Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994)

Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula are as common a pop culture one-two punch as Superman and Batman. If there’s a movie with one character, you can bet that the other will follow suit shortly afterwards. Not surprisingly, there have been stories where both superheroes and both monsters team up.

Hence, it also shouldn’t be surprising that, when Columbia Pictures claimed that (falsely, as it turned out) they would put out the definitive film adaptation of Dracula with Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992, Mary Shelley’s equally classic novel Frankenstein would get similar treatment from the same studio just two years later as (what else?) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The aforementioned Dracula film was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who produced the following Frankenstein picture. But the film was directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also stars as the title character. The role of the monster that Frankenstein creates which sets the story’s tragedy into motion is played by Robert De Niro.

For reasons I’ll get into shortly, the film itself, while it certainly has its good points (much like Coppola’s Dracula film), didn’t live up to the legacy of the original films by Universal and later Hammer.

Like the book, this movie begins with Captain Walton (Aidan Quinn) leading an expedition to reach the North Pole in 1794. His crew are getting on his ass more and more to return home because of both the harsh conditions and an unknown assailant, who in self defense kills the explorers’ dogs.

As Walton’s ship is trapped in ice, the captain comes across another traveler, who identifies himself as Victor Frankenstein (Branagh). Although Walton is determined not to let what he describes as “some phantom” get in the way of his exploring, he allows Victor to tell him and his crew the story and how it relates to their unknown assailant.

The flashback starts with Victor and his adopted sister Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) growing up in Geneva. The death of his mother, following the birth of his brother William (Charles Wyn-Davies), prompts Victor to promise Elizabeth that he’ll seek a way to conquer death during his studies at Ingolstadt.

During his time at the university, Victor befriends Henry Clerval (Tom Hulce), and gains the respect of his professor Waldman (John Cleese). Eventually, Victor becomes obsessed with the idea of creating life. However, Waldman implores him not to go through with any plans he may have in that direction, as according to the professor’s experiences, they’ll result in nothing good.

Not long afterward, Waldman is murdered by a madman (De Niro), who’s subsequently hanged. The loss of his mentor pushes Victor to break into Waldman’s lab in order to obtain his notes and begin his creation experiment. Ironically, Victor uses the body of the criminal and inserts Waldman’s brilliant mind into it.

As with all Frankenstein pictures, we see lots of laboratory equipment buzzing around as the creature comes into existence one faithful night. I must point out here that the novel itself actually doesn’t do much explaining into how the monster is put together and given life. Some have said that Shelley kept this part of the story deliberately vague so as to suggest the possibility of black magic being used. Hence, with this film claiming to be the most faithful film adaptation of her book and all, I can’t help but think there was a missed opportunity here to give us a creation scene that for once didn’t require anything that buzzes.

Victor actually climbs onto the case which houses his creation, imploring it to “Live!!

We see the creature’s eyes open before he pops out of his man-made cocoon. But the sight of what Victor has created makes the scientist recoil in horror and simply abandon him (thanks, Dad!).

The creature covers himself with Victor’s coat and runs off into the wilderness, with his creator’s journal.

He later finds a barn occupied by a family. The creature hides inside clandestinely, and as the months pass, learns to speak and read as he watches the family interact. In addition, he reads Victor’s journal, learning the story of his own creation. As the family deals with violent debt collectors, the creature soon takes it upon himself to actually talk with the family’s blind patriarch. But just as he expresses his kindness for the creature, his family chases the creature away, thinking he’s assaulting the blind man.

After the family bolts, the creature, in anguish, torches their abandoned home. He then shouts to the sky, “I will have revenge! Frankenstein!” I guess this was meant to be similar to when Kirk shouted “Khan!!!” in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but it just ends up falling flat.

During this time, Victor has returned to Geneva, believing his creation has died of cholera (as there was an outbreak of it while he was playing in his lab). As he plans to marry Elizabeth, Victor learns that his brother William (now played by Ryan Smith) has been murdered, and Elizabeth’s friend Justine (Trevyn McDowell) has been convicted of the crime.

As Victor and Elizabeth recover from the horrific sight of Justine being hanged by a lynch mob, the former is startled by the appearance of the creature, who demands that he meet him at the nearby mountains, which the creature calls “the sea of ice.”

At their meeting, Victor sits in both astonishment and horror as his creation reveals how knowledgeable and resentful he has become. But the creature has only one demand of his creator: he wants Victor to make a companion for him. This request terrifies Victor, but the monster’s promise to disappear forever leads him to attempt to comply. Elizabeth is angered when Victor tells her that their wedding will have to be postponed in order to give him time to complete this work (which he keeps hidden from her).

But Victor begins to have second thoughts when the creature insists that Justine’s body be used for this new creation. Despite the monster’s threats that he’ll bring horror into his life, Victor breaks his promise.

After Victor marries Elizabeth, the creature kills Victor’s father on their wedding night. Despite Victor’s best efforts, the creature later breaks into his bedroom, and after some brief words, kills Elizabeth by ripping her heart out. The creature even shows the heart to Victor and says, “I keep my promises!”

We now come to what is my least favorite part of this movie. An anguished Victor desperately attempts to bring Elizabeth back to life. Like his previous attempt, this one proves successful after placing his wife’s head on Justine’s body. But no sooner is Elizabeth reanimated than the creature appears, happy with this new creation. He and Victor actually attempt to win Elizabeth’s affections before she commits suicide, in anguish that she herself is now a horrific-looking creature. Elizabeth sets herself on fire, which leads to the Frankenstein mansion burning to the ground, although both Victor and the creature escape.

Back on Walton’s boat, Victor says that it’s been months since he lost Elizabeth, and he’s been tracking his creation in order to kill him. But those months have taken a toll on him, and afflicted with pneumonia, he quietly dies. The creature then appears to Walton and his crew. He tearfully tells them that Victor was his father. Victor has a funeral pyre prepared for him and the creature stands with it as he joins his creator by burning himself alive. The sight prompts Walton to quietly order his ship home.

Overall, the film itself is more worthy of its title than Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This is not to say it doesn’t have its flaws, however.

As I mentioned earlier, the scene in which Elizabeth is briefly brought back to life is the weakest part of the film. This is because the sequence is not only not in the book, it fails to be the emotionally moving moment it strives to be because it’s unnecessarily stretched out. In the book, Victor simply pursues the creature to the Arctic after Elizabeth’s death, which is quick and jolting.

In the plus column, Branagh does a good job making Victor as likable as he was in the book. Bonham Carter is fine as Elizabeth, although like many of the other actresses who have played this role, she doesn’t exactly have enough screen time to make a lasting impression.

The makeup for the creature, by Daniel Parker, Paul Engelen, and Carol Hemming, is appropriately gasp-inducing.

Ironically, another factor that contributes to this movie’s flaws is De Niro’s performance as the Creature. He certainly gives it his best shot, but never truly draws the viewer into the character’s plight the way Boris Karloff did. As a result, all we really see is De Niro playing a role rather than a true cinematic incarnation of that role.

When the late, great Jonathan Demme was casting Hannibal Lecter for his terror classic The Silence of the Lambs, he said that the first person the studio wanted for the role was Sean Connery. Demme, however, prevailed when his own choice for that role, Anthony Hopkins, was cast instead. I bring this up because De Niro playing the creature here is probably what would’ve happened if Connery had played Lecter. Sure, it’s an awesome actor in the part, but said actor’s own persona overshadows any attempt to make the character his own.

In fairness, the novel Dracula has an intense climax. Coppola’s film made the mistake of inserting a stupid love story into the narrative. Shelley’s book, on the other hand, has a more melancholy ending, and while this film certainly adheres to that, it fails to make it an emotionally involving experience for the audience, especially when you take into account that many of the classic Frankenstein pictures, including the 1931 original, all have more lively endings (complete with explosions).

Ultimately, this movie may not be a classic, but it definitely tries.

Rob Kirchgassner

Rob is a blogger, critic, and author. His latest novel is Ailurophobia, available now from Amazon.

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