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Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature

Hollywood Produces Frankenstein

Boris Karloff seated in a chair is being transformed into the Frankenstein Monster by two make-up artist men.
Boris Karloff being transformed into the Monster.

Would Americans attend "horror films"? The success of a stage version of Dracula, the story of an aristocratic vampire, helped convince producers at Hollywood's Universal Studios that they would. In 1930, Universal bought film rights to Peggy Webling's Frankenstein: An Adventure in the Macabre, which had premiered in London three years earlier. An obscure English actor, William Henry Pratt, who went by the stage name of Boris Karloff, played the monster in Universal's adaptation of the Webling play. Karloff's success in Frankenstein made him a star. The film itself became an almost instant classic of a new genre — the horror movie.

Boris Karloff as the Monster in 'Frankenstein'. Karloff is standing in the doorway of a cell with both hands on opposite sides of the door frame. Courtesy of Photofest.
Boris Karloff as the Monster in Frankenstein. Courtesy of Photofest.

In posed studio portraits, Boris Karloff looks like many another conventionally handsome movie actor; make-up artist Jack Pierce made him into the monster. Pierce's three months of research into anatomy and surgery convinced him that a surgeon determined to transplant a brain would cut the top of the skull straight across, hinge it, pop in the new brain, then clamp it shut. Hence, the monster's flat, squared-off head.

Frankenstein earned rave reviews, was named to top-ten lists, and made lots of money; the production cost $290,000 in Depression-era dollars, and earned more than $12 million.