Thursday, May 06, 2004

Movie Review: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

U.S. Release Date: 11/4/94
Running Time: 2:04
Rated: R (Violence, gore)
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro, Helena Bonham Carter, Ian Holm, Tom Hulce, Aidan Quinn, Richard Briers, Robert Hardy, John Cleese

Director: Kenneth Branagh
Producers: Francis Ford Coppola, James V. Hart, and John Veitch
Screenplay: Steph Lady and Frank Darabont based on the novel by Mary Shelley
Music: Patrick Doyle
Studio: Columbia/TriStar Studios

In 1817, Mary Shelley completed her tale about an overly-curious man of science named Victor Frankenstein, who, while in his quest for the answer to the unending question of eternal life, happens to disregard the presence of the higher powers at work. Dr. Frankenstein’s unethical research leads to the creation of his very-own, resurrected, revenge-seeking monster.

Over the years, Shelley’s storyline has not only inspired this monster (the resurrected creature was never actually given a name; it somehow just acquired the same, recognizable, German last name from its creator) to become a horror film icon and one the most memorable movie monsters of all-time (alongside the Werewolf and Dracula). However, it has also inspired the zombie-esque, bolted-neck beast to become a poster-boy for the Halloween holiday and, surprisingly enough, a children’s berry-flavored breakfast cereal.

Without a doubt, for different reasons, the acquired name of this fictional character, taken from the 1800’s text, has become a household name; everyone and their mother knows the name and the story of Frankenstein. Although, most recognize Frankenstein for its elements of horror and not for its strong elements of science, the well-known story combines such scientific and experimental aspects throughout (even though the main piecing-together of the body’s veins, muscles, bones, and arteries, and the eel-induced resurrection are both hard to conceive as being credible). For example the First Law of Thermodynamics (conservation) is quoted in this picture as, “Energy: it never disappears; it merely changes form.” Also in the movie, the studied subjects of Chemistry, Biology, and Physics are determined to be the sciences that save lives. Furthermore, the topics of energy conductors, polarity, and the phenomenon of hair and fingernails growing after death, are all discussed.

Shelley could have never imagined that her novella would become one the most influential and prized pieces of literature of its time, and would lead to over thirty different, entertaining adaptations over the broad time span of nearly two centuries. The early nineteenth century text of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, mainly focuses on the possibility of resurrecting the dead, which would lead to the immortality of all of human kind. It then attempts to distinguish between when science is mad and unethical, and when it is merely a natural striving for a humanly-valuable discovery. All the while, it balances the intertwining and underlying aspects of incest, father-son relationships, and the power of playing God—making it both a popular and thought-provoking story studied by students and scholars alike, and a plot that could easily be manipulated over and over again in the realm of Hollywood.

Over the past century, the story of Frankenstein has been reinterpreted and adapted on the big screen more than thirty times through several sequels, spin-offs, and silly spoofs. Despite all of these motion-picture sequels (i.e. Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Son of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and The House of Frankenstein), spin-offs (i.e. Dracula vs. Frankenstein, The Teenage Frankenstein Meets the Teenage Werewolf, and Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster), and spoofs (i.e. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein), no feature film has earnestly attempted to honestly relate to the style, depth, and context of Shelly’s original written text, until the 1994 theatrical release entitled Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Shelley’s novella emits a much more melodramatic tone which all of the horrific-based cinematic interpretations produced to date, excluding the ’94 production, fail to honor. The book-based version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein credits the almost Shakespearean-like, embellished aura which Shelley herself staged and strived for in her writing.

In summary, to all of the horror film aficionados out there: this one may not appeal to you as much as the other October 31st-oriented adaptations have; it is a completely-different, more-dramatized, Gothic-styled twist on all of the other film adaptations including the 1931 timeless classic of terror. There are no nuts and bolts protruding from the neck of the man-made being (played by Robert De Niro) in the more recent Shelley version, no huge heavy eyelids that give the stiff stumbling monster its scary stare, and no cheaply-made ragged clothing covering the creation’s massive muscles, but rather, a dark, black, sleek cloak. The individual, created in the own image of his “father” (Dr. Frankenstein, played by Kenneth Branagh), has a heavily-stitched and scarred face and practically no hair on his large, non-rectangular, shaped head. He possesses super-strength, the abilities to learn and read fluently and to speak eloquently, and the yearning and desires for love and sexual contact—all aspects of the original text. This interpretation is applauded for its accurate representations of the monster’s seclusion and rejection from society, and its awareness of its ugly, outward appearance. All of these factors display the obvious contrasts between Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and its previous more passive predecessors.

A brilliantly compiled cast including: the always entertaining Robert De Niro, the fiery brunette, Helena Bonham Carter, and arguably two of the best British actors of their time, John Cleese and Ian Holm, combines to make a refreshing list of familiar faces and talent. You may notice that I excluded Kenneth Branagh, who played Dr. Frankenstein, from this refreshing list of accomplished actors. Branagh should have stayed behind the camera and limited himself to directing this picture; his performance is agitated and distraught and gives the whole picture a fast-paced, frantic feel. The casting director surely could have found someone else other than the director to play the lead role, therefore presenting the possibility of adding one more dash of flavor to the otherwise cathartic cast.

Honestly, I would recommend the 1931 black-and-white, Boris Karloff version slightly more than this entertaining, but intermittently muddled, motion-picture. Occasionally, while watching Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, I felt like saying, in a mockery of the “It’s alive!” quote, “It’s dying!” - as the film tends to slack out a bit during the second half. Yet, at the same time, it is easy to respect the picture for sticking to its much-admired literary basis. Regardless of the film’s over-dramatizing and its pacing flaws, this film is not only a monster story you may enjoy, but an epic Gothic tragedy of monstrous proportions. (*** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004