I love Frankenstein. I mean it. I'm a total Frankenstein fanboy, particularly the classic black and white movies staring Boris Karloff. Let's face it, though, those movies aren't the most faithful adaptations of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.
I'm sure we all know the story by now, but here it is in a nutshell: one stormy night Mary Shelley, invented the science fiction genre to avoid being roped into another lame threesome with Lord Byron. Still with me? Good.
While the years and memory haven't been kind to Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 film Bram Stoker's Dracula, at the time it was a critical and financial success, renewing interest in the classic movie monsters and in finally adapting the, faithfully for the screen. Enter Kenneth Branagh, who starred and directed in today's film, 1994's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
As the film opens, a crew of explorers become stuck in the ice while searching for a passage to the North Pole. As they try to free themselves, they hear a terrible wailing in the distance, and a man stumbles out of the mist. The weary traveler tells the captain the story of his life and the events that led him to the frozen north. We then flash back to the aristocratic upbringing of Victor Frankenstein. After his mother dies in childbirth, Victor becomes obsessed with the idea of conquering death, and leaves for medical school to take up the family profession. There, his radical ideas are met with ridicule and scorn, except from one professor named Waldman who shares some of his knowledge with Victor but refuses to assist him in his endeavors.
As a cholera pandemic tears through the city, Waldman is killed by a paranoid patient, leaving Victor free to steal the doctor's notes. With the final pieces of the puzzle in hand, Victor locks himself away from friends and family, gathering pieces of cadavers for his creation, including the brilliant brain of the late Dr. Waldman. When the experiment is successful, Victor is repulsed by the hideous, inhumanly strong creature he has created and attempts to destroy it. The creature escapes with Victor's coat and journal. Believing the creature will soon e killed by the cholera epidemic Victor returns home to Geneva, but unbeknownst to the young Frankenstein, the monster lives!
I'll be honest, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a roller coaster of not just action and suspense, but also quality. I utterly despise all of the scenes filmed in the parlor at Castle Frankenstein which was clearly constructed to accentuate the wailing grief of characters ascending and descending the curved staircase. Almost as comical is Victor's laboratory, which seems more like a life-sized game of Mouse Trap than a scientist's lab. Despite the silliness of some of the sets, however, the film boasts an impressive cast of performers including John Cleese, Helena Bonham Carter, Ian Holm, and Robert De Niro as both Waldman's killer and the creature. De Niro truly shines in the role, going from gentle giant to brutal killer in the blink of an eye. Branagh, being very much at home on the Shakespearean stage, often seems to forget he's in front of a camera and hams it up a bit too much.
Let's talk about the effects. You won't see any bolts protruding from the creature's neck here, but stitches abound. The look of the creature and the short-lived Bride are both realistic and unsettling. Frankly, I'm not sure what Victor was expecting considering how many spare parts he cobbled together. To paraphrase the adage about negative reviews: "I made this dog, and I'm angry that it's not a duck." Suck it up, Vic, you're in the monster-making business now. Helena Bonham Carter makes a perfect bride, both in life and rebirth. Elsa Lanchester's classic performance as the Bride may be the most memorable, but Bonham Carter absolutely nailed it, in my opinion.
While some of the sets are ridiculous and some of the performances are over the top, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is still the most faithful big screen adaptation of the novel that I've seen yet. De Niro's portrayal of the creature makes slogging through some of the more embarrassing scenes worth it. Is the movie scary? Not really. Frankenstein has always been more about the arrogance of man than scares. Not everybody agrees with me, but I enjoy it. I highly recommend it for any fan of classic, thought-provoking horror.