Sunday, November 1, 2020

Halloween Watch: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994)

Watched:  10/31/2020
Format:  Amazon Prime
Viewing:  2nd?  3rd?  4th?  It's been decades
Decade: 1990's
Director:  Kenneth Branagh

We already watched the classic Universal Frankenstein and the Hammer Frankenstein for the podcast, but I always watch Frankenstein and Bride as my final movie or so of Halloween.  So, I swapped in this version, which I hadn't seen in forever.  And I know I hadn't seen it in forever, because Jamie had never seen it.  

My memory was "that sure felt like it thought it was much better than it was".  It was directed by already-respected Shakespearean actor/director Kenneth Branagh, borrowed indie cred by casting Helena Bonham Carter (who was the indie-fan's sex symbol of the time), borrowed established cred with Robert DeNiro as the Monster, Tom Hulce of Amadeus fame, Ian Holm, John Cleese and others.  The sets are lavish, the score: sweeping.  

Now, I'm gonna do something I wouldn't necessarily harp on *that* much in a write-up, and that's compare this to the book (which I do on the podcast, sorry).  But the point is:  this is called "May Shelley's Frankenstein", which tells the audience this should be close to the book, right?  And it kind of is.

As will always happen, it's also stamped with its mid-90's-ness.  All the men wear mullets, Branagh is shirtless for no reason (and pumped!), and the dialog is the "on-the-nose-so-the rubes-get-it" stuff.  The movie is full of sweeping cinematography that can feel unmoored in its constant desire to get the most motion from shot-to-shot.  And overall, the film insists on an intensity that's cranked up to eleven, not quite getting that if it's all one tone, it's not a symphony.  

Watching it now, I can see the challenges Branagh took on in trying to be true-ish to the novel, borrow from the Universal films, and make his own thing and make something that felt like it matched modern sensibilities.

Look, Frankenstein is not a short book, and for something written by a first-time author, it's an amazingly tight narrative, with the pieces all sort of hinging on themselves.  To solve the time-dialation, Branagh blasts through decades of the Victor Frankenstein's life in bullet-point fashion.  And, frankly, I think it's too much.  There was a simpler way to do this - either by dialog in scenes occurring later, flashback or something... but blasting us through just doesn't work.  

Annnnnnd...  the studio *never* should have let Branagh play a teen-age Victor.  He looks 33 the entire movie, and it's a distraction.  Casting other 33 year olds as 20 year olds when he reaches university is not a solution.

There's some tweaking and on-the-noseness about Victor's motivations that confuses the notion of Victor's essential hubris.  He's an introvert in the novel - a quiet, weird, studious kid, which the movie suggests but then shows him arguing not in class or in office hours in a safe university environment, but at the "welcome to college" meet-up.  It's.. kooky.  The Hammer Frankenstein may be way, way off in many ways, but gets at the idea that maybe Victor's moral compass and interest in actual humans isn't all it should be.  Elizabeth is an afterthought in many ways.  

Shirtless, buff, handsome Victor who makes out with Helena Bonham Carter and pledges himself to avenging his mother's death with medicine is... a take.  

Of course the film - in the last 4/5ths - departs from the novel in some key ways that seem more inspired by the films of the 1930's than the novel.  The Monster does demand a bride, but Frankenstein retreats to an island off Ireland to make it - before quitting and pissing off the monster (and they don't use Justine for parts).  The notion of making Elizabeth the Bride seems to stem from the 1935 film and the Bride looking to Henry Frankenstein rather than the monster.  But given the pivot in motivations - it basically works in the movie.  I guess.  And it gives the film a similar fireball ending to the 1935 film, burning the House of Frankenstein to the earth.

And, look, I don't like saying I think DeNiro was miscast, that the make-up is uninteresting, and that the sequences around the monster are dull.  But...  look, DeNiro is not a physically imposing figure, and having the monster sound like a wiseguy is a weird take.  Not everyone is going to be Doug Jones and make make-up work seamlessly with acting - but this could have been... better.  The whole time it feels like DeNiro is working through a plastic bag.  And, man, we've seen so many *better* creature concepts - and there IS a description in the book (Bernie Wrightson's Frankenstein is closest).  

But, yeah... DeNiro as the creature/ monster just grinds the movie to an odd halt - there's no real sense of sympathy for the creature, and I'm not sure why.  Maybe it's the duster.  Maybe it's that he slurs through the dialog.  It is not helped that he has to raise his hands in the air and yell "Frankensteeeeeeiiiin!"  

There's something off about the pacing or timing of Frankenstein's rejection of his creation that doesn't work.  That's a hard one to pinpoint, but for something that works so well in the novel as Victor is in a near delirious state by the time the creature comes to life and the realization of what he's done... and not to mention the 1931 film's slow realization, which is arguably just as hard - here, it's not entirely clear why Victor turns on his own creation.  He's not a mindless murderer, and he isn't an inhuman wretch - he looks like an accident victim.  

That reaction to the monster is key, and I'm not sure why this version feels so muddy to me.  Branagh's Frankenstein is initially elated, then... not?   But there's no real turning point for "why" he changes, even as they include the "woke to find the creature in my bedchamber" bit.  

The storms and screaming and grunting work in those first films because those films are so quiet.  When we hear thunder, it's not blasting us out of our seats, raised to the red zone in the mix to outperform a sweeping score.  We don't gaze upon the monster the first time to blasting horns - it's to wordless silence.  Here, the monster is one more finger pressing as hard as it can on a piano where it seems like a quarter of the keys are being slammed at all times.  Less can be more.   

Look, while neither of us liked the movie, exactly, my feelings on this film appear to be the polar opposite of success and failure of the late Roger Ebert.  YMMV.  A quick review of Rotten Tomatoes' retro scoring suggests the movie was not lauded upon it's release, and mostly the conversation about it seems to go like:

"Did you ever see the Branagh Frankenstein?"
"The one with DeNiro as the monster?"

Which is a shame.  A lot of money and a desire to make a good movie went into it, and I think a good adaptation of the book is entirely possible.  Maybe in this era of prestige TV, someone will just do a straight take.  Branagh can be and is a good director, but something got away from him here.  Maybe the fact that apparently he decided to abandon Emma Thompson for Helena Bonham Carter sometime during filming (the cad).  

Still, could have been (shudder) Mary Reilly.  


Groboclown said...

Everything I saw about this movie, from when it first came out to now seeing it available on Amazon Prime, tells me I won't like it. So I never saw it.

That said, I did rush out and buy the soundtrack. I still listen to it today. It's just amazing. Sad to hear that it was so out of place in the film, though.

The League said...

I think it fits the movie and is better than the film, but it's sort of cranked to 11 all the way through