The latest specimen from Hollywood’s industrial lab for retrofitting classic film monsters is “I, Frankenstein.” The film was not screened for press in time for this publication, but what we do know about it might cause whirring sounds in the grave of Mary Shelley.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. There’s an ancient war between supernatural creatures that threatens mankind unless one powerful-but-conflicted champion can, you know, put it together. Avenger assemble! So here we go again, this time with Frankenstein’s Hunky Monster (a ripped and brooding Aaron Eckhart, in jeans and hoodie) and his gorgeous human friend (Yvonne Strahovski) facing off against gargoyles, who are apparently good, and demons, who are apparently bad. Well, the demons are led by Bill Nighy, so they must at least be wicked.
No, the folks behind “Underworld” won’t be suing anytime soon because “I, Frankenstein” comes to us from the co-creator and producers of, yes, “Underworld.”
Has someone been stitching dismembered parts back together?
One source from which those parts don’t obviously come is Shelley’s 1818 novel. Except, of course, for those chapters with the super-nimble, graceful monster wielding a pair of curved blades to save mankind from gargoyles and demons.
Classic ‘Frankenstein’ films
Then again, the classic Universal film series that included James Whale’s “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein” was hardly loyal to its source – as “Henry” Frankenstein and the creature with that coffee-can-shaped head (for easy access?) attest. The flat-out campy “Bride,” mysteriously considered a masterpiece of the genre by many, is as loosely connected to the text as an incompletely sewn-on appendage.
That series quickly degenerated into “Son of Frankenstein,” “Ghost of …,” “House of …” and so many others. Truth in advertising might have dictated “Even More Ridiculous Iteration of …,” but instead we got “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man” and eventually “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” (and Dracula and the Wolf Man, Universal’s Big Three).
So it’s not as if this is sacred ground. Besides, the material has proved awfully difficult to adapt effectively, despite more than 60 attempts.
The monster’s origins
Shelley’s “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus,” is a revered novel about hubris. Her story concerns a young scientist (Victor Frankenstein) obsessed with curing man of the curse of mortality. His pride, and the chase itself, outstrips his initial goal as he does achieve an immortal creation – but is so horrified by its hideousness that he rejects it. The abandoned, frightfully powerful and rapidly learning creature then conducts a campaign of revenge against the bad doctor and all of mankind.
Pretty good framework there. You’ve got your “Paradise Lost,” your Faustian bargain, your rough beast. So why have so few filmmakers made hay with it?
Kenneth Branagh tried. His “Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’” was probably so named because it offered one of the most faithful interpretations to date – apart from the overheated sexiness and all the random shirtlessness (Dr. Branagh had apparently discovered the Soloflex). Most important, it retains the creature’s central motivation – for which Branagh was actually taken to task by some critics. Janet Maslin of the New York Times wrote, “The Creature (Robert De Niro), an esthetically challenged loner with a father who rejected him, would make a dandy guest on any daytime television talk show.” That’s what one gets for being true to the material, apparently.
There were no such complaints about the “Monster Squad,” “Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School” and “Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster” variety. There’s even “Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter” (“Roaring guns against raging monster!”).
A monster for every genre
The theme has lent itself to exploitation genres (where are all the sexy Mummy movies?). There’s “Andy Warhol’s Flesh for Frankenstein,” directed by Paul Morrissey; the Italian “Lady Frankenstein,” with the tagline: “Only the monster she made could satisfy her strange desires!”; and “Blackenstein,” a blaxploitation entry.
There was even a shot at a 2004 USA Network series (produced by Martin Scorsese!) in which the monster (French hunk Vincent Pérez) valiantly works to defeat the mad doctor. The pilot didn’t hold its charge; the series was not picked up.
The doctor-as-mad-douchebag theme was also present in “The Bride,” which expands on the Shelley subplot that spawned “Bride of Frankenstein,” with none other than Sting proving the real monster.
The only Frankenstein movie to win a major Oscar (for adapted screenplay) is “Gods and Monsters,” but it’s only tangentially related, an imagining of the final days of director James Whale. Despite yet another excellent performance by Ian McKellen, it’s not particularly memorable.
Ken Russell’s “Gothic” tells of the visit to Lord Byron’s that led to the horror-story challenge that led to Shelley’s penning “Frankenstein.” It’s not a great movie – Russell appears to have much more fun with his campy Bram Stoker adaptation, “Lair of the White Worm” – but there is music by Thomas Dolby.
‘Young Frankenstein’ rules
This writer would argue the greatest film so far given life by Shelley is “Young Frankenstein,” Mel Brooks’ Borscht Belty, gag-a-minute parody of the first three Universal entries. This 1974 bit of insanity has held up brilliantly, with razor-sharp comic timing in the performances of wall-eyed Marty Feldman as Igor (here pronounced “EYE-gore”), Madeline Kahn as Dr. Fronk-en-steen’s high-maintenance fiancee, and Cloris Leachman as the seethingly hilarious Frau Blücher. (Neiggghhh!)
Which makes clear just how few stones are left unturned at this grave site. And there’s yet another edition of Frankie Goes to Hollywood due next year with James McAvoy as the doctor and Daniel Radcliffe as Igor.
Again, “I, Frankenstein” wasn’t screened in time for this writing, so for all we know, it could be brilliant. Then again, the trailers are full of slow-motion jump-fighting, and did we mention he’s a sexy emo warrior? The “motion comic” promoting the film’s back story is loaded with “for the glory of the most high” talk, making it sound more like Frankenstein and myrrh.
When a movie works on connections so tenuous, one wonders at the reasons for dragging the poor creature into it at all. Indeed, “Why Frankenstein?”