The Story of the Universal Classic Monsters

Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster, an image which became an icon. Wikimedia

2. Boris Karloff created the image of Frankenstein’s monster which it retains nine decades later

When the name Frankenstein is encountered, few immediately conjure the image of the troubled doctor who bore the name in the novel by Mary Shelley, and in the many subsequent films featuring his desire to reanimate the dead. Instead they envision the monster, with its flat head, scarred forehead, massive hands and feet, lumbering, staggering gait, and the bolts protruding from its neck. Karloff didn’t have a single line of dialogue in the movie, but he created one of filmdom’s most enduring, and certainly its most recognizable character of all time. Dracula could be confused with a man dressed to attend the opera, but Karloff’s monster was clearly just that.

The success of Dracula led to the production of Frankenstein, with Bela Lugosi (who wanted to portray Dr. Frankenstein) originally cast as the monster. Lugosi’s makeup tests were unsatisfactory, and he returned to portraying Dracula onstage. Karloff was cast instead. When the film was released it was inevitably compared to Dracula, and in the minds of most reviewers it was even more chilling than the earlier vampire picture. Universal realized that they had a hit formula on their hands, and more horror stories and gothic novels were plumbed for potential films. Karloff, like Lugosi, found himself typecast on the Universal lot.