Saturday, October 24, 2015

A Horror Film to Skip: ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’

Kenneth Branagh as Dr. Frankenstein (left) and Robert De Niro as the Monster
in ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’

Last October, to help everyone get in the mood for the holiday, I wrote a Halloween-themed post about my favorite horror film, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961).  This year, I thought that I would write another about — all things considered — my least favorite horror film.  Although I’m sure that I could find other would-be chillers that are more wanting in subject matter and/or craftsmanship, the film that I would like to write about is, given the talent and resources lavished on it, perhaps the biggest missed opportunity in the history of cinema.  The name of this monstrosity more horrifying in execution than intention?  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), directed by Kenneth Branagh
Director-star Kenneth Branagh as Dr. Victor Frankenstein
Adapting Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic as a follow-up to Francis Ford Coppola’s very successful Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992 — which one critic dubbed the most expensive high-school play in history), Branagh’s Frankenstein boasts a large budget and a very talented cast, not the least of whom is Robert De Niro in the role of the Monster.  Since many adaptations of the Shelley novel show no fidelity to its period or setting (at least two productions transplanted the story to Britain), I was very pleased to see Branagh’s film fixed firmly in the late 18th century (the period of the Enlightenment) and Dr. Frankenstein’s status as an outsider by making him a Swiss national (Shelley’s novel was famously written in Switzerland) studying in nationalistic Ingolstadt, Germany.  For buffs of German literature, Friedrich Schiller even makes a cameo appearance (although the real Schiller was probably nowhere near Ingolstadt at the time). 

With sumptuous costumes evoking the late 18th century and a very accomplished cast, Branagh’s film had a lot going for it.  Unfortunately, he chooses to emphasize the melodramatic aspects of the novel with breakneck pacing, shovel-on-the-head dialogue, and a constantly swirling soundtrack that hardly ever lets up.  In fact, Branagh’s Frankenstein is almost wall-to-wall music, as though the filmmaker feared that any let-up in the orchestral score would put the audience to sleep.  (The first time I first saw this Frankenstein at the Writers’ Guild Theater in Beverly Hills, when the composer’s name, the otherwise distinguished Patrick Doyle, appeared on the screen, the audience broke out into jeers — the only time I’ve ever known that to happen to a composer.) 
Robert De Niro as the Monster
Actor-director Branagh himself plays Dr. Victor Frankenstein, which may have had something to do with his not being able to view the project from a more comprehensive distance.  De Niro’s Monster looks more like a badly scarred human rather than anything especially frightening, so we’re less understanding of the townspeople’s horrific reactions to him.  It would have been appreciated had there been some other element to his appearance (such as his flat head in the Boris Karloff movies for Universal Pictures) to make the Monster more … well … monstrous. 

Branagh’s Frankenstein rushes from one plot point to the next in an apparent effort to cram all of its material into the movie without running overtime.  There’s little sense of the film pausing long enough to allow the viewer (or even the characters) to absorb the proceedings.  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of those rare films that might have actually been better had it been longer (and less melodramatic) and given more time for its narrative to unfold. 
Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth, Dr. Frankenstein’s betrothed
(apparently, someone got tired of the film’s bombastic dialogue)
And to top it all off, the script — by Steph Lady and The Shawshank Redemption’s Frank Darabont — wallops the viewer with spell-it-out-for-you dialogue that leaves no doubt about the characters’ actions and incitements.  Here, Victor Frankenstein is given a mother who dies in childbirth to spur his experiments to prolong life indefinitely.  One scene has Victor laying flowers on his mother’s grave, saying, “Oh, Mother, you should never have died.  No one need ever die.  I will stop this. I will stop this.  I promise” — lest we have any doubt what his driving force is.  The scene might as well have had a sign light up in the background saying “CHARACTER’S MOTIVATION.”     

To watch Branagh’s Frankenstein is also to wonder how such a richly pedigreed film got so much wrong.  Rather than playing up the melodrama, I wish that the movie had gone in the other direction and observed its goings-on with a Kubrickian sense of detail and understatement.  The scene of Victor at his mother’s grave needed no dialogue, and I think that the scene could have been more rewarding by allowing the viewers to put Victor’s (rather obvious) motivation together for themselves. 
John Cleese as Dr. Robert Waldman
The only real reason to watch Branagh’s Frankenstein — other than to luxuriate in the production values and wish they were expended on a better movie — is to witness Monty Python alum John Cleese in a rare dramatic turn, in this case in the role of Dr. Robert Waldman, the titular scientist’s mentor.  But even here, as good as it is to catch Cleese in anything, I would still like to have seen an important supporting part like Dr. Waldman go to Christopher Lee as a tribute to his role as the Monster in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), one of the first of Hammer Films’s horror series from the 1950s through ’70s. 

At the start, I called Branagh’s Frankenstein my least favorite horror film.  Where other misfires of the genre can sometimes make me laugh at their inept attempts to frighten the viewer or at least make me appreciate the movie as an artifact of its time, Branagh’s film only makes me sad.  As I watch such lavishly costumed characters spouting hyperbolic dialogue written by scribes who have proven their worth on other projects, I’m filled with a sense of sorrow for what might have been.  

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