Sunday, October 23, 2011

31 Days of Frankenstein: Mary Shelley's Quaid in the House

Frankenstein (1992)

I don't know if it's coincidental that TNT released
a "faithful" adaptation of Frankenstein the same year that Francis Ford Coppola introduced his version of Bram Stoker's Dracula. I kind of think not, but I've got no evidence to support that. Either way, Coppola's Dracula did a lot to renew interest in classic monsters, especially the literary versions. Even if the adaptations weren't as close to the original literature as audiences were led to believe.

Take TNT's Frankenstein, for instance. In it, according to the Stop the Planet of the Apes blog, Victor Frankenstein (Patrick Bergen) uses a process to create his Monster (Randy Quaid) that's not so much about stitching bodies together as it is cloning himself. This apparently causes a psychic link between the two characters that allows Frankenstein to feel the Monster's pain at the same time that it guides the Monster and helps him learn. Weird.

The Monster's look in the film isn't entirely faithful to Shelley's description either, but I do appreciate how he looks human enough that I want to root for him, but monstrous enough that I understand why people react badly to him.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994)

It's taken me a while to appreciate Bram Stoker's Dracula, and even now it's far from my favorite adaptation of that story. Though I'd never read the novel when I saw Coppola's version, the Dracula-Mina romance felt all wrong; far more intense and real than any version I'd seen before. It was upsetting that Dracula was portrayed as a somewhat sympathetic character and that Mina seemed to be genuinely in love with him instead of just under his power. I didn't know if that was true to the novel or not, but even if it was, I didn't like it. Of course, I eventually read the book and realized that, story-wise, Coppola was full of crap. I like aspects of the movie now, but not that part.

When Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was announced though, I was prepared to forgive. Frankenstein is my favorite monster story, Kenneth Branagh was one of my favorite actors and directors, and I'd had a crush on Helena Bonham Carter since A Room With a View. And I liked that they were getting as respected an actor as Robert De Niro to play the Creature. I don't think I'd figured out just how unfaithful Coppola's Dracula was yet, so my hope was that Branagh's film would be as faithful to Shelley as I thought Dracula was to Stoker.

There are things that I love about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Branagh strikes just the right balance between reprehensibly irresponsible and relatably pathetic. Bonham Carter's Elizabeth is rightly a far better woman than Victor deserves. Ian Holm is brilliant is Victor's dad, Tom Hulce is a charismatic Clerval, and Aidan Quinn makes Capt. Walton vital and interesting. I don't care for the Monster's bald look and De Niro's performance makes me pity the Monster more than relate to him (and relating to the Monster is one of my favorite things to do in a good Frankenstein movie), but he does deliver a chilling interpretation of my favorite line from the novel: "I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other."

Sadly, De Niro's performance and the inexplicable changes made to the story - especially around Elizabeth's fate - spoiled an otherwise beautiful film for me. In fact, it's only in the last year or two that I've learned to forgive Branagh and Bonham Carter for being part of such a disappointing project. 

House of Frankenstein(1997)

For all the faults of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, it did create an audience for other Frankenstein adaptations over the next decade, so I'm grateful for that. I remember being particularly excited that Universal was getting back in the monster game with a new version of House of Frankenstein.

Not so much a remake as a re-imagining, the new House kept the concept of the Monster's sharing the screen with a vampire and a werewolf, but didn't hold on to much else. I wasn't surprised that the werewolf wasn't Lon Chaney's Larry Talbot Wolf Man, but I still don't understand why they created an entirely new vampire character instead of the more recognizable Dracula.

The mini-series shares its title with an actual location in the story, a nightclub called the House of Frankenstein that's owned by the vampire Crispian Grimes. To make the name more appropriate, Grimes is displaying the newly discovered Frankenstein's Monster in the club, frozen in a block of ice. When the Monster inevitably escapes, he causes trouble for Grimes, who's already being investigated by the police for a series of bloody murders. Grimes happens to have a werewolf on staff in order to round off the concept, but he doesn't figure heavily into the story.

All in all, House of Frankenstein was a bitter disappointment. If we couldn't have a faithful adaptation of Shelley's story, it would've been nice to at least have Universal's bringing back the fun version, but this dark, overly serious take wasn't it. And the Monster - while square-headed and slightly reminiscent of the classic take - looked old and worn down, more Jack Elam than Boris Karloff.

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