Our celebration of Frankenstein’s Monster as an honorary zombie would be a sad affair if we didn’t include the single most recognizable incarnation of the creature, the one that defines him for at least three generations: Boris Karloff’s portrayal in 1931’s classic “Frankenstein“. The term “iconic” is thrown around loosely, but indisputably applies here. Only 70 minutes long, the movie received universal acclaim and remains firmly ensconced on any serious list of the best movies of all time.
The instantly recognizable make-up was designed and applied by legendary artist Jack P Pierce, who was sadly uncredited. The scarred, protruding forehead and low-brow summoned images of primitive man and ape. The heavily-lidded eyes bespoke the creature’s lack of perception and intelligence while the pinched, cadaverous mouth reminded one of his ghoulish origin. Finally the scars, stitches and bolts graphically evoked the torture of the creature’s existence.
The film made Karloff (actually William Pratt as “Boris Karloff” was purely a stage name) a star. The role was a tortuous one; the four-inch platform shoes weighed 11 pounds each and that was the least part of the elaborate make-up and costume. His performance, significantly changed from the mindless killing machine of earlier scripts, was subtle and nuanced and brought pathos to the creature that resonated with audiences. He was monster, to be sure, but a reluctant, pitiable one.
It may be said, in fact, that the movie overshadowed the source material in a way few adaptations ever have.. Nearly every incarnation of the story sense owes at least something to this film. Every parodied scream of, “It’s alive!” and every stiff-legged, grunting monster are directly inspired by it. For almost everybody this is “Frankenstein”.