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She’s Alive! Why Frankenstein Is Back—And Why It’s Being Used to Tell Women’s Stories

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During an ordinary winter film season, Zelda Williams and Diablo Cody’s “Lisa Frankenstein”—a candy-colored paean to teen outsiders, undying love, and murderous self-discovery—would be notable simply for its sheer weirdness (and its outstanding usage of a magical tanning bed). But right now, it’s notable for an even weirder reason: it is the fourth Frankenstein-inspired film to hit cinemas in less than 12 months.

Of course, there are always moments when multiple filmmakers seem to pluck the same idea out of the ether—recall the buddy cop–mania of the early ’80s, the zombie trend of the early ’00s, or that time in 2013 when two big budget action movies about the White House being attacked by terrorists were released within a three-month timespan 

But as remarkable as it is to suddenly be surrounded by Franken-cinema, it’s equally remarkable how little each of these four movies resemble each other—and how little they resemble the classic “It’s alive!” film version of the Frankenstein story, stylistically or thematically.

“I think it speaks to how iconic Frankenstein is, that you can take it in all of these different directions and make movies with very different styles and very different fields,” says Laura Moss, director and co-writer of “birth/rebirth,” a film that uses a sci-fi quest to revive a dead child as the jumping-off point for a tense meditation on reproduction and biology.

In addition to Moss’s film, we had Bomani Story’s “The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster,” which spins off from Shelley’s novel to examine racism, violence, and structural inequality as they play out for one young girl’s family. Yorgos Lanthimos’s “Poor Things” gave us Frankenstein’s monster as a horny picaresque heroine pushing Victorian society’s limits, and “Lisa Frankenstein” drew from “Weird Science,” “Serial Mom,” and Cody’s own “Jennifer’s Body” to whip up a campy coming-of-age confection, where DIY-ing your own boyfriend out of spare body parts is a metaphor for finding your own path.

birth/rebirth

“What I like about these movies that have come out this year,” says Moss, “is that the filmmakers—hopefully including myself—were just able to take what inspired us about the Frankenstein myth, and leave the rest.”

Given that Guillermo del Toro and Maggie Gyllenhaal are both currently working on star-studded “Frankenstein” adaptations, it seems like we’re at the beginning, not the end, of this Franken-wave. But why now? Why are both filmmakers and audiences so hungry for these stories? And why do all four of these films feature female protagonists? Are these films rewriting Frankenstein as a space to examine gender and feminism, or are they just acknowledging a subtext that was always there?

Though the Frankenstein story begins with Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, a lot of our ideas about Frankenstein come from James Whale’s iconic 1931 adaptation, and the 1935 sequel “Bride of Frankenstein”—including the framing of the Monster as a villain. A tragic villain, sure, but still, one that sits comfortably beside Dracula, the Mummy, and other malicious Universal Monsters. We know that Dr. Frankenstein shouldn’t have played god, but ultimately, we’re on his side as he realizes his mistakes, upholds society’s moral standards, and fights against the Monster’s chaos.

Contrast that with “Poor Things,” where the reanimated Bella Baxter is not just the film’s protagonist but moral center, or “Lisa Frankenstein,” where, despite murdering a local high schooler or two, the Creature is still a devoted and lovable dreamboat.

According to Lisa Kröger, co-author of Monster She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction, this is closer to Mary Shelley’s intentions in the original novel, which is “a story about power struggles.”

Angry Black Girl and Her Monster

“When you look at what the Creature is trying to do, he wants to create community,” says Kröger. “He wants to feel that love and compassion and empathy, but he’s also on a quest for knowledge. He’s on a quest to experience the world. He wants freedom.” Who’s the real villain here—a creature who’s tried to carve a life out of the chaotic existence given to him, or an upper-crust doctor who “hid himself off from the world and basically dedicated himself to this obscene experiment where he’s making himself God”?

“A really fun thing to do in the Frankenstein universe is play with who the monster is,” says Moss. In “birth/rebirth,” which Moss describes as “a cautionary tale about over-identifying with one thing in your life,” pathologist Rose and nurse Celie come together after Rose develops a scientific process to revive the dead—and uses it on Celie’s recently deceased daughter, Lila. Together, the two women go to increasingly grim and harrowing lengths to keep Lila alive. “Our obvious monster is a [reanimated] 6-year-old girl in the film,” says Moss, “but Rose in many ways is a monster, who creates a monster in Celie. And it very much stems from the original novel where the monstrous behavior comes from Victor, not the creature.”

“I think [Frankenstein is] a novel about grabbing power that wasn’t yours to have and what happens when you do that—and then the people who are experiencing the kind of disempowerment, what they’re going to do in order to grab it back,” says Kröger.

This resonates in our current moment, especially in struggles around reproductive autonomy, like the 2022 overturning of Roe v. Wade, and the recent Alabama Supreme Court decision that ruled frozen embryos should be viewed as children. Kröger theorizes that Frankenstein stories might be especially meaningful during times of rightward political shifts, which could check out with the recent history of Franken-cinema—after all, our previous Frankenstein-focused era was the Reagan/Bush era, which saw films like “Re-Animator,” “Weird Science,” and “Edward Scissorhands” flourish. “I just know the more women fear that rights are being taken away and that their world is kind of shrinking and their power is shrinking,” she says, “that we’re going to see more of particular type of character who is like, ‘Okay, I need to process the trauma that the world has given me, and I’m going to do that by fashioning my own path forward.’”

But the Creature doesn’t just symbolize trauma and oppression. The Frankenstein story has also long been used to celebrate outsiders and sexual and gender diversity, especially as it became fodder for transgressive art in the ’70s—most famously with 1975’s “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

“The Frankenstein story has often been associated with queerness,” says film critic Abbey Bender. “James Whale, the director of the original 1931 Frankenstein movie, was gay, and Frankenstein often comes up in art that rebels against sexual normativity, like the song ‘Frankenstein’ by the New York Dolls, Lou Reed’s look during his Transformer era, the 1973 movie ‘Flesh for Frankenstein’ (directed by Warhol acolyte Paul Morrissey), the campy 1990 movie ‘Frankenhooker,’ etc.”

“I think today, with audiences missing sex in film, and an unfortunate uptick in hateful, homophobic rhetoric in the news, Frankenstein-flavored stories feel particularly relevant as a form of rebellion.”

Frankenstein also provides a mythology that easily lends itself to (literal) gender deconstruction and questioning the status quo. “There are female protagonists at the heart of all of these stories, which is exciting for me to see,” says Moss. “A lot of Rose’s character in my version is also a rebellion around gender. She doesn’t want to be constrained by the limitations of her body, and I think that was just a very personal subject to me and I feel like the Frankenstein vessel was the best way to explore that.”

Poor Things

One of the outsiders being celebrated in these new films is Mary Shelley herself.

While Elsa Lanchester briefly plays Mary Shelley in the introduction to Bride of Frankenstein, the author has rarely come up in film adaptations (though she did get her cinematic day in the sun with the 2017 Elle Fanning film “Mary Shelley”). However, both Moss and Story have mentioned that Shelley partially inspired their female protagonists, and in “Poor Things,” Bella is “fathered” by scientist Godwin Baxter—a name that is an homage to Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin (as well as allowing for the suitable nickname of “God.”). “I think maybe people who are really reflecting on the source material are just finally incorporating Mary herself into the story, which is exciting, and something that I think is long overdue,” says Moss.

“We want to hold Mary Shelley up as this goth princess,” says Kröger, “and I think she was so much more complicated than that.” And while most of us have heard the famous tale that Frankenstein was conceived as part of a summer ghost story contest with Lord Byron and her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, the reality is more complicated, too.

Before writing Frankenstein, Mary Shelley was already active in learning about emerging technology, reading scientific tomes, and going to educational lectures which informed and influenced her later work.

She was also already a grieving mother. In 1815, her infant daughter, Clara, died—a tragic echo of Shelley’s own childhood, in which her mother, feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft, died before Shelley’s first birthday. In her journal, Shelley wrote of torturous recurring dreams where she was able to resuscitate Clara by warming her by the fire. “[Frankenstein] is such a story about things that are birthed out of violence and trauma, which fits I think with Mary Shelley and what she was going through,” says Kröger.

This genesis, plus its connection to outsiderdom, might go a long way to explaining why so many new “Frankenstein” films focus on women.

“I think there’s something to be said for reclaiming femininity as something that can be messy and monstrous in a sexist society,” says Bender.

There’s also a chance that “Frankenstein”-inspired films are flourishing for far more mundane reasons—like that filmgoers are looking for some fresher stories after a decade dominated by spandex-clad superheroes. “I think audiences are finally getting bored of comic book movies and want to see something new,” says Bender. “Frankenstein and other classic horror stories reach a wide audience because they’ve been part of the culture for so long, but they can also be endlessly remixed, which makes them feel like something new when we’ve had so many increasingly generic Marvel/DC movies over the last few years.”

There’s also a frankness about bodies that’s a welcome change of pace from the recent chaste offerings of mainstream cinema. Bella Baxter’s gleeful sex scenes in “Poor Things” and “Lisa Frankenstein”’s extremely positive attitude about teen female sexuality engage with what Bender calls “the element of sexuality inherent in Frankenstein stories.”

As for why so many of these films focus on women, well, there might be a simple explanation for that, too. Though progress is achingly slow, more films with female protagonists are being produced at this moment than ever before—which would also mean that more films about Frankenstein with female protagonists are being produced than ever before, as well. “As you can imagine, this was not an easy film pitch,” says Moss. “It was passed on by many people.” A connection with Shudder’s Emily Gatto made “Birth/Rebirth” possible. “She green-lights and acquires all kinds of films… but I think she was really hungry for this and personally connected with the material. And the fact that she’s in that position to green-light, the fact that Shudder is willing to take these risks, I do think it is indicative of a different era,” says Moss. “It’s not easy ever, but it’s nice to see these things getting made.”

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