Despite being unfaithful to the letter of the source novel, the 1931 film version of Frankenstein attributed the spirit correctly. In fact, it even took plot elements and the overall spirit of the novel and crafted a sequel which topped the predecessor. (That would be The Bride of Frankenstein, a misnomer, sure, but still one of the most essential films of all-time.) In the 90s, Universal was eager to reinvigorate their long-dead monster movie properties. And why not? With the rise of the Merchant-Ivory literary productions throughout the end of the previous decade, literary adaptations became all the rage. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a visually striking re-imaging of the novel as an AIDS-era parable full of sex, violence, surrealistic imagery pitched at an operatic fervor. It wasn’t a complete masterpiece, but I think it’s the best adaptation of the novel (and it’s one of my favorite films).
All of this laid the groundwork for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It was produced by Francis Ford Coppola, who directed Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the chosen director was Kenneth Branagh. It had made some flawed but solid Shakespearean adaptation at this time, but this was still an odd choice. And probably the film’s most fatal blow as one thing becomes increasingly clear as each thunderous minute passes: Branagh is so in over-his-head that he decided to pitch everything extremely loudly.
The story is old hat by now, and I won’t bother to repeat it here. But since there have been so many filmic interpretations of the original novel by this point, the material has plenty of room to bring something new, fresh and to stretch it out to explore it from a different side. What did Branagh decide to do? Try to film it with both a very simplistic, realistic approach and to also combine that with an overheated sound and visual palette. The two styles don’t work. I know that I’ve said it before about action-heavy films which leave us with limp characterizations, but this is a textbook example of a stuffy literary adaptation succumbing to the same thing: it is a sound and fury which signifies nothing.
The only character and performance which truly excites the film and gives it a spark of life is Robert De Niro as the creature. Unfortunately, much like in the original novel, Frankenstein follows the creature’s inventor, as he is the titular character. But the main problem with this version of Frankenstein is quite simple: a case of miscasting. In a moment of hubris (snark – I admit) Branagh cast himself as the young, naïve but brilliant scientist who becomes obsessed with removing death from this world at any cost. Branagh is both too old and too in love with himself to see the errors of his choices in both how he plays the role and how the frames things. So while De Niro is giving a tender, fractured and deeply intelligent reading of the creature, Branagh is playing to the cheap seats as manically as possible. De Niro’s character is given quiet moments of introspection and philosophical doubt, and he seeks to soothe his soul, if he has one. In a better film, De Niro’s performance would be spoken of with the same energy as Karloff’s. But his performance is swallowed whole by the sheer ridiculousness of everything.
Take for instance the creature’s troubled birth. Frankenstein’s laboratory looks like something only a team of special effects engineers could properly operate and maintain, but we’ve been asked to believe that he can do it on his own. Through a series of heated up womb-like devices, a giant ovarian sack filled with embryonic fluid and electric eels, and random homoeroticism, the creature is given life. For some reason Frankenstein is shirtless and sweaty, and once he releases the creature from the heated up tomb that birthed it, they wrestle around on the floor in sticky fluids. It sounds ludicrous and it is. The entire film is filmed with situations and set pieces like this. They don’t leave you enthralled in the narrative but leave you asking questions like “Why is he shirtless?” or “Why is this being played so largely? I should be sad but I’m trying not to laugh.”
And, allegedly, during the making of this film Coppola and Branagh came to a disagreement about several things, but one in particular I wish had been taken to heart. Yes, the novel begins and ends with Frankenstein being found in an Artic expedition. But that doesn’t mean that the movie needs to as well. Editing is an important part of the adaptation process, and this version of Frankenstein could have used more. A more discerning eye could see that the prologue and epilogue add nothing that wasn’t already explored during the story proper. They are unnecessary bits which just hammer over our heads the films major themes. But that is a major problem with the film overall. No story point or character decision comes without being signaled as obtusely as possible. It’s overheated melodrama which quickly descends into campy hysteria. There’s nothing sexy, frightening, engaging, disturbing, or anything really about this movie. Not after we’ve been beaten over the head with it so repeatedly.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein isn’t totally inept though. The makeup is wonderful, and Helena Bonham Carter, given little to do but pout for much of the film, nails a scene late in the film. It’s one of the best scenes in the film, and I won’t spoil what happens in it exactly other than it takes the idea of the bride and twists it around into something much darker. But other than these few things, I found this film hard to sit through. To the point where I started to doze off, felt like I was missing nothing major or interesting, and didn’t bother to rewatch what I zoned out on. And if that doesn’t wrap up my intense dislike for this film in a nice little bow, I don’t know what else would.
(For the record, this was my second viewing of the film. I decided to rewatch it after seeing that it was available for streaming and reading a glowing review from one of Roger Ebert’s foreign correspondents.)