FRANKENSTEIN (1994) – The Dungeon Review!
Frankenstein is one of my all time favourite stories and was already adapted into a perfect film by James Whale in 1931. The talented people over at Hammer Studios adapted the story in 1957 with Christopher Lee as the creature and Peter Cushing as Dr. Frankenstein. Terence Fisher was on board to direct The Curse of Frankenstein and did a magnificent job bringing the story to life. Sure, both version take liberties with Shelley’s story but there was no way a new version would top these two for me, nor would I expect it to. Francis Ford Coppola is listed as a producer on Frankenstein. Coppola called his film Bram Stoker’s Dracula and this Kenneth Branagh directed effort was called Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Ha. I wonder what each of these authors would have to say to their names being whored out to sell these two films. I like Robert De Niro a lot but I could not envision him as the monster. De Niro was an odd choice. My friend did endless imitations of Goodfella’s De Niro doing the creature and that is the only thing I can recall about seeing this film in theatres back in the day. I could blame my friend for pushing this film completely out of my head. But perhaps there is another reason I can not recall a single thing about Frankenstein. Now that I have re-watched it I remember what it was! Frankenstein is a big budget epic piece of mediocre. Some spoilers beyond this point.
“The Dawn of the nineteenth century. A world on the brink of revolutionary change, alongside political and social upheaval scientific advances that would profoundly change the lives of all. The lust for knowledge had never been greater. Among the pioneers, Captain Robert Walton, an explorer, obsessed with reaching the North Pole. As the prize drew closer his voyage would uncover a story to strike terror in the hearts of all who would venture into the unknown.”
Arctic Sea 1794
Iceberg ahead! The explorer Robert Walton is tossed during a storm and has run aground. While grounded they hear a terrible howl and a short time later they encounter Victor Frankenstein. Frankenstein tells the explorer his story…
The story begins with a short segment from Victor Frankenstein’s childhood where his parents introduce him to his adapted sister; a six year old orphan named Elizabeth. The two grow up together and fall in love and plan to marry once Frankenstein finishes his schooling. Frankenstein is not at school long before he becomes intrigued by a Professor Waldman. Waldman had conducted an experiment reanimating a corpse. The professor is tragically stabbed while volunteering at a clinic that is administering cholera vaccinations. Frankenstein uses the opportunity to steal the man’s notes and dedicates himself to replicating Waldman’s experiment. As luck would have it, there is a corpse hanging in the public square outside of Waldman’s dwelling. And wouldn’t you know, it is the very man who stabbed Waldman to death! Frankenstein also snatches up Waldman’s big juicy smart brain to put inside his killer’s head. He also grabs some pieces of cholera victims for the patch job. So obsessed is Frankenstein with his mission that he fails to write his love Elizabeth. When several weeks pass Elizabeth decides to pay Frankenstein a visit. Unfortunately she chooses to visit when a serious cholera outbreak has hit the city and they are in the midst of quarantine. The doctor is in but he isn’t seeing patients; Frankenstein sends Elizabeth away in tears. He also slams the door in the face of his best friend and confidante Henry Clerval. Frankenstein turns his back on everyone who cares about him but his experiment is indeed a success! It’s alive! The creature escapes but is quickly descended upon by an angry mob who recognize him as the man they hung in the square. The creature escapes the mob and embarks on his long journey. Meanwhile Frankenstein comes down with a bad case of pneumonia. His friend Henry nurses him back to health and Elizabeth is back at his side. Frankenstein gives up on his experiments and plans to go back to Geneva, marry Elizabeth and start his own practice. He even asks Henry to be his partner in his new practice. Champagne all around! Of course there is that little business of Frankenstein’s creature still wandering about. Obviously this does come back to haunt him.
Like its 1992 cousin Dracula there was far too much focus on the love story. There are several long flowery segments that were tedious and unnecessary. Let’s not forget Victor and Elizabeth did actually grow up as brother and sister. Of course, you aren’t going to forget this detail as it is mentioned countless times. It is even mentioned during intimate conversations between the couple. They refer to themselves as sister, brother, friends, lovers and soon to be husband and wife. It is a little weird and a touch creepy but they are in fact not blood relations. It seemed needless to stress the relationship as incestuous. I thought that Branagh and Carter had so-so chemistry. Elizabeth in my view was portrayed a little too giggly and energetic. Victor and Elizabeth seemed like an unlikely couple.
Frankenstein certainly boasts a solid cast. I consider myself a fan of Helena Bonham Carter, Ian Holm, Tom Hulce, Kenneth Branagh and Robert De Niro. It wasn’t that anyone gave a bad performance it was more a case of questionable casting. Kenneth Branagh who plays Victor Frankenstein looked far too old to be playing a young man who was just leaving home to go to school. Branagh looked to be at least in his early 30s. Not that it is the first time an actor has portrayed a character far younger than their actual age (ever seen Grease?!) but in a film with a serious tone I find it a little harder to digest. The woman playing his mother did not look to be much older than 40. Since I am on the subject of Frankenstein’s mother. I found it odd that they decided to make her character pregnant instead of dying of Scarlet Fever as she does in the book. In the film, Frankenstein’s mother dies during childbirth. The film actually follows Shelley’s story fairly closely, and this seemed like an odd change to make. Ultimately Frankenstein and his creature are the two most important roles in the film. Branagh is only mediocre in his role; I expected more. I really think Branagh needed to step aside on this one and let a younger actor take the reins. Frankenstein’s creature does a lot of talking in this version. Lots and lots and lots of talking. In one particularly long and wordy conversation between Dr. Frankenstein and his creature, the creature states that his ability to read, write and play a wind instrument is not a learned response but rather “things remembered”. What the hell? The bigger issue for me was De Niro’s speech which I am sure was in part due to that dreadful mouth prosthetic. The makeup they put on De Niro made his face look like a fucking baseball. Why was his face so messed up? The only thing Dr. Frankenstein replaced in the head region, as far as I know was the brain. Clearly Dr. Frankenstein would have no career in plastic surgery. I guess they were trying to make the creature as grotesque as possible, and yeah, he looked grotesque. I had some empathy for the character initially but it began to wane after a while. I think this was more of a flaw in the characterization but I still think that Robert De Niro was the wrong choice to play the creature.
Frankenstein had some awkward timeline issues. The creature observes a family that he grows quite fond of. When their vegetables become frozen in the ground during an early frost, the creature harvests them on their behalf while they sleep. One day while the family is away, the creature witnesses the blind grandfather having a heated conversation with the landlord. The creature attacks and kills the landlord. The blind grandfather invites the creature in but the family shows up and horrified by the sight of the creature, chases him away. The creature runs into the forest for what was no more than a few minutes and when he runs back to the family’s home they are gone, belongings and all!! In another scene after discovering his creature has fled, Frankenstein faints and when he comes to he is being nursed by his friend Henry. In the next ten minutes or so the two men seem to have graduated from medical school and become doctors. Besides a couple brief scenes early in the school, Frankenstein appeared to have given up higher learning in favour of his experiment and we never see him in another school scene again. Not that I needed a blow by blow but a little bit of a bridge there would have been good.
The one aspect I did like about this version is the inclusion of Dr. Frankenstein getting his comeuppance which is so satisfyingly conveyed in Shelley’s novel. Victor Frankenstein starts out curious and passionate but evolves into an obsessive and arrogant man. Frankenstein gets what is coming to him and than some in this adaptation. Thanks to his experiment his life becomes one tragic incident after another until the man is completely broken. In the end, when it is far too late, Dr. Frankenstein learns a painful lesson on arrogance and failing to consider the consequences of your actions.
Several characters die, and one in particular dies quite nastily. There are also a couple of spirited action sequences. There isn’t loads of violence but there is more in this particular version of Frankenstein than others. Sadly however the film lacks the gorgeous gothic atmosphere which so highly elevates the original 1931 version of the story. Although horrific things happen the film lacks a horror atmosphere. Some of the cinematography is nice but not astounding.
For a film that follows Shelley’s story relatively closely (and yes there are some liberties taken) it was hugely disappointing to me that so many other aspects just didn’t come together like they should have. With such an outstanding cast of actors, a director on board who has delivered some worthwhile projects and a $45,000,000ish budget Frankenstein just struck me as extremely mediocre.
Dungeon Rating: 2.5/5
Directed By: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Robert De Niro, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hulce, Helena Bonham Carter, Aidan Quinn, Ian Holm, Richard Briers, John Cleese, Robert Hardy, Cherie Lunghi, Celia Imrie, Trevyn McDowell, Gerard Horan, Mark Hadfield, Joanna Roth