MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (1994)
When a brilliant but unorthodox scientist rejects the reanimated corpse he revived in a laboratory, his creation escapes and swears revenge.
Intended to capitalise on the success of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), a different fate awaited Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein two years later. Both projects have Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) in common —who directed Dracula, then produced this — and the motivation for both films was adapting the original stories more closely, but employing all the technical grandeur of then-modern filmmaking. Coppola’s Dracula had its critics, but it grossed $215M at the box office and earned Academy Award nominations, whereas Kenneth Branagh’s take on Frankenstein could only muster $112M and likely killed further updates of classic horror literature.
Filmmaker Frank Darabont, who made The Shawshank Redemption the same year, co-wrote Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, later calling it “the best script I ever wrote and the worst movie I’ve ever seen” on account of how Branagh’s direction favoured operatic spectacle and frantic action over the subtler story he wrote in the spirit of Shelley’s prose. Who knows if audiences would have preferred a more subdued Frankenstein on the heels of Coppola’s lavish Dracula, but they certainly weren’t enamoured with Branagh’s feverish take. That said, decades later, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is still regarded as the most faithful adaptation of the 1818 novel, despite its deviations and changes.
A literal cold open finds a troubled Arctic expedition encountering a mysterious shadowy figure that kills their sled dogs, before a dishevelled Victor Frankenstein (Branagh) appears and announces his identity like it’s a big surprise to the audience (it’s not), or means something to Aidan Quinn’s captain (it doesn’t). The rest of the movie is effectively one long flashback explaining how Victor came to be in the frozen tundra alongside this humanoid creature, which is economically done and flows at a delightful clip.
Young Victor Frankenstein (Rory Jennings) lives a privileged life in Geneva with his adopted sister Elizabeth (Hannah Taylor Gordon), albeit one tarnished by heartache after his mother (Cherie Lunghi) dies giving birth to his brother. Victor duly swears he’ll find a way to conquer death itself using science, controversially falls in love with his “sister” Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) by the time they’ve grown up, then heads to the prestigious University of Ingolstadt to make good on his promise. Once there, Victor realises his crackpot ideas about overcoming death flies in the face of conventional medical thinking, but he finds an ally in Professor Waldman (John Cleese), whose years of research into reviving corpses becomes the foundation Victor needs to based his own experiments. After Waldman is murdered by an anti-vaxxer (ooh, new relevance!), the tragedy spurs a distraught Victor into action—sewing limbs from dead bodies together, paying for fresh amniotic fluid from midwives, and filling a brass tank full of electric eels as part of a process to reanimate a dead body.
Shot by cinematographer Roger Pratt (Brazil, Batman), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein certainly looks gorgeous, also blessed with wonderful production design and beautiful European landscapes. Branagh is clearly leaning into a swooping sense of tragedy and romance, which results in that “operatic” feel Darabont felt went against the script’s tone, but it works in some places. It’s just a shame the psychological torment and anguish at the core of the story is pushed into the background, or rushed over without letting us wallow in Victor’s grief enough. Branagh, aged 34 at the time, was clearly more interested in portraying Victor as an overzealous genius with flowing red locks who runs around his laboratory in an open shirt showing off his bare muscled chest. The sequence where the Creature (Robert De Niro) is “born” should be the big highlight of the movie, but it’s rushed into and over before any excitement has a chance to peak. However, it’s amusing to see a phallic tube being inserted into the Creature’s man-made “womb”, complete with billowing testicular sack, and I like the idea of electric eels being more of a trigger for resurrection than a thunderstorm, but I also can’t deny that sequence would have felt more primal and elemental if Branagh had leaned into the Hollywood cliches he was trying to avoid. It’s also rather peculiar how Victor almost immediately writes the Creature off as a failure, just because it didn’t emerge from the tank reciting Hamlet and had difficulty standing up in puddles of goo.
The best part of the film is when the giddiness of Branagh’s camerawork and somewhat manic performance recedes enough for something more subdued to emerge, once we focus on the Creature’s torment as an outcast of society. De Niro (Taxi Driver) was an unexpected choice to play this character, but he was perhaps convinced to because legends like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee had put their stamp on “Frankenstein’s Monster”, and he’s fairly effective until the Creature starts speaking in a New York accent, at which point his performance often slips into hamminess.
What saves De Niro is the fantastic make-up for the Creature by Daniel Parker, which avoids the iconic look copyrighted by Universal Picture of electrical plugs in the neck, and goes with something more anatomically accurate to what a corpse comprised of random body parts might look like. This Creature isn’t pleasant to look at, with his deep and reddened scars and hair lip, but there are excellent touches like giving De Niro different coloured eyes and skin tones to his hands. De Niro excels in the sequence where the Creature helps a small family in the countryside, learning how to write and read by eavesdropping on their little girl’s lessons with her mother, and helping them harvest their crops during a harsh winter as the “good spirit of the forest”. The tragedy of him not being accepted by them, once his hideous form is revealed, certainly works in making you sympathise more strongly with the Creature.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was unfairly maligned back in 1994, as it’s certainly an enjoyable and fast-paced romp. There are some decent updates and improvements to the story, a few emotional sequence that work, a great understated performance from Helena Bonham Carter, and some remarkable SFX moments at times — my favourite being a scene of human immolation which is incredible to behold, as that sort of thing is often augmented by CGI flames these days. The film has a melodramatic tone that flies in the face of Shelley’s book, but Branagh perhaps just wanted to avoid making something too depressing in the wake of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I’m just thankful it’s never boring.
USA | 1994 | 123 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was shot on 35mm film, with Arrow Video restoring the film for 4K Ultra HD using the original camera negatives. The end result is mixed, as there’s a lot of softness to scenes and noticeable film grain that can get a little noisy. Things do improve and there are standout sequences where the added resolution and clarity is a marked improvement over the earlier Blu-ray, especially with Dolby Vision/HDR10 giving greater distinction to dark and light areas of the picture. There’s also no hint of any print damage and the image is stable, so Arrow’s restoration work here generally a positive one, but not the audio-visual knockout one hoped for.
The sound doesn’t get a Dolby Atmos upgrade, sadly, so we have the original stereo track and a 5.1 DTS-HD surround sound mix. Both are a little underwhelming because the rear speakers are rarely in use apart from during the opening Arctic sequence, and I didn’t notice much bass. One would expect the birth of the Creature to be a thrilling few moments of sound effects and music blasting from every direction, at the very least, but Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is disappointingly tame and front-heavy. It won’t be a disc you’ll use to show off your home theatre system. That said, the dialogue doesn’t get lost and things are well balanced across the front channels.
The extra features sadly don’t involve any input from either Branagh or De Niro in a new documentary or commentary, which is a shame, but there are enough new interviews and featurettes to make this a worthwhile purchase.
director: Kenneth Branagh.
writers: Steph Lady & Frank Darabont (based on ‘Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus’ by Mary Shelley).
starring: Robert De Niro, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hulce, Helena Bonham Carter, Aidan Quinn, Ian Holm & John Cleese.