For a period in the late '80s and early '90s, Kenneth Branagh was heralded as Laurence Olivier's heir apparent, on stage and in film. Then came 1994's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and our country's love affair with Branagh came to an abrupt halt. Audiences began to realize that maybe Branagh wasn't the greatest actor in the world after all. Heck, he probably wasn't even the best actor (or writer) in his first marriage. Branagh went on to have a supremely checkered career littered with questionable choices and terrible movies, not unlike, you know, Laurence Olivier.
In his initial burst of critical acclaim, Branagh was hailed as Olivier's creative progeny, but by the time Robert De Niro's Creature in Frankenstein was lunging at Branagh's mad doc in slow motion like a WWE grappler leaping off the top rope to deliver a devastating body slam, Olivier was no doubt ready to rend his garment in anguish and cry out in a hilariously unconvincing Yiddish accent, "I hafff no son, creative or otherwise!" Yes, not even death can keep Olivier from overacting.
Frankenstein wasn't a career killer necessarily, but it helped put an end to Branagh's wonder boy status and strangled in its infancy a trend towards classy, highbrow adaptations of classic horror novels that kicked off with Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula. These films flaunted their ambition and literary pedigree in their titles. Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein were no garden-variety spookfests. No, these were serious, cerebral movies about hideous reanimated ghouls and immortal blood-sucking fiends for discriminating audiences who cared about books and interesting films. The horror movie had officially gone upscale. Yet by the time famous monsters like The Mummy and Dracula were reintroduced in The Mummy and Van Helsing, aspirations to art had been abandoned and popcorn escapism was again the order of the day.
Between the iconic 1931 film version of Frankenstein and Branagh's adaptation, the character of Frankenstein's Monster morphed from a figure of fright to a figure of fun. These days, Frankenstein's Monster belongs as much to comedy as horror. Popular culture is filled with comic variations on Mary Shelley's most famous creation. Even the name "Frankenstein" has taken on a comic air. Like Hitler, it can easily come off as unintentionally humorous in the wrong context. Just as it's hard not to giggle when John Cusack cheerily says "C'mon, Hitler. I'll buy you a glass of lemonade" in the historical drama Max, it's difficult to hear Branagh introduce himself as "Victor [pregnant pause] Frankenstein" and not think of Phil Hartman's monosyllabic monster hanging with like-minded souls Tonto and Tarzan or Brian Stack's Frankenstein wasting a minute of everyone's time on Late Night With Conan O'Brien.
These comic Frankensteins have little to do with the philosophical, cerebral creature in Shelley's book and a lot to do with the Boris Karloff classic. Branagh's adaptation distinguishes itself from the overflowing canon of Frankenstein movies in part by its fidelity to its source material. Here De Niro's creature suggests John Hurt in The Elephant Man more than Karloff. He's a gentle soul whose grotesque exterior hides a sophisticated mind and a very human yearning for affection and validation. Then the killing starts. Hey, nobody's perfect. As Aimee Mann could tell you, it's rare that you ever know what to expect from a guy made of corpses with bolts in his neck.
Branagh's version similarly deviates from the Universal Studios classic by retaining Shelley's original framing story, which finds the not-so-good Doctor running into an arctic exploration team headed by Aidan Quinn while searching for his woebegone creation in the frozen North. In these opening scenes, Branagh and Quinn strive to out-crazy each in a veritable Overacting Olympics.
The film then flashes back to Branagh's happy childhood as the beloved scion of a prominent doctor and an overly affectionate mother. "You are the handsomest, kindest, cleverest, wonderfullest boy in the whole world," mommy dearest assures her beloved baby boy as they wrestle around on the floor. Dr. Frankenstein, meet Dr. Freud. I suspect Branagh's mom might have whispered similar praise in his ear at an impressionable age. That might explain his curious need to film himself shirtless and wet as often as possible. Branagh's blissful idyll is interrupted, however, by the death of his mother during childbirth. A grief-crazed Branagh broods, "Oh mother. You should never have died. No one need ever die." This is what English majors might call "foreshadowing".
Mommy isn't the only familial-type figure toward which Branagh feels a queasy sexual attraction. Early in the film, he's introduced to the woman who will grow up to become Helena Bonham Carter and told "you must think of her as your own sister." Alas, Branagh has what might be deemed an Ozark conception of what siblinghood entails. It isn't long until the hormonal twosome become brother and sister with benefits.
But ribald fornication with faux-siblings quickly takes a backseat to science. An obsessed Branagh becomes fixated with the "mad" aspects of science and makes it his life's goal to create life out of death. Building on the experiments of professor/mentor John Cleese, he experiments with creating a living creature out of dead organs and electricity.
After at least one false start that results in Branagh writhing around in a pool of amniotic fluid with a naked De Niro, he finally figures out how to create life. The moment where Branagh succeeds in bringing the Creature to life for good should be a seminal one, a galvanizing breakthrough where the glory and horror of the mad scientist's achievement becomes blindingly apparent. Instead Branagh inexplicably superimposes the image of a mocking professor chiding his hubristic charge over the entire sequence. While Branagh grapples with his creation, literally and figuratively, the professor taunts, "You fool, Victor Frankenstein of Geneva. How could you know what you'd unleashed? How's it pieced together? From bits of thieves, bits of murderers, evil stitch to evil stitch to evil. Do you really think this thing will thank you for its monstrous birth? Evil will have its revenge. God. Help. Your. Loved. Ones!" What should be a stirring climax instead barely registers, except as florid camp.
De Niro's Monster parts ways with his creator and embarks in a crash course in humanity. He reads Branagh's diaries, befriends a blind man, plays the recorder, helps out an impoverished family with their crops, and is chased by angry villagers who suspect him of spreading cholera. Branagh is offscreen just long enough during these sequences for us to completely lose interest in him. De Niro's Frankenstein is a fascinating creation, a man without a past haunted by the ambiguity of his existence. Is he a man? A monster? A sentient corpse? Is he one of god's creations imbued with a divine soul or a terrible mistake of science? It's not easy being the ghoulish embodiment of man's scientific hubris.
De Niro eventually goes bucking for revenge. He demands that Branagh alleviate his loneliness by creating a companion for him. When Branagh fails to follow through, De Niro tears Bonham Carter's heart out of her body on Branagh's wedding night. In a fit of grief, Branagh reanimates Carter's corpse so they can be together forever. But Bonham Carter's corpse bride finds herself torn between Branagh, the man who created her, and De Niro, with his handsome stitch-face. Sadly, there is no scene in the film where Branagh gazes benevolently at his creation and coos, "I will call you Stitch Face." De Niro's character is never even named.
Unfortunately, Bonham Carter's corpse bride sets herself ablaze in a gonzo ritual of self-negation before she can make even the most stumbling attempts at small talk with De Niro. We are cruelly spared minutes of De Niro and Bonham staring awkwardly at each other before one musters up the courage to say "So, you're an ungodly abomination stitched together from body parts of the dead, huh? How's that working out for ya?"
Like Bram Stoker's Dracula, its much more successful companion piece, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein aspires to combine the intellectual depth and philosophical preoccupations of art with the visceral, lurid sensuality of pulp–a feat Coppola, who produced Frankenstein, also pulled off in The Godfather. Instead Frankenstein combines the ridiculousness of pulp with the pretensions of art.
Though Frankenstein fared better overseas, domestic audiences decided they liked their reanimated corpse dudes big, green, and clumsy, not brooding, Method-y, and loaded down with daddy issues. Frankenstein ultimately amounts to nothing more than the lurid, baroque tale of one seriously dysfunctional father and son. Branagh set out to make a horror movie of ideas that fails to frighten or provoke. The pulpy romanticism of the film's style works against its attempts at allegory while De Niro's monster is more tortured than scary.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is ultimately a noble failure, an admirable if muddled attempt to elevate a creature features into a profound philosophical exercise. Branagh's adaptation of the ultimate cautionary warning against the dangers of hubris and overreaching ironically became an unintentional illustration of those very human, very monstrous faults.
Incidentally, I would have posted this entry earlier except that Keith staged a screening of the Paul Lynde Halloween Special in the A.V. Club conference room. Now that is some seriously scary shit. The image of Paul Lynde, Billy Barty, and Tim Conway in the "Rhinestone Trucker" skit will haunt my nightmares for years. Speaking of overreaching and hubris, in my next entry I'll be finally tackling Heaven's Gate. All two hundred and twenty minutes of it. I can hardly wait.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco