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Frankenstein’s Monsters: ‘The Most Deliciously Twisted Adaptations Embracing Comedy As Well As Horror’



Feature By: Christina Brennan

If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if you transplanted one of the earliest stories of Gothic science-fiction into the poppy teenage world of an 80s American high school, then the 2023 movie scene was a good year for you with Zelda Willams’ Lisa Frankenstein. Equally, if you’ve ever wondered what the Monster from Mary Shelley’s classic novel would look like as a dog, then Tim Burton’s surreally comic Frankenweenie (1984) has the answers. It seems like there’s no end to madcap horror comedy creations inspired by Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus that move between gore, black comedy and eerie Horror with aplomb. Loosely adapted from the original 1818 novel, plenty of satires, comedies and high-school movies have given the story a comical bite, creating new versions of Frankenstein’s Monster that provoke plenty of giggles whilst not diluting the tension of the original story. It may be a terrifying Gothic tale, but the most memorable adaptations of Frankenstein belong to horror comedy…

Universal Pictures and an Unlikely Horror-Comedy

Charles Barton’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), nearly two decades after the original Frankenstein adaptation in 1931, was a roaring success for Universal Studios. Full of inventive set pieces, the iconic comedy features a memorable ensemble cast, including Béla Lugosi playing Dracula with a theatrical, vaudevillian edge. Transplanting Gothic characters in small-town America, the film follows Dracula’s plot to reanimate Frankenstein’s Monster using the brain of a pliable, small-town victim – Wilbur Grey, a baggage clerk from Florida. If this plot sounds absurd, it might seem less unlikely when you think that Gothic horror movies are very easily satirised. Gothic horror movies – and the genre in general – often celebrate extremes, from over-the-top violence to absurdist plots and themes like madness and extremity. Think of how Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) enthusiastically leans into breaking sexual boundaries and taboos. Or how Beetlejuice (1988) plays with and satirises familiar, cliched tropes of the Gothic haunted house story. 

With its slapstick and creaky soundtrack cues, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is the forefather of these films. It is full of tongue-in-cheek, self-parodying references to the classic 1930s Universal monster movies, including Bride of Frankenstein (1935). The original Wolfman, the titular character from the 1941 Universal film, is Dracula’s foe, and some standoffs frequently descend into slapstick violence. But in the carefully choreographed shots, tragedy often merges with humour to an incredibly dizzying effect, leaving an indelible impression on the viewer.

Slapstick Frankenstein

Throughout the 60s, a sprinkling of episodes from the American sitcom The Munsters (1964-66) kept the horror comedy popping along nicely, with a turn from Fred Gwynne as a clumsy, buffoonish Frankenstein’s Monster (under the name Herman Munster). Yet it was Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974) that proved the most anarchic comedy to that date, with a playful emphasis on word-play that featured an eye-swivelling servant named Igor (pronounced “Eyegor”) and a Dr Frankenstein determined to distance himself from his family’s reputation by calling himself Dr. “Fronkensteen” (in a self-conscious style reminiscent of the BBC’s Keeping Up Appearances Hyacinth Bucket who insists on upgrading her name to “Bouquet”). With its forthright slapstick, a song-and-dance number in Young Frankenstein sees Gene Wilder, in the role of Dr. Frankenstein, dancing to “Puttin on a Ritz” with his Monster. One of Wilder’s most memorable roles, it also proves Brooks to be a B-movie maestro.

Frankenstein’s Teen Terrors

Surprisingly, the blood-and-gore Gothic terrors of the original Frankenstein story have inspired a series of 80s and 90s dark, tooth-and-nails high school comedies that flaunt sex-fuelled humour. The teen comedy Weird Science (1985), directed by the king of teen comedies, John Hughes, is an unlikely Frankenstein-inspired horror-comedy depicting two teenagers bringing to life their dream girl after wiring up a Barbie doll to a (now clunky and dated) looking computer. Other terrifically sleazy films include Frankenhooker (1990), a turn-of-the-decade cult film following a bereaved New Jersey resident, Jeffrey Franken, who decides to rebuild and reanimate the corpse of his deceased fiancée Elizabeth after a new lawnmower runs her over. If you’ve watched other trashy, cult films from the director Frank Henenlotter, including Brain Damage (1988), you’ll know the seedy direction that the film takes. Franken needs to collect various body parts to reassemble Elizabeth and develops a form of turbo-charged crack cocaine (called “super-crack”) that makes drug users explode.

The emotional extremity and outbursts of the Gothic continue to lend themselves well to teen comedies, including the first instalments of the Scary Movies franchise. Billy Frankenstein (1988) is part of this same teen Gothic-comedy phenomenon. A fever-dream film that sees a distant ancestor of the original Dr. Frankenstein, Billy Frankenstein, is drawn into a plot to reanimate the creature at the original Frankenstein’s castle. There is no sophistication to the humour. In one scene, the Monster accidentally poisons himself by drinking contaminated water and then gets explosive diarrhoea. A more briskly paced, darkly humorous flick is Frankenweenie (1984), a short film by Tim Burton. The film follows a young teenager named Victor, played by Barret Oliver (the teenager from The NeverEnding Story, 1984), who reanimates a well-loved pet dog, Sparky, with a self-made machine created out of kitchen implements in his attic. A film from early in Burton’s career, it focuses on parodying the original Universal monster films. It even features a poodle with a Nefertiti-stripped haircut in the style of the Bride of Frankenstein. Once shelved by Disney for being too scary for kids, Frankenweenie is something of a cult classic, leading to a remake in 2012, over twenty years later, in Tim Burton’s familiar stop-motion style.

Future Frankensteins

Frankenstein has always been a rich seam for horror comedy. The recent release of Lisa Frankenstein shows that Gothic Horror is not always about extreme gore or po-faced serious Horror. It depicts a teenage love story between a teenager, complete with 80s Gothic eye makeup, and a devilishly handsome love interest who just happens to be a reanimated member of the undead. Horror isn’t just about straight scares. and bloody murder. Instead, the Frankenstein story is still inspiring retellings and adaptations that capture the whimsical magic of Halloween with a slight dose of spooky laughs. Lisa Frankenstein‘s candy-coloured palette combines imagination, innocence and fear that those wanting spooky fun should watch. Countless adaptations of Frankenstein show the original story is not dead and will inspire new iterations for years to come.

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