MARY SHELLEY'S FRANKENSTEIN ** 1/2. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Screenplay, Steph Lady & Frank Darabont. Photography, Roger Pratt. Production design, Tim Harvey. Costumes, James Acheson. Editing, Andrew Marcus. Music, Patrick Doyle. Cast: Robert DeNiro, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hulce, Helena Bonham Carter, Aidan Quinn, Ian Holm, et al. An American Zoetrope Production (Francis Coppola). 130 min. Rated R (gore)
The urge to create is a constant, but it is one thing to tinker by cannibalizing dozens of cars in order to create a one-of-a-kind vehicle, and another to do a Victor Frankenstein and build a creature from spare parts of cadavers. Especially since the custom car is not laden with ethical and metaphysical implications.
In the book that 19-year old Mary Shelley wrote, she is long on Gothic/Romantic rhetoric and short on popular mechanics. When it comes to the "how to" Victor only says : " After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I suceeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter." And later: "It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils " plus a brief, horrified description of the Creature.
The movie's title is a certificate of authenticity, like an Underwriters Laboratory sticker or Good Housekeeping seal. It's a bit of a cheat, since the film, like the Creature, is put together by the cut-paste-rearrange method. Among the changes: the long tale told by the Creature to Frankenstein is eliminated; childhood friend Henry Clerval becomes a new acquaintance and his killing by the Creature disappears; Justine's story is simplified; Victor's solace in romantic landscapes; etc. etc.
What Branagh & Co. have stitched together is a compromise between the voluble novel and the 1931 Frankenstein movie. Had bigger chunks of Mary Shelley's prose been retained, they would have been unbearable on the screen. And while, in book and film, the Creature is the sentient , sensitive Victor's "doppelganger" and id, he strains suspension of disbelief by learning to speak so rapidly. But this goes beyond ludicrousness in the novel where he is fluent and acquires a vast education in record time.
The 1931 film wisely made Boris Karloff grunting and near-wordless, hence more believable. The Branagh film has its own clever inventions, like casting an almost unrecognizable John Cleese in a role at the antipodes of his Monty Python or Basil Fawlty personae, and better yet, by beginningwith the death at childbirth of Victor's mother. This connects with the many deaths among Mary Shelley's milieu as well as those of her own children, and it sets the mood for creation and its price, though with an excess of gruesome graphics.
On the other hand, the movie misses the boat by not connecting older concerns about Golems, Mechanical Men, Robots, False Marias and the like with our own preoccupations with genetic engineering, computer brains that take over, and the like--although a case can be made that Shelley's theme of the child (the Creature) abandoned by his father (Victor), ties in with major problems in today's society.
But whatever the allusions, they are obscured by Branagh's over-acting, by the film overdoing almost everything, and by the laying on the gore. The scripwriters are respectively first-timer Lady, and Darabont who began as an assistant in a horror film and went to write "Nightmare on Elm Street 3," "The Blob," "The Fly II," and "Tales from the Crypt." Enough said.
The movie is a delirium of visuals, Rube Goldberg machinery, charnel-house repulsiveness, and above all camera pyrotechnics, sometimes successful, often gratuitous. And while the sinister Frankenstein castle of yore was, for contrast, changed into an airy, palatial home, much material, although it reminds you of older films, is powerfully used. There is a colossal stairway more out of "Dracula" than "Frankenstein"; the Teutonic, generic Hollywoodian town of the first "Frankenstein" gives way to a huge, elaborate set of Ingolstadt -- the biggest exterior ever built at a British studio. Its grim, exaggeratedly high walls dwarf the humans through expressionism a la "Metropolis." But then, when Victor and friends are getting literally galvanized, the swooping lens transforms the people in an Alpine meadow into a take-off on Julie Andrews' famous scene in "The Sound of Music."
In this set-designer's movie, so architecturally impressive,the more verisimilitude suffers, the more the returns diminish. Cholera invades Ingolstadt, Elizabeth shows up, and things get so silly-outrageous that they become campy-funny. Still, weirdness and lavishness do keep your attention, until after the Creature's "birth," overkill boggles the eye and the mind. Like the Creature jumping from high onto a cart whose driver remains oblivious. Like Victor's cavernous laboratory in which flesh ought to putrefy and make poison gas of the air, but does not. Like Branagh doing a Fabio by repeatedly baring his pecs. Like his meeting the Creature in a ridiculous ice-cave out of "Superman" pictures.
Yes, the movie dazzles at first, but in uninvolving ways that continue as Victor, and especially the Creature, strike no real chords of sympathy in us as they did in the 1931 film, a picture whose basic simplicity and naivete were assets.
And while there is plenty of actual chemistry and electricity, there is too little of either in te love story that Branagh wanted to stress. Branagh says that he was particularly interested in the horror genre, and in going back to the source material. He claims that his Creature is much nearer to the novel, and that "he had to be hideous, but also tremendously sympathetic because of his terrible plight. I wanted a wise, articulate and multifaceted Creature who could be angry yet have a sense of humor, however darkly ironic."
Good intentions, but the "Furia Francese" of Branagh sweeps away the fine points and distracts from the tragedy. Even when he tries to pull all the stops of horror, Branagh does not scare. In his defense, however, I must say that contrary to the many reviewers who pretend to know the book, the Shelley text could not frighten 1994 readers either.
Past the midpoint, unrelieved going over the top engenders dullness. The more elaborate the scenes, the more foolish they get. Obviously, too, much has been edited out, adding to confusion and discontinuity. And a loud, obtrusive score with more brass than a Tchaikovsky or Berlioz overture, incessantly pounds our ears, even when small-scale music is called for, or, better yet, silence.
This new "Frankenstein" is not without merits,but the ambition to say too much leads to a muddle and to audience fatigue. The 1993, TNT-produced, made-in-Poland "Frankenstein," with its interesting cast and differences from the 1931 version, is a better work, one that adopts a serious, un-campy and un-monsterly attitude vis-a-vis its subject.