Monday, October 31, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'Victor Frankenstein' (2015)

Although a sniveling, hunchbacked assistant named Igor never appears in Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein or in James Whale's iconic 1931 film, he's somehow become an integral part of Frankenstein mythology. It comes from a combination of Dwight Frye's performance as the hunchbacked assistant (named Fritz) in Whale's Frankenstein, Bela Lugosi's sinister Ygor in the later Universal movies and Marty Feldman's character in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, which has probably done more to cement the pop-culture image of Frankenstein than all but the most popular of the serious adaptations. Whatever the reason, Victor Frankenstein's assistant Igor is one of the main characters people associate with the Frankenstein mythology, and his perspective is one of the few that hasn't already been exhaustively explored.

Despite its title, Victor Frankenstein is actually mainly about Igor, although screenwriter Max Landis and director Paul McGuigan fail to find any reason why his perspective is unique or worth depicting. In the tedious manner of modern blockbusters, they concoct an origin story for a familiar character, giving Igor a history as a circus freak, a hunchbacked clown who is treated like a slave by everyone else in the traveling circus except for beatific acrobat Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay). But since Igor is played by movie star Daniel Radcliffe, he can't remain a deformed freak, so when he's rescued by Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy), he soon discovers that his hunchback is the result of an easily curable condition, and his freakish appearance can be changed via a convenient shower and haircut. Although Landis and McGuigan make a lot of noise over Igor's circus overlords wanting to hunt him down, the circus angle becomes entirely irrelevant after the opening sequence.

Instead, the main villain is a dour investigator (Andrew Scott) who becomes fixated on stopping Frankenstein's experiments because he believes they are an affront to God. The filmmakers turn Victor into a sputtering, raving antihero with daddy issues, and McAvoy plays him with over-the-top gusto, like he's constantly on speed. That contrasts with Radcliffe's somewhat glum straight-man performance, as Igor is forced to be the constant voice of reason to counter Victor's latest half-mad ideas. It takes until nearly the end of the movie for Victor to actually animate his most famous creation, and the monster appears only very briefly before being dispatched.

The drawn-out setup to the familiar story ends up making it feel anticlimactic, and it closes with the possibility of a sequel that will never come (since the movie was a massive box-office bomb). Landis, who's known for being a sort of geek-culture gadfly (I saw him on a panel at MorrisonCon, and he was the single most grating presence at any comic-con panel I've ever been to), throws in a bunch of references to other versions of the Frankenstein story (including Victor correcting the pronunciation of his name, in a nod to Young Frankenstein), but he doesn't seem to have anything to contribute to the evolution of the story. The little jokes aren't consistent enough to make the movie into a campy romp, but it's far too ridiculous to take seriously. Like the early animal hybrid that Victor creates in his lab, it's a lumbering, stitched-together failure.

Frankenstein Month: 'Frankenstein' (2015)

Writer-director Bernard Rose (Candyman, Immortal Beloved) uses verbatim passages from Mary Shelley's novel as voiceover narration in his low-budget version of Frankenstein, but this is not what you'd call a faithful adaptation. Set in the present day (possibly because period details were out of the movie's budget range), Rose's film focuses almost solely on the monster, with some reimagined characters and scenarios from the novel. It opens with the monster's birth, as the product of some sort of experiment in genetic engineering (it's never quite clear), which takes place in what appears to be an abandoned warehouse or office building. Rose managed to get Danny Huston as Victor Frankenstein and Carrie-Anne Moss as Elizabeth Frankenstein (in this version, they're married and are both scientists), but they're in less than half of the movie.

Instead the real star is Xavier Samuel as the monster, who escapes from the facility (actually some sort of bunker underneath the Frankensteins' Southern California mansion) after his creators decide to put him out of his misery (he starts out looking like a boy band member before developing gruesome deformities). With his inhuman strength and invulnerability, the monster apparently can't be killed (over the course of the movie, he's given lethal injection, choked, shot point blank multiple times and had his throat slit), so he wanders off to discover humanity, only to be rejected and mistreated, much like Shelley's monster. But he's also more violent and less intelligent; although he continues to speak eloquently in voiceover, his dialogue is limited to grunts and a handful of poorly articulated words, and Rose and Samuel present him as essentially a child, not the erudite thinker of the novel.

As such, he ends up being incredibly annoying, and it doesn't help that Samuel's performance is poor, failing to convey the anguish and isolation that should engender audience sympathy. The plot is aimless, as the monster stumbles across various people who want to help or harm him (mostly harm, even if they start out helping). Rose reconfigures the blind peasant of the novel as a blind, homeless African-American blues musician (played by Candyman's Tony Todd), and the character is such a silly stereotype that I kept thinking of David Alan Grier's Calhoun Tubbs from In Living Color. The cops who have a curiously strong vendetta against the monster are equally cartoonish (and played by some very bad actors), and the final confrontation with the Frankensteins just emphasizes how much the rest of the movie suffers from Huston and Moss' absence.

Rose never explains much about the scientists, what they're attempting to accomplish with their experiment, why they work in their own private bunker, what their relationship is like, whether they're concerned that their dangerous creation escaped into the night. The entire movie is told from the monster's perspective, but his perspective is limited and limiting compared to how Shelley imagined it, and the people he encounters are crude, one-dimensional ciphers. Each awkward interaction highlights the bargain-level filmmaking; the fight scenes are especially clumsy and unconvincingly staged. The movie runs less than 90 minutes, truncating large portions of the story and closing on what's meant to be a tragic sacrifice, but only comes across as one more inauthentic stumble in a movie full of them.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'I, Frankenstein' (2014)

Within less than three minutes, I, Frankenstein dispenses with the entire original Frankenstein story, leaving Victor Frankenstein dead of exposure and his monster (Aaron Eckhart) still alive, thanks to his apparently indestructible constitution. The monster returns to bury Frankenstein on his family's estate, and that's where the story really begins: Despite its title, this isn't really a movie about Frankenstein and the creation of his monster, but about an ancient war between demons and gargoyles, in which the monster (who takes the name Adam) ends up caught in the middle. See, the gargoyles (who pose as the stone figures on the sides of buildings, but are also immortal human-looking creatures descended from angels) protect the world from the demons, who are disguised as humans. Because Adam was brought to life by science, he is a person without a soul, and thus somehow vitally important to both sides. So the demons attack him, the gargoyles rescue him and arm him with mystical weapons, and then he rejects both of them to live alone in the wilderness.

It somehow takes 200-plus years for them to track him down again, at which point it is now the present day and Adam has a stylish short haircut and a hoodie to wear under his trenchcoat. He heads to the city where all the main gargoyles and demons conveniently live, where he faces off against the demon prince Naberius (Bill Nighy, the only person in this movie having a good time), who is trying to use the journals of Victor Frankenstein to resurrect thousands of corpses that can be inhabited by the spirits of slain demons to become an army and take over the world. Believe me, none of it is any more coherent than my explanation of it. Not surprisingly, this mashup mythology comes from actor/writer Kevin Grevioux, co-creator of the Underworld series, to which this movie bears a strong and unfortunate resemblance. The hulking, deep-voiced Grevioux plays a supporting role as one of Naberius' demon henchmen, which is a far more enjoyable contribution to the movie than his story.

Theoretically, Grevioux's basic idea (based on a "graphic novel" that as far as I can tell was never published) has been polished by professional screenwriter Stuart Beattie, who has the sole credit for the screenplay and also directed. Beattie's written at least one great movie (Collateral) and also contributed to the Pirates of the Caribbean, G.I. Joe and Punisher franchises, but he can't make sense of this ridiculous mess, and his chaotic direction doesn't help, either. The entire movie takes place in dank, dark spaces, making it look like it was coated in a layer of grime. Beattie's approach to shooting action sequences involves lots of slow motion, and Eckhart doesn't exactly make for an imposing action hero.

The idea of making Frankenstein's monster into an action hero at all is pretty ridiculous, and nothing in the movie makes a convincing case for it. With some artfully placed scars over his buff body, Adam doesn't look particularly monstrous, nor is his angst particularly deep or affecting. Eckhart is severely miscast, and aside from Nighy (who manages to nearly pull off some atrocious lines), no one else in the movie seems to have any clue what they're doing. Yvonne Strahovski plays a sympathetic scientist who helps Adam, and Miranda Otto plays the queen of the gargoyles (!!), but their talents are no match for the incoherent script and the sometimes hilariously florid dialogue. They aren't helped by the special effects, which are ugly and plastic-looking (especially the gargoyle forms of the gargoyle characters, which should at least sort of resemble the actors who play them).

Perhaps the saddest thing about this movie is that it was clearly meant to be the start of a franchise, with Adam giving a closing voiceover about how he will be out there from now on, ready to take on new threats to humanity. Grevioux even planned to have it cross over with the successful Underworld movies (he initially planned for Underworld references throughout the movie, and a post-credits cameo from Kate Beckinsale as her Underworld character), which really aren't much better. They are, however, box office hits, and thanks to the meager returns for this movie, Adam will probably never meet up with the vampires and the lycans. All things considered, that's probably best for everyone.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'The Frankenstein Theory' (2013)

[Fictional horror story] is actually real is a pretty common device for horror movies looking to rejuvenate tired formulas or characters, but that doesn't mean it can't be effective. Low-budget mockumentary The Frankenstein Theory takes that approach to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein novel, positing that the author based it on real letters from an actual Arctic explorer that somehow came into her possession (this doesn't fit at all with how the novel was written, but it's a necessary suspension of disbelief for the movie's basic setup). The main character here is Jonathan Venkenheim (Kris Lemche), descendant of the "real" scientist upon whom Shelley based her Victor Frankenstein character. An academic who's become obsessed with his ancestor's work, Jonathan is determined to track down the real creature, supposedly still living in the frozen north (in Canada, not the Arctic, since presumably that was easier and cheaper to shoot).

Jonathan recruits a documentary crew for this expedition, and the movie mostly follows the found-footage formula, albeit with a more polished style since it's apparently meant to have been edited and and shaped after the fact (although this is a problematic assumption given how the movie ends). So there is some non-diegetic music, time-lapse scene transitions, overlapping dialogue between scenes, etc. But there are also plenty of found-footage cliches, including characters filming everything even while in danger, clumsy exposition delivered directly to the camera, terrors depicted in night vision, and most of all the interminable tedium of people bumbling around filming their mundane tasks when all the audience wants to see is some people getting killed.

Theory is almost entirely a waiting game, and the characters just aren't interesting enough to justify spending that much time watching them bicker and theorize. The only semi-interesting relationship is between Jonathan and his girlfriend, who appears in a couple of scenes early in the movie and then breaks up with him over the phone, after refusing to come on the expedition. The three documentary crew members are basically interchangeable schlubby white dudes, and the documentary director's only interesting trait is that she's a woman in a crew of all men (which is never really explored). The briefly referenced past friendship between director Vicky (Heather Stephens) and Jonathan is also never really explored, and in the end she's used for a cheap gag to close the movie.

The monster doesn't make even a brief appearance until an hour into the 86-minute movie, and he's never onscreen for more than a few seconds. Almost all of the violence takes place offscreen, but instead of coming off as creepy and unsettling, it just feels like a cheat. Director and co-writer Andrew Weiner never really engages with Shelley's story, despite using it as the entire foundation of his movie. Jonathan does present a theory of sorts about what's happened to Frankenstein's monster, but it ends up as meaningless and superficial as the trappings of any other mediocre found-footage movie. The unseen monster stalking the characters could have been Bigfoot or a yeti or a werewolf or something else entirely, and it wouldn't have made much difference.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'Mary Shelley's Frankenstein' (1994)

Despite putting the author's name in the title, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein still takes plenty of liberties with the original novel, and even when it's faithful to the letter of the story, it gets the tone all wrong, going for grotesque and overwrought when it should be restrained or romantic. Part of what could have been a series of "classier" and more faithful adaptations of literary horror classics (after 1992's Bram Stoker's Dracula, directed by Francis Ford Coppola), Mary Shelley's Frankenstein instead ended up as a box-office failure, and Coppola (who is a producer here) moved on to other things. The idea of making a faithful adaptation of Shelley's story is still viable, especially since people's perceptions of Frankenstein remain tied up in various pop-culture representations far more than in the book. But even the filmmakers who have Shelley's name zooming toward the viewer at the beginning of their movie can't resist a cry of "It's alive!" or the creation of a bride of Frankenstein.

Much of the screenplay by Frank Darabont and Steph Lady does stick to Shelley's novel, at least at first, and the movie includes the Arctic framing sequence (which is usually the first thing to go) and plenty of time with the extended Frankenstein family. But director Kenneth Branagh (who also plays Victor Frankenstein) turns that family dynamic into something lurid, frequently emphasizing the pseudo-incestuous nature of the relationship between Victor and his foster sister (and eventual fiancee) Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter). Branagh overdoes just about everything in the movie, both as a director and as an actor, and while his version of Frankenstein is a bit more soulful and sympathetic than many onscreen portrayals, he still becomes unhinged and aggressive when he's focused on bringing his creation to life, and he doesn't have much consideration for the feelings of people around him.

The creation sequence is a great example of this movie's absurdity, as Branagh does his best to differentiate it from other movie versions, but only makes it more ridiculous in the process. Instead of getting his electric jolt from lightning, this movie's Frankenstein uses ... electric eels! He collects amniotic fluid to immerse his creature in, and then ends up covered in it himself when the creature breaks out of its containment module. There's a certain campy charm to the over-the-top set design of this movie, both in Frankenstein's laboratory and in the improbably cavernous interior of the Frankenstein family estate, which has a giant staircase with no railing that appears to lead to nowhere.

Mostly, though, the histrionic tone is exhausting, and it fails to honor the source material, which seems to have been the main goal of this version. Branagh at this point was known mainly for his acclaimed Shakespeare adaptations, but he takes this as an opportunity to cut loose, and in a way it's a precursor to his more recent work on big Hollywood productions like Thor, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and Cinderella. Those movies are more measured and restrained, though, and Frankenstein kind of gets away from Branagh, especially in the third act, which diverges significantly from the source material to add in a second, even more hyperactive creation sequence and to allow Carter to turn Elizabeth into a horrific bride of Frankenstein monster.

Somehow I've gotten this far without even mentioning Robert De Niro's performance as the monster, and that's partially because he underplays his part while everyone around him is chewing scenery. But it's also partially because his performance is mostly forgettable, even as it sticks more closely to Shelley's vision of the monster and allows him to speak and emote. This isn't De Niro just sleepwalking through the role as he's done so often in his later career, but he doesn't make much of an impression, and his working-class demeanor is not really a good fit for the philosophical version of the monster. Like so much about this movie, his casting is well-intentioned but ultimately misguided, one of many efforts to honor Shelley's original story that only ends up missing the point.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'Frankenstein Unbound' (1990)

Although it has Roger Corman as director, producer and co-writer (and even gives him a possessory credit), Frankenstein Unbound boasts a higher-caliber cast and higher production values than one might expect from a Corman production. Unbound marks both Corman's return to directing after a nearly 20-year hiatus and the last film to date that he's directed (he's now 90 years old but still producing regularly, so one more turn as a director isn't entirely out of the question), and he was lured back mainly by the amount of money he was offered. Certainly a lot of the budget went into paying Corman, but it also went toward the solid cast and lovely locations. The movie only starts looking like a typical Corman B-movie during the baffling finale, with its bargain-basement set design full of light-up doodads that look like they were purchased from Spencer Gifts.

Before that, though, the movie starts in a future (the year 2031) that looks futuristic enough, with John Hurt as Joseph Buchanan, a scientist who, much like Victor Frankenstein, has ignored the unintended consequences of his latest invention. He's created an ultra-powerful weapon, but its side effects include rips in the time-space continuum (oops), and soon Buchanan gets zapped from the New Los Angeles of the future to Geneva, Switzerland, in 1817. There he meets both Victor Frankenstein (Raul Julia) and Mary Shelley (Bridget Fonda), who coexist in this movie's version of the past. Seemingly not all that concerned with the way he's potentially destroyed time and space, Buchanan sets about meddling in the Frankenstein story.

Based loosely on a novel by Brian Aldiss, Unbound actually sticks fairly closely to the details of Shelley's novel when they intersect with its plot. The monster (Nick Brimble) is articulate and thoughtful, as opposed to the simple-minded brute of most film adaptations. Buchanan's mission even hinges on his desire to protect Justine Moritz, accused of murdering Victor Frankenstein's brother William, a murder that was actually committed by Frankenstein's monster. This is a fairly obscure detail from Shelley's novel to make into a central plot point, but it does give Buchanan a strong motivation for both stopping Frankenstein from creating another monster (the mate that the first monster has demanded) and for seeking out the help of Mary Shelley. Disappointingly, Mary ends up serving virtually no purpose in the story, other than to have sex with Buchanan in a rather icky turn that is apparently taken directly from Aldiss' novel. She disappears from the plot almost immediately after that, leaving Jason Patric and INXS' Michael Hutchence with minimal screen time as Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, respectively.

Buchanan is able to impress Mary because he has a talking car that came with him from the future, and his eventual plan to both destroy Frankenstein and return to his own time has more than a few echoes of Back to the Future. But its ultimate result leads to the very confusing final act, which takes place in some sort of post-apocalyptic landscape and pretty much ignores the idea of Buchanan ever returning home. The set design also starts looking cheaper and cheaper, and the more the movie focuses on the goofy-looking monster (who resembles a lesser Star Trek alien), the harder it is to take seriously. Julia gives Frankenstein the proper mix of arrogance and scientific obsession, but once he's gone, the movie loses its way. It turns into just another silly Corman production.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'Frankenhooker' (1990)

Not surprisingly, Frankenhooker, from cult exploitation filmmaker Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case, Brain Damage), does not stick very closely to Mary Shelley's original Frankenstein story. Its main character is a mad scientist of sorts, and he does create a monster out of recycled body parts. But the movie isn't remotely serious or scary, instead focused on grossing out its audience and maximizing the exposure of female flesh. It's an exploitation movie, obviously, designed for video-store shelves and late-night airings on premium cable (I watched it on Showtime), and in that sense it succeeds. Henenlotter even manages to add some genuine humor to the twisted story, putting the movie at a slightly higher level than plenty of its forgotten Z-movie peers (there's a reason it's still on Showtime in 2016).

James Lorinz is amusing as Jeffrey Franken, a failed medical student working as an electrical engineer and living in his mother's suburban New Jersey home, a sort of modern-day version of Victor Frankenstein on his family's European estate. When Jeffrey's fiancee Elizabeth Shelley (Patty Mullen) is killed in a freak lawnmower accident, he becomes determined to resurrect her, but since most of her was mutilated beyond recognition, he decides to gather spare parts from hookers. His plan doesn't make a whole lot of sense, since he seems to both want to murder the hookers (with a batch of "super crack" that basically causes them to explode) and not harm them at all. He's a clearly unhinged maniac (he drills into his own skull for fun) and a love-sick sad sack who gets very distraught when a whole group of hookers grab his super crack and all end up dead.

The movie's plot is nonsensical, but there are funny bits in the margins, especially the deadpan news report about Elizabeth's demise, and the understated reactions to Jeffrey's experiments. The hookers are frequently in various states of undress, but the grotesque nature of Jeffrey's experiments negates a lot of the potential sexiness. Any teenage boy renting this movie for salacious purposes would end up with some seriously mixed-up feelings (or develop some new fetishes). With a small budget, Henenlotter creates some disturbing creatures for the climax, when the dismembered hooker parts come together to form horrifying monsters.

Obviously the portrayal of hookers is silly and unrealistic, but Henenlotter does capture the unique scuzziness of Times Square in the late 1980s, a New York City landmark filled equally with tourists and lowlifes. Jeffrey is a bit of both, a sort of pervert with a heart of gold, using his deranged methods for the sweet goal of bringing back his beloved. In the end, those methods turn against him, and his horrific outside finally resembles his twisted inside.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'Rowing With the Wind' (1988)

The idea of combining the story of Frankenstein with the story of Mary Shelley's composition of it goes all the way back to the opening sequence of James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein, and for some reason the circumstances surrounding Shelley's writing of the novel proved to be very popular with filmmakers for a two-year stretch in the 1980s. Rowing With the Wind is one of three movies released between 1986 and 1988 that deals with the summer in 1816 that Shelley (then Mary Godwin), her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, her stepsister Claire Clairmont, poet Lord Byron and Byron's physician John William Polidori spent together in Geneva, Switzerland, when Byron challenged the group to each come up with an original horror story, and Mary began writing Frankenstein. I've seen one other, Ken Russell's Gothic, which turns the vacation into a drug-fueled, surrealist nightmare, and contains almost no references to Frankenstein. Another, Haunted Summer, proved a bit too difficult to track down.

Rowing With the Wind goes further than just depicting the group's literary and romantic entanglements, though; writer-director Gonzalo Suarez imagines Frankenstein's monster as a literary creation come to life, a force that haunts Mary for years after she first dreams him up. The movie opens with a version of the novel's opening, although Mary (Lizzy McInnerny) is now the one exploring the arctic on a ship. It's not quite clear what this setup (which returns at the end) is meant to represent, but it immediately establishes the connection between Mary's life and the character she created. The first half of the movie focuses on the summer in Geneva, establishing the tumultuous relationships among Mary, Shelley (Valentine Pelka), Claire (Elizabeth Hurley) and Byron (Hugh Grant), with Polidori (Jose Luis Gomez) as a kind of hanger-on.

Suarez's script keeps things fairly light at first, as the four main characters frolic around Lake Geneva, swoon over their literary pretensions and have plenty of sex. McInnerny makes for a dour, unpleasant Mary, and Pelka overdoes it a bit as Shelley, but Grant and Hurley bring some much-needed charm to Byron (who comes off like a typical Grant cad) and Claire. (This movie is actually where Grant and Hurley first met and began their romantic relationship.) The movie takes a turn once Mary conceives of Frankenstein, and the monster (played by Jose Carlos Rivas) starts skulking in the background. Suarez makes a mostly unconvincing connection between the creation of the monster and the deaths of various people in Mary's life, starting with Polidori's suicide by hanging at the villa in Geneva.

Never mind that Polidori actually died five years later, in what was only suspected to be a suicide. Suarez turns Mary's life into a literal horror show, tweaking the tragedies that surrounded her so that they follow a pattern of doom caused by the monster. Halfway through, the movie shifts to several years later, following the main characters as they face even more sorrow. Mary blames the monster for the suicides of her half-sister Fanny and Shelley's first wife (both of which occur offscreen), and the movie explicitly shows the monster causing the death by drowning of Mary and Shelley's young son William (who actually died of malaria). The monster speaks in a weird robotic monotone and has scars on his face, but otherwise looks like a fellow upper-crust intellectual.

Making him the agent of everything bad in Mary's life turns her into a sort of passive whiner, in a way undermining the feminist values she fought for and dismissing her artistic talents. It's also not a particularly illuminating way to tell the story of the lives of these important literary figures, and Suarez's script is alternately florid and bland. The ending rushes through Shelley's death and then returns to the arctic for one more cryptic pronouncement from the monster, which sheds no light on his presence in (and retreat from) Mary's life. Tying the true story and the novel together is an idea with a lot of potential, but this movie never quite understands how to accomplish it.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'The Bride' (1985)

The Bride begins where other Frankenstein movies end, with a confrontation between Frankenstein and his creation leading to the destruction of Frankenstein's lab and the apparent death of the creature. In this case it mirrors the end of James Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein, as Baron Frankenstein (Sting) has agreed to create a female creature as a companion for his original creation (Clancy Brown), and once the potential bride (Jennifer Beals) has been animated, she recoils from the creature and sends him into a rage. What happens next is what director Franc Roddam (Quadrophenia) and screenwriter Lloyd Fonvielle are most interested in, as the creature goes into exile and Frankenstein decides to keep the bride as a companion for himself.

Its Whale-referencing opening aside, The Bride isn't much of a horror movie; it's more of a costume drama and a romantic tragedy, as the bride (given the name Eva by Frankenstein) and the creature (given the name Viktor, since Frankenstein here is named Charles) lead separate frustrating existences trying to find their places in the world. For the majority of the movie, Frankenstein's two creations are apart, and their storylines are far from equal. The movie spends the bulk of its first hour on Viktor's adventures with his new friend Rinaldo (David Rappaport), a dwarf circus performer who takes Viktor under his wing. They have an easy chemistry, but Rinaldo's circus career takes over so much of the narrative that the movie threatens to become the story of a circus dwarf, with a bit of Frankenstein on the side.

Meanwhile, Eva becomes cultured and charming, in contrast to Viktor's limited intelligence, and while Frankenstein first asserts (to his obnoxious friend Clerval) that he wants to make Eva into the world's first independent woman, he quickly becomes possessive and controlling, especially when she falls for a pretty-boy military officer played by Cary Elwes. Sting (during his brief period as a would-be movie star) makes Frankenstein into a petulant, whiny douchebag, while Beals is mostly blank and reactive as Eva. The filmmakers have said that they set out to make a feminist version of the Frankenstein story, but Eva gets so little screen time that it's hard to see her as a progressive or proactive heroine. Mostly she expresses wide-eyed amusement at learning about the world.

Eva and Viktor share an ill-defined psychic connection that shows up at random moments and is a thin justification for their eventual reunion, despite their obvious mismatch in intellect, temperament and outlook. Brown makes Viktor an alternately endearing and irritating simpleton, but he never comes off as a romantic hero. A real romance between the monster and his bride, given time to develop and take some dark turns, could have been an interesting alternate take on the Frankenstein mythology. But this flat period piece has none of that romance or darkness, and all of its goofy circus antics make for poor compensation.

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.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'Young Frankenstein' (1974)

With the relatively recent death of Gene Wilder, Young Frankenstein has been getting a lot of renewed attention, and I was a little worried that I'd find it disappointing when watching it again, many years after first seeing it. Honestly, I am not much of a Mel Brooks fan, and while I have a soft spot for Spaceballs because I saw it so many times (mostly in bits and pieces on TV) as a kid, for the most part his humor just doesn't work for me. Blazing Saddles and The Producers both disappointed me when I finally caught up with them as an adult, so I wondered if nostalgia was the only thing behind my enjoyment of Brooks' movies.

But Young Frankenstein holds up remarkably well, and although it's been a while since I last saw Spaceballs, I think I can call Young Frankenstein Brooks' best film. Aside from the clever writing (far less reliant on lowbrow humor and manic desperation than Brooks' other work) and the consistently strong performances, what impressed me most this time around was the direction, something Brooks (like most comedy filmmakers) doesn't get enough credit for. Having watched all the Universal Frankenstein movies so recently, I was really impressed with how Brooks mimics their look and style, in addition to the characters and plot elements he parodies. Brooks actually enlisted the help of set designer Ken Strickfaden, who worked on the original James Whale Frankenstein and brought along many of the original pieces of the set, giving Young Frankenstein an extra level of authenticity.

It's that level of authenticity that really makes the movie work; although it's full of jokes, the story and setting are played straight, and the actors walk a fine line between mocking and respecting their characters. Wilder, who came up with the initial idea and co-wrote the screenplay with Brooks, is fantastic as Frederick Frankenstein, the grandson of the original Victor Frankenstein and a fellow scientist who at first wants to disavow his ancestor's work. Frederick's evolution from shame over his family name (even changing the pronunciation) to completely embracing his grandfather's legacy is actually pretty compelling, with Wilder conveying real depth along with all of the ridiculous humor. Wilder's steadily rising mania as Frederick becomes more and more caught up in the project of resurrecting the monster (Peter Boyle) never gets old, and it has a certain emotional power to it amid the absurdity.

Wilder gives just one of the movie's numerous great comedic performances; Marty Feldman as overeager hunchbacked assistant Igor, Teri Garr as sexpot Inga and Madeline Khan as Frederick's indifferent fiancee Elizabeth are all excellent, and there are comic gems in many of the smaller roles. Brooks really nails the heightened gothic tone of the Universal Frankenstein movies (particularly the first three), and he parodies iconic elements including the monster's encounters with a little girl and a lonely blind man (played here by Gene Hackman), the intense creation sequence, the town meetings of angry villagers (who later wield torches and pitchforks), and even a very specific parody of Lionel Atwill's one-armed inspector character from Son of Frankenstein. The parody is clearly loving, and it pays tribute to the classic movies without pulling any punches. It's also consistently funny, something that Brooks had trouble with in his later parodies. The combination of style and humor elevates it above a mere spoof into a real cinematic achievement.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell' (1974)

The final movie in Hammer's Frankenstein series, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell brings back Peter Cushing to the title role, although as has become customary, it doesn't follow on the continuity of any previous entries. Looking a bit haggard (still recovering from the death of his wife the previous year), Cushing plays a slightly more subdued version of Baron Frankenstein, here sharing screen time with his latest protege, a young doctor named Simon Helder (Shane Briant) who is a devoted disciple of Frankenstein's theories. Attempting to replicate Frankenstein's experiments (albeit unsuccessfully) lands Simon in trouble with the law, and he's convicted of sorcery and sentenced to an asylum for the criminally insane, where Frankenstein is conveniently the head doctor, practicing under an assumed name. Simon quickly figures out the doctor's true identity, and soon the two have teamed on the latest effort to give life to dead tissue.

The broad strokes of the story are familiar, and some of the ideas are recycled from previous Hammer movies, including giving Frankenstein a mute young woman as a reluctant assistant. But director Terence Fisher, who helmed Hammer's best Frankenstein movies, screenwriter John Elder and Cushing himself know how to give this material an air of class and style, even if the monster (played again by Darth Vader himself, David Prowse, returning from The Horror of Frankenstein) looks completely cheap and ridiculous. For reasons that are not quite clear, Prowse plays a sort of Neanderthal man and looks like he's wearing an ape outfit from a '50s monster movie. That makes it tougher to take the movie's ethical quandaries seriously, but Cushing, Briant and the other actors play everything straight, and there are some genuinely disturbing moments.

Many of those come from the movie's setting in the mental institution, where both Frankenstein and Simon live and work (partially because, technically, they're both inmates there). Fisher stages some pretty grotesque scenes involving disturbed patients as well as the asylum's lecherous director (John Stratton), who only tolerates Frankenstein because he's being blackmailed. There's actually a somewhat powerful storyline about trauma for mute assistant Sarah (Madeline Smith), who doesn't speak because she was shocked into silence when her father attempted to rape her, and only finds her voice again when the monster is being threatened. She still ends up standing in the background most of the time, but at least she has a character arc of sorts.

The other inmates are more cartoonish, and the movie forgets them for long stretches as it focuses on Frankenstein and Simon's experiments, but they help contribute to the atmosphere of danger and unpredictability. Frankenstein here is more sympathetic than he's been in the past, expressing genuine concern for his patients and even admonishing Simon that he would never commit murder in the name of his experiments (which of course he has done in nearly every previous Hammer movie). He's still obsessive and arrogant, but there's a tinge of melancholy and regret to the performance that is appropriate for what would turn out to be his swan song. Although it's not Hammer's best effort, Monster From Hell still sends the series out on a high note.