboration with make-up artist Jack Pierce and actor Boris Karloff, every human on the planet then, now and til the end of time perceives the monster with a flat head, scarred forehead and neck bolts. And yet, even this iconic presentation crafted by Whale in sketches and executed by Pierce in the makeup room would not have had the cultural impact it does if the film itself (unlike 1931’s Dracula) were not so well made. The film and its sequel are considered two of the greatest and most artistically crafted horror films- something that cannot be said for most of the other Universal monster films. So, in terms of cultural impact, it is the combination of the iconic make-up job and the superior quality of the first two films that has cemented its legacy. Think of it this way, Brando’s film portrayal of Mario Puzo’s Godfather pretty much guarantees that that film will NEVER get re-made. Though there have been a few Frankenstein remakes, there is a Brando effect that hangs over this monster in that people by default associate it with Boris Karloff’s portrayal.
Shelley’s Story is Public Domain but Boris Karloff’s Appearance as the Monster is Not
And finally, the third reason is related to the second. Though Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein is in the public domain the Universal film likeness is not. Whale and Pierce invented it on a Universal film lot, and thus the studio owns that likeness. So go ahead and make as many Frankenstein films as you want, however if your monster looks anything like Karloff’s portrayal get ready to pay Universal a lot of money to use that likeness.