Here’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, on the Kenneth Branagh/Robert De Niro flick, MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (1994), published in the September 2014 edition of The Horror Writers Association Newsletter.
And remember, if you like this column, my book IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, a collection of 115 horror movie columns, is available from NECON EBooks as an EBook at www.neconebooks.com, and as a print edition at https://www.createspace.com/4293038. You can also buy print copies directly from me right here through this blog. Just leave an inquiry in the comment section. Thanks!
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT
Few horror films have disappointed me more than MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (1994).
I remember being so excited when I first heard about it. It was to star two of my favorite actors, Kenneth Branagh as Victor Frankenstein, and Robert De Niro as the Monster. And it was being produced by Francis Ford Coppola. What could possibly go wrong?
Evidently quite a lot.
MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN attempts to be a faithful film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. For the most part, it is, in that it covers the events in the novel, but where the film falters is in its execution. The scenes of horror in this movie just don’t have the relevance or the potency they should.
As much as I like Kenneth Branagh as a director, and as much as I find his Shakespeare films absolutely brilliant, he dropped the ball here with FRANKENSTEIN. The first problem I have with Branagh’s direction in this movie is his use of the camera. I think Branagh drank an entire pot of coffee before filming the scenes in this one. There is an incredible amount of camera movement, so much so, it’s exhausting to watch. And like bad acting, it’s also very noticeable.
Take the creation scene for example. A shirtless Victor Frankenstein runs through his enormous lab, switching on this and that, and the camera races along with him every step of the way. It’s such an overblown overdramatic sequence, and it’s all so unnecessary. How about just flicking a switch?
The opening half hour of the movie is poorly paced, and it’s very choppy rather than smooth and elegant. The scenes of Victor with his family are incredibly dull and boring, and later when he goes off to medical school and becomes interested in creating life, there’s very little drama or intrigue about it. That’s the problem with the entire first half of the movie: there’s no sense of dread, mystery, or horror. It plays like a straight period piece drama, with little or no horror elements to be found.
Things get a little better once the Monster appears, but even this part of the film doesn’t really work. The film never becomes scary, and as a result, all the overdramatic scenes fall flat because characters are reacting to things which should be awful, but in the film aren’t properly portrayed as such.
For instance, housekeeper Justine Moritz is wrongly blamed for the murder of Victor’s younger brother when the Monster plants false evidence on her, and she is ultimately executed for a crime she did not commit. This is a horrible tragic point in the story, but in this movie, it all takes place in a matter of minutes. Justine is accused, and the next thing we know she’s being dragged to her death by an angry mob. We see Victor and Elizabeth reacting to the horror, but the scene is so rushed and overemotional it lacks effect.
The screenplay by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont (of WALKING DEAD fame) is okay. It does tell the Frankenstein story, and it does give the Monster some decent lines, especially when he wonders about his existence, but it never delves as deeply into the tale as it could have done.
We get a fleeting sense of why Victor wants to create life— he’s heartbroken over the death of his mother— but we never see him brood about this or exhibit passion about destroying death once and for all. The Monster questions his existence, but his inquiries are brief and superficial.
The acting is decent. Kenneth Branagh really isn’t bad as Victor Frankenstein, and each time I see this film, I enjoy his performance, but he’s stuck in a movie that doesn’t utilize him to his full potential. I want to see Branagh’s Victor passionate about creating life, and then horrified to have to deal with his monstrous creation. This doesn’t really happen in this movie.
Robert De Niro remains an odd choice to play the Monster. It’s like casting James Cagney instead of Karloff as the Monster in the 1931 film. De Niro is okay, but he’s just too De Niro-ish. I watch this movie and I see Robert De Niro, not the Monster. I also don’t like the look of the Monster in this movie. The make-up job here did not impress me very much.
Helena Bonham Carter is fine as Elizabeth, and that’s one part of this movie that does work: the love story between Victor and Elizabeth. Tom Hulce as Henry Clerval, Ian Holm as Victor’s father, and John Cleese as Professor Waldman are all pretty much wasted in under written roles and they offer little if anything to this movie. Then there’s Aidan Quinn, as Captain Robert Walton, stuck in a wraparound story which goes nowhere.
If you want to see a more faithful adaptation of the Frankenstein tale, check out the 2004 version of FRANKENSTEIN starring Alec Newman as Victor Frankenstein and Luke Goss as the Creature. This TV miniseries is actually quite well-done
And while it’s not really a faithful retelling of Mary Shelley’s tale, the 1970s TV movie FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY (1973) starring Leonard Whiting as Victor Frankenstein and Michael Sarrazin as the Creature does a better job than Branagh’s film of framing a horror story within a classy production. Branagh scores high on the classy but stumbles with the horror.
MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN also has an ineffective music score by Patrick Doyle. It’s overdramatic and used in all the wrong places.
MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN has handsome production values and A-list actors, but it fails to generate suspense, fails to tell its remarkable story, and most importantly, fails to capture the horror of what it must have been like for all of these characters, the Monster included, to live through this tale of a man who created a being and then abandoned him, and how this creation used his phenomenal strength to seek bloodthirsty vengeance against his creator and his family. This brutal and fascinating story is pretty much glossed over superficially and melodramatically, which is sad because MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN should have been the remake Frankenstein fans had been waiting for.
Instead, it only made us appreciate the Universal and Hammer versions all the more.