Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994)
Studio: Arrow Video
Release date: April 12th, 2022
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
When it was clear that the previous decade’s horror icons had run out of gas and wouldn’t be as popular in the 90s, Hollywood did what it often does: turn to past success in the hopes of revitalizing it for a new era. It’s an approach that would be nakedly cynical had Francis Ford Coppola not been at the forefront of this effort. Say what you want about Coppola, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a director less interested in simply coasting and resting on his laurels. While he mounted an adaptation of Dracula in the hopes of easing his own financial difficulties, there’s no doubt he threw himself into the production, transforming Bram Stoker’s novel into an idiosyncratic passion project with a gusto defying its mercenary origins. When it proved to be a success, it was only natural that Coppola next set his sights on the other pivotal 19th-century British horror novel that had also proven to be a cinematic success for decades: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. That was the title the eventual film bowed with, of course, in keeping with Coppola’s tradition of crediting authors for works he adapted. By that point, though, he was only on-board as a producer, having handed off the directorial reins to Kenneth Branagh, a move that made all the sense in the world given the Englishman’s penchant for his homeland’s literary canon. Working with a script from Frank Darabont, Branagh was poised to deliver the definitive take on a book that had seen plenty of adaptations but few faithful ones.
However, just as it is with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this titling convention is not a guarantee of faithfulness. While it’s about as close as any other film has ever come, it still takes quite a few liberties with Shelley’s novel, appropriately making it another cinematic Frankenstein’s monster, cobbled together and stitched together from the original text and the whims of the various filmmakers at work here. During the production, Branagh’s whims proved to be most forceful, as the auteur transformed Darabont and co-writer Steph Lady’s script into a brash, dynamic speed run through Shelley’s story that feels tailored to a 90s audience that would have been wary of cracking open a heady, verbose novel written in 1818. Like so many literary adaptations of the era, it feels like the “cool” version of the story, one that an English teacher could show to a classroom of disinterested students. You could strive for worse, I suppose.
Fealty to the material is only a brief concern: anyone familiar with the novel will likely be heartened by the inclusion of the frame story involving Robert Walton (Aiden Quinn), an obsessed explorer seeking to reach the North Pole when he encounters Victor Frankenstein (Branagh), whose life story unfolds as a cautionary tale. From here, though, the script deploys shortcuts and embellishments in fleshing out the story of a young man, who, in his quest to conquer death, conspires with fellow med student Henry Clerval (Tom Hulce) and department pariah Waldman (John Cleese, totally unrecognizable) to create life itself. Despite the protests and warnings of both acquaintances, Victor pushes too far in creating a malformed human from the parts various cadavers (including the corpse of the man who murders Waldman for trying to administer cholera vaccines). The creature (Robert De Niro) is an abomination, of course, at least in Victor’s eyes, as he shuns the creation, leaving it to fend for itself as it wrestles with its own horrific existence before setting out to exact revenge on its creator.
The story’s old hat at this point, but this film’s commitment to doing justice to Frankenstein’s monster is notable. While it wasn’t exactly unprecedented, the approach of treating the character as Shelley did—by granting it intelligence and eloquence—hadn’t been done on such a lavish scale, nor had an actor of De Niro’s stature ever inhabited the role. It’s the film’s most effective choice because this more than anything captures what makes Shelley’s tale so compelling: it’s not just some lurid tale of a monster running amok, wreaking indiscriminate havoc but rather a thoughtful examination of what it means to be human and monstrous, sometimes all at once. Branagh’s take acknowledges this with a handful of compelling scenes, undoubtedly among the film’s best. There’s the famous stretch where the Creature observes a family in the wilderness and performs kind deeds for them, only to be violently rejected once they catch a glimpse of him. Later in the film, the Creature holds a conversation with Victor, wherein he asks him the existential questions that have plagued him, only to have no answers provided to him. Ultimately, Victor dismisses him and his request for a mate, setting off the calamitous chain of events leading to the film’s horrific climax.
And while that stuff is handled well enough, I can’t help but feel like these quieter, introspective beats involving the Creature are too few and far between. Branagh doesn’t exactly waste De Niro, who is extraordinary in his ability to coax sympathy through the elaborate latex appliance covering his face. However, he does short-change him a bit, especially considering he’s the top-billed actor and these two scenes represent his most substantial contributions. Where Shelley reserves one of the Creature’s most heart-wrenching insights for the climax, allowing him to expresses grief and remorse for his actions, Branagh only pays this lip-service, resulting in an abrupt, unearned resolution where the Creature burns himself on an ice floe alongside Frankenstein’s corpse. It’s a testament to De Niro’s talents that this works even a little bit, but I can only lament that he wasn’t given the opportunity to be even more expressive here.
To be fair to everyone involved, this may just speak to the difficulty of effectively adapting Shelley’s novel, which grants the Creature an interiority that’s tough to bring to the screen. In the book, he narrates entire chapters, giving us a unique insight to his inner thoughts that are lost here. While voiceover narration can be tricky, maybe even downright leaden, it’s likely the only way we’ll ever get a faithful depiction of the Creature, a fascinating character that’s rarely been done justice on the screen despite the number of Frankenstein adaptations in existence. I get it: I’m sure the task of adapting a novel with three separate narrators with an epistolary frame story is daunting and almost begs to be streamlined for the screen, but I would like to believe it’s not impossible. If anything, Branagh almost pulled it off here, and, had he been committed to just slowing down the film for a few more beats here and there, this Frankenstein would have been a masterwork.
Instead, it has to settle for being consistently entertaining, which seems to have been Branagh’s mantra: to keep the film barreling forward at all costs, highlighting and underscoring all of Shelley’s big, garish moments along the way. The approach has its merits, as the breakneck pace sweeps the audience up in Victor’s mania and allows Branagh to frequently indulge magnificent and macabre set pieces: Victor’s going-away celebration, his creation of the Monster, the unhinged public execution of Justine Moritz, the climatic, wedding night confrontation between Victor and his creation, the ice-shattering conclusion as the Creature exiles himself. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein doesn’t lack for grandeur and spectacle, to be sure, and the production is downright sumptuous throughout.
Unfortunately, it comes at the expense of so many of the novel’s quieter, more nuanced moments, and not just necessarily those involving the Creature. Victor is less interesting here, imagined throughout as a tragic, misguided character instead of a genuinely cruel, obsessive man twisted by his own ambition. By the end of Shelley’s novel, Victor is an unrepentant madman who curses his own creation with his last words instead of reserving a measure of sympathy for it. We don’t quite get that here because Branagh sands off many of Victor’s rough edges, such as his very cognizant decision to allow Justine to take the fall for his younger brother’s murder. Here, she’s hastily executed by a vigilante mob, removing any opportunity for Victor to reckon with his slow descent into selfish self-preservation and madness.
Likewise, this Victor is never downright cruel to the Creature like he is in the book, where he often insults and tries to fight with his neglected child. Victor’s reasoning for not creating a mate is also much less nuanced: where his novel counterpart has twisted delusions of grandeur at inventing a race that might destroy mankind, this Victor balks at the Creature choosing Justine’s body, an admittedly twisted touch but also one that gives him an easy out of sorts. Branagh is so often in a hurry to revel in visceral ghastliness that he ignores the spiritual horrors of a tale that finds two men wrestling with their own existence, one slowly losing his soul as the other searches in vain for his own. Only brief glimpses of that story dimension remain here, and it makes for a much less complex finale, where the basic plot beats are in place but without any thematic underpinning to make them resonate.
I suppose that’s Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in a nutshell: an adaptation that knows the words but doesn’t quite know the entire beat. It’s certainly a respectable, Cliff’s Notes recitation of the material, and Branagh’s operatic brashness faithfully captures the gothic melodrama that drives the tale. There’s no doubt that every dime of its $45 million budget made it to the screen in the form of lavish sets, lush costuming, and gnarly effects work, making it the most purely spectacular Frankenstein film ever mounted (please note that I obviously love the 1931 original, but James Whale and company could obviously only do so much in this respect).
Branagh even stumbles onto an interesting exploration of Shelley’s feminist subtext with his most inspired digression, which sees Victor revive Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), his murdered bride who becomes the pawn in a literal game of tug-of-war when the Creature thinks she must belong to him. I know I’ve spent a lot of this review hemming and hawing over the unfaithfulness of this movie, but I have to give credit where it’s due: the wedding night climax here is even more remarkably fucked up than it is in the novel, a macabre whirlwind of sloppy gore and flames wherein Bonham Carter steals the movie. I should also note that the script gives Elizabeth more to do as a whole since that character spends most of the book exchanging letters with Victor, a man she goes years without seeing. This relationship is better-realized here, and even leans into the pseudo-incestual nature of their bond (the two were raised as siblings), yielding the immortal line “brother and sister no more—we are now husband and wife!” Moments like that make it hard to dismiss Mary Shelley's Frankenstein—if nothing else, it’s a total hoot, and, while that’s probably the last thing I’d say about the novel, it makes for one of the most entertaining movies based on it.
Considering its major studio roots, it’s not surprising that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has had a consistent presence on disc for nearly 25 years. It first arrived in the early days of DVD before making its Blu-ray debut about a decade later, and has often been packaged with its Dracula counterpart on both formats. All of those releases are now moot, though, thanks to Arrow Video’s newly-minted 4K edition of the film. Featuring a newly-restored 4K transfer commissioned by Sony (a good sign because they’ve produced some of the strongest catalog work for UHD) and supervised by Branagh, the presentation is appropriately striking. As is typically the case with this format, it’s not just about an uptick in resolution and detail but also more accurate color reproduction, resulting in a nice, filmic presentation. Arrow has matched with a pair of lossless soundtracks, one in 5.1 DTS-HD MA, the other a PCM stereo presentation. The former is expectedly lively in reproducing the film’s rambunctious sound design, so it can be played big and loud, just as Branagh envisioned.
Believe it or not, the extras here mark the first substantial effort to give Mary Shelley's Frankenstein any supplemental material. Previous DVDs were either bare bones or featured a trailer, so this release is a veritable treasure trove, featuring interviews and commentary from scholars and some of the film’s crew. Historians Michael Brooke and Johnny Mains provide a newly-recorded commentary for the film, while Gothic experts David Pirie, Stephen Volk, and Jonathan Rigby appear for two features. The first is a 30-minute primer on the history of gothic horror, Shelley’s creation of Frankenstein, and the stage and screen traditions that were instrumental in not only solidifying the novel’s fame but that of the entire horror genre. It’s a very good entry-level exploration of all this stuff: having taught units on Frankenstein and the gothic for several years now, I would feel very comfortable showing this to further illuminate the novel’s roots especially. The second feature with this trio simply looks at the differences between the novel and the film, noting Branagh’s various changes, omissions, and embellishments.
Arrow has also produced three separate interviews with crew members, starting with costume designer James Acheson, who mostly focuses on the Monster’s costuming, detailing the production’s use of maquettes to nail down the look. He also has a nice anecdote about De Niro learning to walk with a peg leg, though he also laments that this aspect is barely noticeable in the final film. Composer Patrick Doyle discusses his contributions, with the most notable revelation being that he took inspiration from Lord Byron’s “We’ll Go No More a Roving” in establishing some of the score’s motifs. Finally, makeup artist Daniel Parker discusses his contributions, noting some of the difficulties encountered during the creation sequence in particular.
The disc features a pair of trailers, an image gallery, plus a high definition presentation of the very first Frankenstein adaptation directed by J. Searle Dawley for Edison Studios in 1910, a nice addition that allows viewers to see how much these adaptations evolved over the 20th century. Initial pressings also contain an illustrated booklet featuring writing by Jon Towlson and Amy C. Chambers. For whatever reason, this edition doesn’t boast a slipcover, but Arrow does include its customary reversible cover art if you prefer the original theatrical one-sheet. Just about the only noticeable shortcoming here is a lack of participation from the film’s high-profile cast and crew, though I suppose it’s completely understandable given how busy they all must be. Plus, I doubt Darabont especially would be too fond of reminiscing considering he all but disowned the final product, notably regretting its lack of subtlety. I can’t say he’s exactly wrong: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a raucous rendition of Shelley’s novel, one that’s eager to translate its extravagance, melodrama, and grandiose shocks but often elides over the quieter, emotionally resonant moments that would have made this a more definitive take. Still, it’s arguably the closest anyone’s ever come to capturing Shelley’s tome, so that has to count for something too.
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