I like that we can now say "They've been making Frankenstein movies for a hundred years!" and it's actually true, not an exaggeration. 1910's Frankenstein is only sixteen minutes long, but it was enough to start a long tradition that has yielded at least a hundred features and TV films, with a couple just in the past year and a few more currently in development. And that's not even counting all of the movies that have ripped off its basic plot and just changed the names, or the Mad Monster Party/Van Helsing-type films that include the Monster in their number. In short, this territory has been covered so many times, it's almost impossible to believe anyone can make a memorable version that stays true to Mary Shelley's original text but also do something different enough to justify its existence.
Enter Bernard Rose. He's been keeping busy since making a huge splash with 1992's Candyman, but most of his work since has been well outside the horror genre. Only two of them would excite the average Fangoria reader (Snuff-Movie and SX_Tape), as the majority of them are Tolstoy adaptations starring Danny Huston, who seems to be the DeNiro (or DiCaprio) to Rose's Scorsese. Huston takes the title role in Rose's very simply titled Frankenstein, but is not really the focus - the Monster is in nearly every frame of the film, while Victor only has about ten minutes or so of screentime. We know nothing about why this incarnation of the character is so hellbent on creating life, but it doesn't matter. It's not the only time Rose seems to be banking on the idea that every person watching knows this story already, and it works beautifully - he is free to skip over the stuff we've (literally) seen a hundred times and focus on his new approach.
Now, when I say "new" I mean "new to me." Even I, creator of Horror Movie A Day, can't claim to have seen even a quarter of the Frankenstein films that have been made over the years, so perhaps someone else has had the same idea, which is to present the Monster as having the intellect of a newborn baby. The unfocused gaze, the terrified shriek at just about everything, the surprisingly strong sucking hold it can take on a bottle or your finger... any parent will recognize these moments, and actor Xavier Samuel is utterly fantastic at portraying a man-sized newborn. Many versions have you sympathize with the Monster, but rarely has a film been able to get the audience to experience that so quickly - Samuel's performance makes it happen within minutes. That sheer terror a baby feels when its mother or father does something scary like walk out of a room or raise a voice, prompting a howl I've grown far more accustomed to in the past year - it's almost unnerving how good he is at recreating that. There's a scene about halfway through the movie where his "mama," Victor's wife Elizabeth (Carrie-Anne Moss) denies knowing him and walks away, and his reaction is one of the most heartbreaking things I've ever seen committed on-screen.
In fact, this element of the movie almost feels more in line with Spielberg's A.I. than any Frankenstein movie I can recall. As any baby does, the Monster (eventually dubbed Adam, naturally) is closer to her than "daddy," and when his body starts breaking down Victor decides to kill him and fix his mistakes for another try - but she (at least at first) protests. The reaction is not unlike the mother trying in vain to protect Haley Joel Osment's robot boy in that film, and after surviving his would-be murder (Adam is immortal), he spends a good chunk of the movie trying to get back to her. Along the way he befriends a fellow outcast (in this case, Tony Todd as a blind homeless man), is traumatized again and again, and suffers through several indignities. Their ending isn't as happy, as you can expect, but I thought it interesting that I was reminded of Spielberg more often than James Whale.
Instead, Rose saves the outright horror stuff for key moments, making the violence startling and terrifying, and stripping the scientific mumbo jumbo to its bare necessities. Again, we've seen enough labs and electric bolts and all that stuff more times than we can count, so is it necessary to stage it again? It's not even clear at first where Adam came from - we know he wasn't switched together from body parts or anything like that, as he looks like a perfect male specimen for his first few scenes (we later learn he was made with a 3D printer!). But the appearance of a boil on his neck (and then another on his forehead, and then another...) gives him the requisite "Monster" look such a film demands (even I, Frankenstein's "sexy" version of the monster had scars!), and his appearance gets even more gruesome as the film continues. A modern version of a classic scene results in a police beating, damaging his body even further, though Rose saves a look at his fully naked appearance for a key moment near the end that I won't spoil here, only to say it doubles (triples?) down on how heartbreaking the scene already is.
I keep coming back to that word, and for good reason - this is a damned sad version of the story. Adam suffers more tragedies than the protagonists of a dozen manipulative Oscar-bait movies, but Rose never allows it to feel cheap - it's genuinely devastating. And yet, it's still the story we know! Even with the modern setting and its title character more or less reduced to a cameo appearance, Rose brilliantly never strays far from the source while simultaneously making it fresh. Adam even offers occasional (and, admittedly, slightly jarring due to its infrequency) voiceover that's taken directly from Shelley's text, and his friendship with the blind man is also transplanted from the novel (not an invention of Bride of Frankenstein, as someone in the crowd at the Aero thought - learn to read, jerks!). But by sticking with his perspective the entire time (Rose even offers us some of his dreams), the tragedy of this creature's existence becomes its primary drive. The pity we feel for Karloff at the end of Bride of Frankenstein, when The Bride rejects him, is equal to how sad I felt for Xavier Samuel's incarnation roughly 10 minutes into the movie, and it just gets more tragic from there. Rose finds places for some pretty on-point humor (Todd's reaction to what Adam considers a good source of food is priceless) but otherwise, bumming you out is the order of the day here, and it worked like gangbusters for me.
And I hope it can work as well for you, too... if you ever see it. It's playing some festivals right now (including UK's Frightfest next week, for any London readers out there), but as of yet it has no set release date. Alchemy (formerly Millennium Films) picked it up back in April, so at least it WILL be coming, I'm just not sure when. Hopefully the cast and "from the director of Candyman" appeal is enough to get the film a small theatrical run; I assume reactions from its upcoming festival appearances will help determine that. Personally I can't wait to hear some good news; not only would I like to see it again, but I think horror fans could use a good Frankenstein movie on the big screen again. Unless you count Frankenweenie, I honestly can't recall the last one that was any good, and I doubt Fox's oft-rescheduled Victor Frankenstein will change matters (though the cast alone warrants optimism). The limited traditional horror elements may disappoint some (especially if they're expecting a Candyman-esque take on the material), but I honestly can't recall the last Franken-movie I enjoyed this much. Hell, it almost made sitting through so many bad ones worth my time - the Frankenstein's Army types of the world made me appreciate this one all the more.