Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Now WHERE did I leave those leftover electric eels?
★★
☆☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1994
Director: 
Kenneth Branagh
Starring: 
Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro, Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Hulce, John Cleese
The Setup: 
Another version of Frankenstein.
Discussion: 

If you've ever read the novel of Frankenstein [or Dracula, for that matter] you've probably had that moment of "Geez, WHY is it so hard to make a decent movie of this?" I mean, a man creates a monster out of dead people and then it comes back and tells him to make it a mate, or he'll kill his family one by one. Is that hard? Yet it seems to be, as movie after movie changes the story and comes up with only middling results. Of course the classic James Whale version is amazing, but it also departs vastly from the novel.

This, being called "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," would seem to be claiming that it remains more faithful to the source material--and I guess in some ways it is--but it's really just called that to create marketing bookends with Bram Stoker's Dracula of a few years earlier [that's the Gary Oldman one], which also claimed to be closer to the source while actually having nothing to do with it. We open with a voice-over purporting to be Mary Shelley, saying she's thought of a story to chill the blood. This narrative angle is dropped immediately and we have this ship in an arctic storm. We have Aidan Quinn as an obsessed captain trying to find an arctic passage and his woofy bear assistant telling him no! Or there will be mutiny! Then the ship gets driven up against the ice and frozen in place! Then they hear a bestial wail from out in the icy expanse! Then their dogs run off--and we hear them being slaughtered! Then Kenneth Branagh [also the director of the film] shows up! And he's got a story to tell... But before we get to that, boy, a lot of narrative packed into these first few minutes, right? Obsessed captain? Mutiny? Trapped in ice--RIGHT next to where a one-of-a-kind monster is? That's an eventful day. And while we're vaguely supposed to apprehend how the obsessed captain gives up his quest after hearing Frankenstein's harrowing tale, it's just one superfluous narrative strand without enough development to go anywhere.

So they sit right back and they hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip, as Victor Franksenstein [that's Branagh] stars unloading his story. His mother remarried to Ian Holm, bringing daughter Elizabeth to Victor's boyhood home, where they are raised as brother and sister. They have a blissful childhood, then when they're old enough for her to be played by Helena Bonham Carter, Victor's mom dies during childbirth and Victor rides to her grave atop the majestic mountaintop [there's a lot of necessity to go to majestic mountaintops in this movie] to lay flowers there and vow to her memory "I will stop this! No one need die!" That's your motivation right there, kids, hang on to it, because it's all you'll get. By the way, when I saw this movie back in the theater, I thought it was a mess but not THAT bad, whereas on this viewing, every moment from the first minute seemed utterly dreadful.

So soon Victor and Elizabeth's love blossoms as they hide away from a party, which makes you wonder why they're doing it right in front of a huge window with the party inside. But alas, he must go to Ingolstadt, where he will receive his medical training. She will dutifully wait. By the way, you can note how this movie came from the part in Branagh's career where he would indicate intense emotion by raising his voice an octave.

At Ingolstadt you have a moment of--wait, is that Tom Hulce? Indeed it is, as Victor's little buddy Henry. Soon Victor is shouting down the professor of his class and complaining that he wants to fuse the ancient mystical healing arts with science, and it's like--was that on the curriculum? Why are you coming to medical school if you want to learn spiritual disciplines? It's a bit like enrolling in Julliard and then getting pissed they don't teach the music of Micronesia. But I think we're supposed to be impressed with Victor's wish to bend the rules of science, his passion, his fervor, etc., although none of it works. So we have the standard pairing of a crotchety old professor who adheres to science, and a long-haired rebel professor who is willing to dabble in the peripheral arts. He looks a bit like Christopher Lee and has a kooky wild-eyed gaze, and you're sitting there like "WHO is that?" when you find out it's: JOHN CLEESE! In a serious role--or as serious as one can be in this claptrap. He gives Victor the idea that the missing ingredient for life is electricity--not mayonnaise, as Victor had thought--and reveals the existence of a notebook that contains the final combination. In here we have the contractually-required "You can't play God!" speech, and there's a bunch of bullshit about a Cholera epidemic, and this dude, played by De Niro, is hung, but not before killing the good crazee professor, allowing us a half-measure return to "no one need die," etc., and securing Victor the top-secret notebook that lists the top-secret missing ingredient for re-animation. Turns out it's parsnips!

Now going on all this time have been cuts to Elizabeth doing a great deal of flouncing and reading of Victor's letters--okay, you know that certain type of scene in British historical dramas where the actors are pretending to be simple folk who are so blissfully appy and carefree, delighted simply to run through the fields in their long dresses before returning home to find mother churning cream or whatnot?--Bonham-Carter has to do a ton of it here, flouncing delightedly to the left and right, and it all falls flat. Then--SUDDENLY!--she's all distraught by the side of the lake upon the blasted moor, hair all ratted out and split ends waving in the breeze, revealing that SHE wrote all the supposed letters from Victor, because she actually hasn't heard anything in MONTHS! It's a quite sudden emotional reversal that packs zero impact. Then blonde chick--there's this blonde peripheral character we're supposed to care about but who makes no impression--grabs Elizabeth and says "Bitch, go to him!" Not in quite so many words, but please accept my assurance: Drama Is High.

Meanwhile Victor is supposedly getting obsessive and collecting bodies and suchlike, stitching them together as the streets are consumed by plague. Elizabeth shows up and pleads for him to come, saying he looks a mess and his place smells like pure skank, but Victor is obsessed and they break up. Then the big creation sequence. Branagh eschews the whole "lightning hits a kite" classic in favor of electric eels and good old human sexual anatomy imagery. You see, there's a big canister shaped like a vajayjay, and into it is a large tube, attached to this big leathery bag that really can only be called a scrotum. That scrotum is filled with fluid in which hundreds of electric eels writhe. When the chute is opened, all of the eels shoot down the tube into the chamber. It's blatant sexual imagery but you know, it's one of the only over-the-top things about this movie that kind of works. And now--an exciting new paragraph!

Branagh talked at the time of wanting the creation to be very energetic and visceral, which he took to mean he should be running around shirtless and greasy. Which he is, often. In the novel, the monster comes to life, Victor is horrified and realizes the immorality of what he's done, but it looks like the monster's dead, so it's okay, and he goes to bed. Kind of a cinematic challenge to convey all that, right? So we'll give Branagh some points, but he still makes a giant muddle of the sequence. First, Victor thinks it didn't work, so he goes around saying "No! No, no, no! No! No! No!" Then the monster moves, and he starts with "It's alive! It's alive!" So he empties the chamber [of amniotic fluid taken from birthing women] and shirtless Branagh and nude DeNiro wrestle around in the slick fluid--it's like you're suddenly watching Women in Love. I kind of get what he was trying to do--the monster is like a newborn faun trying to get its footing--but for me it didn't quite work. Then, through an improbable series of events, the monster gets konked on the head and raised in a Christ-like pose way up to the ceiling, at which point Victor thinks it's dead and begins the whole "What have I done?" part. Then--MASSIVE filmmaking mistake--we have this SUDDEN image of the stern professor from before yelling at Vistor and telling him what he has made is an abomination, etc. It doesn't work, it leaves you with more of a WTF? than anything, and it kills whatever momentum has been established quite dead. Then Victor goes to sleep, wakes, finds the monster still alive, they struggle, the monster escapes. Again, a lot of challenging ideas and reversals of mind to convey here--but again, it fails miserably.

SPOILERS > > >
So Victor returns to Elizabeth and they have an emotional--no, I mean EMOTIONAL--reunion. He's going to forget all this immoral monster business and open a respectable Chik-Fil-A franchise location. Meanwhile, the monster is out in the woods, driven out of the city by the cruel populous, who find him to be one ugly motherfucker. He learns to read and speak, or, we are told later, remembers how to speak. He's also been outfitted with quite an appropriately monstrous long overcoat, which just happens to have Victor's iPhone in the pocket. It also has his secret diary, which the monster reads and comes to understand exactly what he is--and also the Victor considered him an abomination and wanted to kill him. It's a little amusing, as we previously saw Victor stuff the diary in the pocket and say "I must destroy this tomorrow!" Well, we see how such procrastination pays off in the movies, as anyone who has seen Black Belly of the Tarantula can attest.

So the monster hangs out near the cottage of this family, overhears that they're having trouble harvesting the crops, and does the work for them in secret. They think he is the good spirit of the forest. I read some reviews from the time of release that considered this the most effective and downright touching section of the movie and, well, more evidence that I don't have a heart, because here is where the movie stopped absolutely dead for me. I didn't buy a second of it. For one, because we're suddenly looking at this family working the crops like "Who are THESE people all of a sudden?" and second, because it's so obvious what Branagh is trying to do, and all you can do is wait for it to unfold. Which it does, and eventually the monster is driven out, tired and broken-hearted. Lord, it ain't easy being a monster.

Then the monster crosses the snowy mountains--someone's crossing the snowy mountains every few minutes here--and lurks in Victor's forest. Then this adorable blond boy--WHO is he? I think he's Elizabeth's dad's son?--wanders off into the forest and the monster kills him. The blonde lady who was always hanging around--WHO is she?--runs after him, and it is soon assumed that she killed him, though on what basis, we're never told. But before you can say boo ye olde angry mob has gathered, and the blonde is hung right in front of Victor and Liz. I need hardly tell you that emotions, as they have been all along, are running HIGH. Many people are heard to bellow. Poor Helena Bonham Carter.

So then the monster stops by for tea and crumbcake and tells Victor they have to meet on--you guessed it--the frozen tundra. This of course is cause for more release of emotion from Elizabeth, then Victor goes on this massive trek through the frozen mountains, having to climb sheer faces of ice at times and--Jesus, couldn't they have just met at Starbucks? A quiet clearing in the woods? WTF is this about? I'll let you know right now that Victor comes right back and the whole trek has no purpose whatsoever except to boost up the "excitement" and epic quality, but you know, I'm fine with the other six treks across frozen mountains. Anyway, they meet in this ice cave where Victor gets an earful from his creation. Maybe it was better when the dude couldn't talk. Monsters are meant to be seen and not heard, I say. "You gave me these emotions, but you didn't tell me what to do with them!" the monster complains. Clearly a week of Oprah and the monster's problems would be solved, but he has further moral accusations to hurl at Victor, then comes out the whole deal about he wants Victor to make him a mate with gazongas out to THERE. Actually he doesn't, but you see how much more fun the movie would be if I had made it, right? He says that if Victor doesn't make him a mate the monster "will be with him on his wedding night." That, by the way, was "Make me a mate or I'll kill your family one by one." Why can't they just come out and SAY THAT? It's direct, it's to the point, and everyone can understand it. The monster also says "I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine," which sounds to me like he could easily divert into a lucractive career writing soul ballads. If he ever quits whining and drags his stitchy ass out of ice caves.

So Victor drags himself all the way home, heaves a big "Woah! THAT was pointless!" and sets about remaking his lab, although this time he has bad feelings. The monster gets him the corpse he wants, and--it's the peripheral blonde character! Then Victor refuses to do it, and the monster's all pissed again, and we're back where we started. Dudes, it's about COMPROMISE.

So now here's where Branagh gives Mary Shelley the old drop-kick. Granted, the ending of the novel is not very cinematic--it isn't even that literary--they just chase each other across the ice, have a bit of a reunion on the ice and that's it. It just kind of peters out. And the new ending here wouldn't be all that bad, if only he'd been able to pull it off. But anyway...

Victor and Elizabeth get married. Yes, they've been waiting their WHOLE lives, but now that the monster, which is still at large, is out there and threatening to kill her on their wedding night, why, what better time? No sooner are they linked when the monster is seen spooking around, and Victor and pals run outside looking for him, and, why, guess who's inside? Victor returns to find the monster atop Elizabeth and right in front of him, bashes his fist into her chest cavity, rips out her heart and holds it toward Victor, still beating and it's like--wait, STOP--did something actually cool just happen? It did, but don't get your hopes up. The monster says he must see a man about some foxes, and Victor decides that he MUST use his powers once more--to bring Elizabeth back to life!

By the way, post impromptu cardiac surgery, she was dumped unceremoniously in a lamp, and her hair got all burnt, and now she's... well, let's just say her reaminated corpse has a date with the stylist. We go through the whole thing again, only this time you're like "So then where did he get the amniotic fluid? [I hope he's not still using the same batch from last time]. And also--I guess he just had all those electric eels tucked away in a closet somewhere? They were in eel storage? Is that it? Whatever, just accept. Sooner than you can say "Depend Undergarments" Liz is alive again, and you get a smidge of Bride of Frankenstein for your buck. If ONLY they had kept the hairstyle, we could forgive. Anyway, then the monster is there, and for a while Liz is torn between two lovers, and feelin' like a fool, because lovin' both of them is breakin' all the rules, but eventually realizes that she's an abomination and crushes a lamp right over her head, setting herself ablaze. Then she runs down the hall, and you can watch the charges hidden in the wall explode into flame as she goes by. The idea is that she's setting the place on fire, but the entire house would have to be steeped in gasoline for it to go up this quick. But it's cool to have a big climactic fire where the big mansion goes up to end your movie with.

Then the movie goes ON. We return to the ship frozen into the ice, and are to understand that Victor has spent his life pursuing the monster across the ice, and has just finished relating his whole story, which has caused Aidan Quinn the captain to give up his whole quest to find a passage [remember that superfluous thread?], whereupon Victor promptly dies, and before you know it, there's the monster to pay his final respects. We are now supposed to understand that the monster loved Victor in his way, because he was like his daddy, and when they set the funeral pyre on fire and let it drift away the monster goes off and burns himself up with it. Only none of this has really been built up, so you just perceive what you're SUPPOSED to understand, rather than feeling it. Then--what a coinkidink!--the ice breaks up and the ship is freed, the end.
< < < SPOILERS END

It was really just absolutely dreadful. Branagh obviously had a bunch of ideas, which is nice, but he's trying to fit too many of them into this movie and this it ends up disjointed, none of them really getting enough focus to emerge as meaningful. Then there's the whole aspect of everything being conducted in histrionics--this movie is set to 11--and I haven't even mentioned the bombastic, ever-present score. The look of the thing is all over the place too, with the huge blue hall set of Victor's mansion looking like a set from the Metropolitan Opera, trying to approximate the high gothic of the associated Dracula film, then intercut with gritty plague-ridden streets and high mountain plains--and it's just not consistent enough to create an atmosphere that gives meaning to the story. I think ultimately Branagh made the mistake of remaining too much in the realm of the overarching ideas and metaphors, and not enough in the basic scene-to-scene storytelling. The result is a big long thing that just never comes to life, where you see what he's trying to do but remain emotionally uninvolved.

Here's where I should think of some witty concluding statement, but you know, I just can't right now. There are lots of decent Frankenstein movies out there--and a lot of awful ones--and frankly I don't think anyone needs to watch this one. But if you've never read the novel, there's a whole lot of fun for you.

Should you watch it: 

Nah, not really.