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{Blu-ray Review} There’s Such Fun to be Had: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

“Do you really believe this thing will thank you for its monstrous birth?”

Clearly calculated to cash in on the success of Coppola’s take on Dracula two years before, Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein pours a whole lot of money and actors into a historical epic as cruel and insipid as it is grandiose. Unfortunately, the only place its grandiosity even approaches the histrionic heights of Coppola’s film is in Victor’s utterly ridiculous attic laboratory, crammed with mechanical wombs and giant, pulsating bags filled with electric eels.

Courtesy Arrow Video

Even with a punishing running time that clocks in over two hours, every scene in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein feels as rushed as it is tiresome. Chalk this up partly to its devotion to the source text – it’s been too long since I actually read Frankenstein to say where the film follows and where it deviates, but it’s widely considered the closest adaptation to the book – and partly to simply missing the notes it needs to hit almost every time.

You don’t have to take my word for it, either. Just ask Frank Darabont, who wrote the original screenplay, and called it,

“the best script I ever wrote and the worst movie I’ve ever seen.”

Frank Darabont

He credited the changes to Branagh, claiming (correctly) that the film is “big and loud and blunt and rephrased by the director at every possible turn.” When Frankenstein (played, of course, by Branagh himself) is being chided in his own mind by the professor from his medical school for creating an abomination, it could just as easily be Branagh’s own guilt chastising him for the hubris of this movie.

“Every line is shouted,” says a popular review from Patrick Willems on Letterboxd, “every shot the camera is spinning in circles around the actors.” This is accurate, true, but the film is never as dynamic or as humorously over-the-top as that makes it sound. If it was, it might be closer to the glorious, operatic mess on whose coattails it is riding.

Instead, we get a grisly, cartoonish monstrosity that never allows anyone to have any fun. De Niro’s monster is suitably tormented and pitiful, while an early-career Helena Bonham Carter breathes vivid life into the doomed role of Frankenstein’s fiancé. Even Branagh as Frankenstein is fine, notwithstanding that his primary character note is “shirtless.” No one is necessarily doing a bad job here, but the film cobbles them all together into something strangely lifeless, lacking any of the dynamism necessary to animate this shambling corpse.

The production goes out of its way to showcase the misery, not only of the moment in which the film takes place, but that Frankenstein’s creation inflicts upon him and those close to him. Nothing ever merely happens in Branagh’s film. It is all moment, all pomp and circumstance, and always chased offstage by the next dramatic event before the sensation has really had time to register.

The result is a movie that is as bombastic as it somehow is dull; which is no mean feat, if not an altogether admirable one. It’s the kind of picture where Helena Bonham Carter in a wedding dress carries a dead infant through the rain at the head of a torch-bearing mob, and where Frankenstein’s monster shouts, “I will have my revenge… Frankenstein!” in front of a burning building. But it’s also the kind of movie that robs these moments of any camp joy or gothic atmosphere they might otherwise possess.

Courtesy Arrow Video

None of which is to suggest that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is without its consolations. Branagh knows how to point the camera at things, and the film often looks suitably big and overbearing, the architecture occasionally reaching toward but never quite embracing the expressionist shadows of those early horror films. Its budget is all up there on the screen, even if the new 4K scan from Arrow Video is still so intentionally dim (a filmmaking choice, not a fault of the restoration) as to wash most of it out.

If nothing else, Branagh’s Frankenstein is a good movie to show people if you want a version of the story that hews pretty close to the letter of the novel, while also skewing more historical drama than horror picture. Think of it in the same vein as innumerable other movies that have attempted to eschew the baggage that their source material has accrued through innumerable cinematic adaptations by going “historical” – see also the Kevin Costner Robin Hood from just a few years before.

Unfortunately, the baggage is often more fun than the history, and that’s certainly the case here. Being the most authoritative take on the source material isn’t worth much when you make the source material feel this overwrought and turgid. While Branagh’s Frankenstein may be trying to move out from under the shadow of James Whale’s classic, it never can, and all it does instead is remind us why that film is such a landmark in the first place. And that maybe Frankenstein isn’t the story to give to the dude who made a four-hour version of Hamlet.

Or, to quote Darabont again, “If you love that movie you can throw all your roses at Ken Branagh’s feet. If you hated it, throw your spears there too, because it was his movie.”