AVAILABLE ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS: NOW, AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD: 22nd February from SIGNATURE ENTERTAINMENT
RUNNING TIME: 89 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Victor and Elizabeth Frankenstein have created life. Printed into existence, their creation adjusts to the world much like a baby despite having great strength. Poked and prodded daily, the only thing he understands is his mother’s touch. However, the man seems to physically deteriorate as he becomes ill and the scientists decide to terminate the experiment. When it’s believed he’s dead and about to be dissected, he escapes, leaving a trail of corpses in his wake. His inability to communicate and understand the ways of the fast-paced modern world, never mind his horrible disfigurement, makes him an outcast with seemingly no chance of leading the normal and quiet life he craves….
Far superior to 2015’s other Frankenstein movie, Victor Frankenstein, this is the one that should have been shown theatrically, though it’s a part of the tragedy of writer/director Bernard Rose’s career that, like most of the films he’s made since turning his back on the studio system to shoot movies independently on digital video, it was hardly likely to do so. Rose’s recent work has been a bit of a mixed bag, including his horror films, even if it’s always worth a watch. Nonetheless I had high hopes for Frankenstein because I distinctly recall hearing Rose say that he wanted to make it many years ago, though I can find no proof of this and my memory could be a bit hazy, so don’t quote me on this! Could Frankenstein finally be the Rose film that would finally approach his fine early horror films Paperhouse and Candyman in quality [not to mention his brilliant biopic Immortal Beloved]? Well within several minutes I seemed to already have the answer to that question, and for one I am in agreement with what seems like the majority of critics, because that answer is a resounding yes!
Now of course aesthetically it’s much like Rose’s other digital video work, though this is one filmmaker who knows how to make largely hand held digital video filmmaking look good, leaving all those amateurs at the starting gate. But what we have is both a highly radical and a very faithful version of Mary Shelley’s novel with a few touches from other film adaptations along the way, but often tweaking things along the way. Having the entire story be told from the point of view of the Monster is a brilliant idea from the start, even if it means that we know hardly anything about the backgrounds of the two people who created him, why they created him, and how they did so, and I should tell you now that these are things that remain shrouded in mystery as the film finishes [we do eventually find out a little bit about the manner of creation but no more than that], but then the Monster, or rather just ‘Monster’ as he’s soon referred to, wouldn’t know about all this so it works for this version’s emphasis. This does mean though that Danny Huston and Carrie-Anne Moss aren’t actually in the film much at all, and don’t really have room to develop their characters beyond one being quickly repulsed by Monster and rejecting him, and the other one wavering in her viewpoints, though Ross has a few brief but still touching moments which show her conflict. It’s really all about Monster, and thank God Xavier Samuel does such a good job, because much of the effect of the film rests on his shoulders.
The film opens with Monster narrating as he remembers his birth, and this narration will return later every now and again as Monster poetically describes his inner thoughts. I recognised some of these lines as being from the book where he waxes loquaciously throughout, and it’s a really nice touch, showing that, however inarticulate Monster may be, he has deep and complex feelings. His coming to life is shown as an agonising experience, and then we get our “It’s alive” moment, delivered in a rather comically hysterical fashion by somebody other than Frankenstein. Lots of tight angles help to create a feeling of claustrophobia as the Monster is nurtured, but is also constantly tortured what with all the injections he has to make him: “Stronger and faster than the average human”. I had to chuckle when Victor throws a tennis ball at him and Monster throws it back, his power sending the ball smashing into Victor’s face. This Monster is actually handsome, but, much like the one in the 1973 Frankenstein: The True Story, though far earlier on, he starts to develop sores, lumps etc. and become rather disfigured. Father wants to kill him, Mother doesn’t at first, but quickly comes around to the idea. Monster’s struggling against those trying to snuff his life out is quite upsetting, but it all goes wrong anyway and instead we get an extremely bloody and gruesome set piece resulting in two deaths which is all the more horrifying because Monster doesn’t really know what he’s doing.
We’re used to seeing Frankenstein’s Monster be rejected and bullied by humankind, but it feels especially sad and harsh in this version, perhaps because it’s set in the present day. Rose does perhaps give us one scene showing Monster being beaten up too many, but Monster does often get his own back, at one point killing a [rather too cartoonlike] fascist cop in a moment where you may almost feel like cheering. Still, you should feel exactly the right mixture of pity, compassion, anger, revulsion and fear, the scene in which these five emotions probably come together [which is very hard to achieve but is essential to any version of this tale worth its salt] best being when he’s been set up with a prostitute. She’ll sleep with him if he just has an ugly face, but one look at his horribly scarred body and she wants to get the hell out of there. The iconic scene from the 1931 Frankenstein involving Monster and a little girl who isn’t scared of him is recreated and given a good twist [you’ll never think of Poo Sticks the same way]. Then there’s a whole section where Monster takes up with Eddie [the one and only Tony Todd in his best part in some time], a blind homeless busker. Their relationship is warm without sentimentality and the scenes where they are on the streets of downtown Los Angeles have an almost documentary feel about them. It was here where I was most impressed with now Rose has updated this old old story, retaining its ever important themes of life and death, the human condition, acceptance, rejection and our place in society, while creating a new take on it that feels fresh and ‘of the now’.
Of course it’s easy to see where things are headed and the finale seems a little rushed, though it’s appropriately downbeat and harsh. At times this Frankenstein isn’t the most enjoyable of films; it’s extremely tough to watch in places. Rose just doesn’t like to hold back [for example he doesn’t just give us one shot of a dog dying, he gives us two], but I was pleased to at last see a Frankenstein film that felt free to pile on the blood [though Flesh For Frankenstein still probably has the honour of being the most graphic of Frankenstein pictures], and the film almost seems like the work of a young filmmaker, trying to impress and show what he can do with a very small budget. This means that there’s the odd clumsy moment which doesn’t really come off, and it can’t help but look a bit cheap, but that’s not say that it still doesn’t look really good at times, most notably during a rather beautiful dream sequence where the Monster is at peace with the two other living creatures who have shown him affection, Rose’s approach to the story allowing us to truly get inside the head of the Frankenstein Monster like no other film has done. Making Monster extremely strong and seemingly invincible was a sensible choice given that any Frankenstein Monster roaming around today would probably be gunned down within minutes. I could have done with Monster’s makeup being more monstrous, especially near the end, though it’s disturbingly convincing, helping to draw correlations with cancer.
Xavier Samuel gives the best performance in this role since Boris Karloff [sorry Christopher Lee and Robert De Niro], totally and utterly holding the viewer’s attention. He’s especially impressive near the beginning when he’s basically just a big baby, and in the scenes where he finds a bit of solace [like bathing in a river] for a brief period. Composer Halli Cauthery, who seems to have spent most of his career so far writing additional bits and pieces for film scores by others, seems to do the best he can with what sounds like a cheap synthesiser. I can’t help but wish that Rose had had a bit more money to play with here, but he’s still achieved something pretty impressive, and something far more impressive that that Daniel Radfliffe/ James McAvoy starrer which did little more than turn Shelley’s story into a bromance and in the process sideline the Monster altogether. He’s made a tale that has been retold endless times seem vital and even modern again, while retaining its themes, its messages, and its immense power and tragedy. While it seemed to be well recieved at many film festivals, it all but bypassed cinemas, a very sad thing when crap like The Gallows got a wide release. Hopefully enough people will see it at home to help spur and enable Rose into making something of a similar quality and in a similar vein. I’d love to see his take on Dracula.