Even if you’ve never read the book or seen a film adaptation, you still know the story. But when I say the name Frankenstein, do you think of the monster or the man? For me, the question gets muddy fast. I would make the case that Frankenstein the man is far more monstrous than the being he creates and is, therefore, more interesting.
But before we continue, let me be clear in saying what this piece is not. This is not a list of the best Frankenstein movies or the best Frankenstein’s monsters. This is a list of the best portrayals of Dr. Frankenstein himself.
At least, the best in my own opinion.
I should also take a moment to cover some of the guidelines I gave myself while writing this. There are roughly 70 different films answering to the name of Frankenstein as of last year. Most of them focus on the creation, and not so much on the creator. As such, I limited the films I watched to those that starred Dr. Frankenstein as a main character. I also excluded the dozens of made-for-TV movies and animated features, as well. On that note, I did not include any television series containing a Dr. Frankenstein, either. Sorry, Penny Dreadful fans.
This brought me to a much more reasonable number of movies, but it was still a heavy undertaking. I was watching one or two Frankenstein movies a day sometimes, and when I finally finished, I was literally dreaming about it.
So, without any further ado, here’s the list!
5. Kenneth Branagh—Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
The biggest weakness of Branagh’s performance is that he just doesn’t have the look. He is completely absent of any aesthetic quality that would suggest mania or depravity. He looks like the protagonist of a Shakespeare play got lost and ended up in the wrong movie.
Aside from that, he does pretty well. The movie operates very much like a play and so while his acting is melodramatic and theatrical, I feel like that’s the point. What Branagh does bring that I think is very absent from other portrayals is philosophy.
When Frankenstein goes to medical school, he gets into all kinds of disputes with the professors over metaphysics, not science, and we get to see the character’s belief system. He’s not just a scientist, but a logician, ethicist, and philosopher.
Branagh plays this angle hard throughout the first half of the film, and it adds real depth. It makes the character seem far more like a real person than a caricature. Branagh’s Frankenstein feels like someone you could have a conversation with and who would be far more capable of convincing you he was right than any of the other Frankensteins.
4. James McAvoy—Victor Frankenstein
Let’s get one thing straight: this is an awful movie. The story is suffused with no less than four subplots, which are as boring as they are unneeded. The set is visually dull, even when compared to other Frankenstein films, and the script is inexcusably uninspired.
James McAvoy is probably the only thing that doesn’t suck in this movie. Don’t get me wrong, his performance is ham-fisted, comical even, but I think it actually works more often than it doesn’t. The rest of the movie definitely holds him back, and the moments where he seems a little silly might hit better if the rest of the film was actually as dark as it pretends to be.
McAvoy’s key ingredient here is force. He is extremely domineering and intense, with high levels of aggression throughout. Also proving quite manipulative, he effortlessly succeeds in the age-old abuse tactic of saying you can’t leave because you need me.
He definitely captures obsession, as well, one of the most important features of any Dr. Frankenstein. His violence and volatility lend themselves to frantic fixation and make him quite the terror. So, while the performance is nowhere near perfect, the raw force, dominance, and intensity that McAvoy brings to the role are legitimately flavorful and exciting.
3. Gene Wilder—Young Frankenstein
Is this cheating? Absolutely not. Gene Wilder’s performance is amazing.
No, it isn’t scary, but the madness is absolutely there. Besides, I honestly think that if the movie had been a traditional Frankenstein film that Wilder could totally have done it.
Wilder nails this role by being…well, himself. Young Frankenstein‘s doctor is riotous, crazy, dark, and completely genius.
Isn’t that all we wanted anyway?
2. Colin Clive—Frankenstein (1931)
This is an outstandingly good movie, and a big part of that is Clive. His portrayal of Dr. Frankenstein has it all: intensity, obsession, philosophy, science, madness, emotion, humanity, and disaster!
His ecstatic “It’s ALIVE!” breakdown has to be counted among the greatest moments in cinematic history. It’s actually pretty hard to write about Clive’s performance because anything you can say has already been said. The portrayal’s virtues are so screamingly obvious that to say anything at all seems either trite or superlative. Saying why Colin Clive’s rendition is so good is like describing why Coca-Cola is so popular.
It’s the original.
What’s most amazing is that his performance holds up just as much in the sequels made by Universal, especially in Bride of Frankenstein.
If you haven’t seen this movie, go see it.
1. Peter Cushing—The Curse of Frankenstein
Now, I know what you’re thinking…after everything I just said about Colin Clive, how could anything else be number one?
Because of Peter Cushing.
Every other version of Dr. Frankenstein portrays him as an ultimately tragic character. Not so here. Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein is the undisputed villain of the film and answers my question about who the real monster is with a resounding boom.
Cushing brings a visage of aristocracy and poise to the mad genius that makes him all the more frightening. He combines the chilling arrogance and nonchalance of a Bond villain with the trademark Frankenstein obsession and insanity. But instead of stark raving madness, Cushing’s brilliant psychosis is calculating and cold. Way scarier.
The sequels are also part of why his performance is the best. The additional movies give the character time to descend into ever stranger feats, and by the end, he’s as disturbing as it gets.
Cushing takes the Number One spot for style.
Sheer diabolical style.