Sunday, October 23, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'Terror of Frankenstein' (1977)

Originally titled Victor Frankenstein, this Swedish-Irish co-production was presumably retitled Terror of Frankenstein to entice American home-video audiences, but there is very little terror in director and co-writer Calvin Floyd's sedate adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel. Although Shelley's name is misspelled in the opening credits, Terror is touted by its small but devoted fanbase as one of the most faithful takes on her story, and it indeed follows the story beats faithfully, albeit condensed into a 90-minute running time. But while Floyd effectively captures the events of the narrative, his low-key style fails to bring out any of the passion in Shelley's story, or any unique perspective in his telling of it. Terror has about as much artistic vision as an edition of Cliffs Notes.

Shot in a flat, unremarkable style often in overly harsh lighting, Terror avoids being lurid but also avoids being particularly exciting. Leon Vitali, best known for his work with Stanley Kubrick both behind and in front of the camera, plays Victor Frankenstein with a perpetually stunned expression, while Swedish actor Per Oscarsson plays a version of the monster who isn't particularly monstrous. Floyd underplays nearly every element of the story, from the framing device set in the extreme conditions of the Arctic to the horrific acts committed by the monster to the monster's creation itself. Vitali's reaction to the success of his experiment is the exact opposite of screaming "It's alive!" He simply sits holding a bit of copper wire, which he abruptly disconnects once the monster stirs. That's all there is to indicate Victor's remorse at what he's created.

The subdued nature of the storytelling isn't all bad, and Floyd is able to convey a great deal of the narrative with minimal or no dialogue. Shelley's novel is narrated in the first person (in the form of letters and monologues) by various characters, and the movie loses their perspectives without any voiceover narration. But stretches of it become almost like a silent movie, and if Floyd had a more sophisticated visual style, he could have told the story in an interesting, expressionistic way. Instead he just strips it to its most rudimentary elements, and only rarely manages to generate memorable moments. The movie's low budget leads to lots of under-populated locations, but it works in the movie's favor during the sequence when the monster attacks Victor's bride Elizabeth on their wedding night. There's a genuine sense of dread as Victor wanders through his empty mansion, as his entire world has been reduced to the woman he loves and the creation that despises him.

Floyd brings the story to a close with a whimper, as both Victor's death and the monster's farewell make underwhelming impressions. Terror makes a solid case for Shelley's novel as the kind of serious literature that gets adapted into staid movie and TV productions, which bolsters its credibility but doesn't make for a particularly engaging movie.

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