Frankenstein artwork

Monstrous Designs - Recreating Frankenstein's Creation

Posted on 14 August 2019

With Rona Munro’s bold new adaptation of Frankenstein opening in Coventry this October, we’ve been investigating how the monster has been depicted, from Mary Shelley’s own description, through Boris Karloff’s 1930s portrayal, to a taster of what audiences can expect from our production.

Say the word Frankenstein and the image that invariably springs to mind is of a giant, lumbering man-monster with a flat head, green-tinged skin and huge metal bolts sticking out of either side of his neck.

But this hasn’t always been the case. In fact, the iconic vision of Frankenstein’s monster that has now become almost synonymous with the name first sprang into being over a century after Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking novel was first published, making its debut in James Whale’s classic 1931 movie.

Produced by Universal Pictures, the film famously starred Boris Karloff, whose ability to perform with sensitivity and pathos – even beneath layers of heavy make-up and prosthetics – has become the stuff of legend.

But his was only half the genius at work there. Equal credit must also go to make-up artist Jack Pierce, whose innovative design for Victor Frankenstein’s creation turned him into Universal’s go-to monster-maker – he would also create designs for horror classics like The Wolf Man (working with Lon Chaney Jr) and The Mummy (Karloff again).

Pierce worked laboriously on his designs, creating numerous drawing and carving clay models before experimenting with materials and techniques on an endlessly patient Karloff, who described him as the greatest make-up man in the business.

Jack Pierce the Maker of Monsters – Trailer from California Film Institute on Vimeo.

Rather than using latex, Pierce favoured a combination of cotton, collodion (a syrupy solution of nitrocellulose in ether and alcohol), gum and greasepaint, built up in layers which took around four hours a day to apply. All things considered, it was luck that the pair got on well, despite Pierce’s reputation for being prickly and bad-tempered.

Crucial to his design for the monster was its logical grounding in the context of the story – from the scar across its face, marking the opening where its brain has been recently inserted, to the neck bolts, or rather electrodes, through which Frankenstein passes the electrical current that brings his creation to life.

The film was an enormous success, but it was still some time before that quintessential Frankenstein’s monster look began to be replicated commercially elsewhere. To begin with, at least, Universal was understandably protective of the design.

When Hammer began working on its 1957 film The Curse of Frankenstein, Universal fought hard to prevent anything from its own films being copied. As a result, make-up artist Phil Leakey was brought in to develop a new look for the creature, this time portrayed by Christopher Lee.

The previous year, Leakey had become the first make-up designer ever to receive an on-screen credit for “special” make-up effects, for his work on the science-fiction horror film X The Unknown. Unlike the earlier Universal films, whose horror elements were largely suggestive, Hammer produced full-colour movies, allowing for a much more graphic and gory aesthetic, with blood, guts and severed body parts openly displayed.

Returning to Mary Shelley’s original novel for inspiration, Leakey produced a much more gruesome design, recognisably stitched together from assorted body parts, with lumps of pasty flesh that seemed almost to be decaying and falling apart on the creature’s bones. Christopher Lee’s anguished performance emphasised this idea – his version of the monster appeared to be suffering from continual pain and terror.

Critics at the time were horrified, though the film was positively received by paying audiences, and has since come to be viewed as something of a classic of the genre in its own right.

Leakey’s design certainly holds up well, but ultimately couldn’t compete with Pierce’s enduring legacy. By the mid-1960s, Hammer had reached an agreement with Universal, permitting them to recreate something close to the earlier design in their 1964 release, The Evil of Frankenstein, and the rest is history.

All that aside, neither interpretation accurately reflects Mary Shelley’s own description in the novel, the only points of general agreement seeming to be the creature’s huge size, with Shelley describing him as “8 foot tall”, and the colour of his hair – a “lustrous black” in her own words.

In fact, in contrast to the misshapen, zombie-like creatures we’re accustomed to seeing on screen, what’s particularly interesting in the original story is Victor’s insistence that he had “selected his features as beautiful”, with limbs “in proportion” to his size – so its chillingly uncanny appearance when it is eventually brought to life comes as something of a shock to him.

“Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”

Frontispiece to Frankenstein 1831
Frontispiece to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from 1831, public domain

Still currently in development, the concept for the creature in our forthcoming co-production with Selladoor, Matthew Townshend and Perth Theatre at Horsecross Arts is of something less obviously “monstrous” than the silver screen interpretations, and is in some ways more in keeping with the nuances of the novel.

Playwright Rona Munro explained: “After James Whale did the films with Boris Karloff in the 1930s, the monster became this kind of sewn-together creature with bolts in his neck. But if you read the description in the book there’s no mention of him being sewn together and there’s no description for how Frankenstein assembles the monster.

“I would say it suggests something much more chemical, almost as if he was boiling corpses down and reassembling the body matter. It’s really not clear and equally there’s no lightning to animate the monster. Again it suggests a much more chemical process with the implication that maybe electricity was used. Our monster is not going to be sewn together from bits of people, he’s not going to have a bolt in his neck and he’s not going to be animated through lightning. He won’t look like you expect!”

Designer Becky Minto agreed: “Rather than a monster, we wanted him to seem like an ordinary man who does extraordinary things.

“His costume design has come out of discussions in the room and the practicality of what’s being asked for in the script – so we know that he will have a long coat that Mary gives to him near the start, and we’re talking about how we might create some subtle effects, such as more pronounced veins.

Frankenstein shows at the Belgrade Theatre 2-12 October as part of our B2 Season of Love and Belonging. Tickets are available to book now.

Don’t forget that you can claim 20% off tickets when you book for two or more participating shows together in our multi-purchase offer.

Further Reading

The Curse of Frankenstein – BFI ScreenOnline
You Can Do This On A Human Being? Jack Pierce, The Forgotten Monster Makeup Pioneer – Bloody Disgusting
The Make-Up Man, Jack Pierce – Frankensteinia