Dr Russell Smith: My top 5 Frankenstein films

Dr Russell Smith. Image: ANU
Friday 8 June 2018

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which remains as topical and iconic as ever. There have been more than 200 film adaptations of the novel, with at least 50 since 2010. 

In commemoration of the occasion, Frankenstein is the ANU Humanities Research Centre's 2018 theme. A host of talks and activities on this theme will culminate in the major international conference Frankenstein 2018: Two Hundred Years of Monsters. The conference organiser is Dr Russell Smith, who brings us his Top 5 Frankenstein movie recommendations.

Russell Smith lectures in Modernist Literature and Literary Theory in the ANU School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics. He has written extensively on Samuel Beckett, including Beckett and Ethics (Continuum 2009) and a forthcoming study Liquefied Brain, on the theme of tears and weeping in Beckett’s writing. He is currently working on a project provisionally titled Frankenstein and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. He also writes regularly on contemporary art for a range of publications.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
James Whale’s sequel is even better than the 1931 Frankenstein. This time round, Colin Clive’s maniacal Henry Frankenstein agrees to make a female mate for the iconic bolt-necked monster played by Boris Karloff. Celebrated for its camp and queer theatricality, it’s both more comic and more poignant than its predecessor, and Elsa Lanchester plays a fabulous double role as Mary Shelley in the film’s prologue, and as The Bride with her iconic lightning-bolt hairdo.

Spirit of the Beehive (1973)
Victor Erice’s haunting masterpiece brings to life the troubling world of six-year old Ana in an isolated Castilian village at the end of the Spanish Civil War. The wonderful opening scene, where a truck arrives with projectors and film canisters to set up a screening of Frankenstein in the local church, is one of the great evocations of cinema’s magical powers. Fascinated and troubled by the film, Ana’s finds the line between fantasy and reality becoming blurred when she is caught up in the traumatic aftermath of war.

Young Frankenstein (1974)
Mel Brooks’ classic stars Gene Wilder as Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced Fronk-en-steen), who has been trying to live down the shame brought upon the family name by his grandfather’s experiments. But when he inherits the family estate and travels to Transylvania, he finds his grandfather’s secret laboratory and becomes obsessed with repeating his experiments. Complete with bug-eyed hunchback servant Igor (Marty Feldman), buxom female assistant Inge (Teri Garr), and an amiable but dim-witted monster (Peter Boyle), a highlight of the film is when creator and monster team for a musical performance of Puttin’ on the Ritz. Perhaps the only Frankenstein film with a happy ending. 

Gods and Monsters (1998)
Really a meta-Frankenstein film, Gods and Monsters follows the last days of Hollywood director James Whale (Ian McKellen), who lived as an openly gay man at a time when it was virtually unheard of. The film depicts Whale in the 1950s, his Hollywood career over, slipping into melancholic reminiscences, including a reconstruction of the filming of Bride of Frankenstein (the title quotes a line from the film). The story follows Whale’s tense and erotically-unreciprocated friendship with his straight male gardener, reprising in a different register Frankenstein’s themes of sympathy, friendship and the barriers of otherness. 

Ex Machina (2014)
Alex Garland’s claustrophobic thriller has quickly become a classic. Its central character is Ava (Alicia Vikander), an attractive female android created by reclusive billionaire Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), founder of ‘Bluebook’ (a mega-corporation that dominates the internet). Nathan invites one of his employees, a brilliant but naïve young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to his remote high-security research facility to perform a ‘Turing test’ on Ava, to assess whether she possesses genuine conscious intelligence. When Caleb becomes aware of Nathan’s physical and sexual abuse of his other female androids, he resolves to help Ava escape her high-tech prison.

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Updated:  9 June 2018/Responsible Officer:  CASS Marketing & Communications/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications