Mary Shelley

Frankenstein (1910, J. Searle Dawley)

In its opening title card, Frankenstein warns it will be a liberal adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel. It’s only going to be sixteen minutes after all.

But Frankenstein hits most of the big events–it opens with Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips) leaving for university, where he becomes obsessed with the insane idea of creating life. And so he does. Charles Ogle is the Monster. One of the film’s adaptation choices is to make the Monster as evil from the start. Sure Phillips is horrified by his deed and locks himself in his room to cry about it, but Ogle’s immediate reaction is to try to kill him.

Eventually Ogle tracks Phillips back home, where Phillips is finally ready to tie the knot with Mary Fuller. He’s gotten the create-life-by-throwing-a-couple-different-powders-in-a-cauldron bug out of his system–wild oats seeded–and he’s ready to settle down. But Ogle’s not letting him get away with it.

Frankenstein has no moving shots. No panning, no scanning. Director Dawley has his one shot and all the action plays out in it. He gets very creative–Ogle getting into the house at the end is particularly effective. Ogle is where Frankenstein comes to life; Phillips is a bit too histrionic. Not if he isn’t supposed to be the hero. If Frankenstein were just a little less forgiving of Phillips and let him get some comeuppance–or just acknowledge he deserves some–Phillips’s histrionics would be fine.

But he gets a pass and so they aren’t.

Ogle’s not the whole show–Searle does good work–but when Ogle arrives, there’s nothing else to Frankenstein. Everything is waiting for the next Monster sighting. Ogle’s demonic looking, with fur and exaggerated extremities. He does come out of a cauldron, after all, in a truly glorious reverse motion effect. Frankenstein has some great editing. Dawley knows how to create tension, both with effects shots and just Ogle shots.

Frankenstein is quite good. Dawley and Ogle create something particular, especially with the slightly weird, slightly technically ambitious finale. It’s one of Dawley’s most liberal adaptation moves but also perfect for the medium.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by J. Searle Dawley; screenplay by Dawley, based on the novel by Mary Shelley; produced by Thomas A. Edison; released by Edison Manufacturing Company.

Starring Augustus Phillips (Frankenstein), Mary Fuller (Elizabeth), and Charles Ogle (The Monster).


The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, James Whale)

For The Bride of Frankenstein, director Whale takes a contradictory approach. It's either more is more, or less is less. More music, all the time. Franz Waxman's frequently playful music rarely fits its scenes, unless Whale is going for a melodramatic farce, which he really doesn't seem to be doing. I kept hoping he would be, because it might make the film more compelling.

More Monster–Boris Karloff is nonsensically running around the countryside, finding someone to accidentally kill or not. William Hurlbut's screenplay contrives connections between loose, if memorable, scenes and never pauses to explain why the Monster kills another little girl. Maybe he really liked doing it from the first one.

Of course, the Monster could explain since Karloff now has lines to deliver. But all of his lines are lame.

Poor Colin Clive has almost nothing to do. None of the characters in Bride have arcs running the whole film–not even the Monster–but Clive pops in at the beginning and then at the end. In one of Hurlbut's weaker moments, Clive goes from pro-mad scientist to anti-mad scientist at the snap of the fingers. It's ludicrous.

Ernest Thesiger's good as the villain. Valerie Hobson not as Clive's wife.

Whale doesn't have enough coverage so Ted J. Kent's editing is usually bad. Except the finale, which is wondrous and is so tightly edited, one has to wonder why the rest of the film is so loose. Probably because there has to be a story.

It's a trying seventy-five minutes.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by James Whale; screenplay by William Hurlbut, based on an adaptation by Hurlbut and John L. Balderston and a novel by Mary Shelley; director of photography, John J. Mescall; edited by Ted J. Kent; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Boris Karloff (The Monster), Colin Clive (Henry Frankenstein), Valerie Hobson (Elizabeth), Ernest Thesiger (Dr. Pretorius), O.P. Heggie (Hermit), Una O’Connor (Minnie), and Elsa Lanchester (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley).


Frankenstein (2011, Danny Boyle), the second version

Maybe Danny Boyle isn’t the right guy to direct a stage play of Frankenstein. When he goes to close-ups–this Frankenstein being a filmed performance, with a lot of overhead shots and close-ups to make it somewhat filmic (along with terrible music choices)–he doesn’t seem to recognize some of his actors aren’t really doing enough emoting for a close-up.

Jonny Lee Miller does fine emoting. Miller plays the Creature. Miller’s captivating. Phenomenal. Breathtaking. Every nice adjective one could come up with. Even when he’s got some really weak dialogue, Miller nails it.

Nick Dear’s play–loosely adapted from the novel with some familiar movie details thrown in–gives the Creature a lot to do. It doesn’t give Frankenstein much of a character, but Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t put much into the performance so it evens out. Otherwise, he just stands around waiting for Miller to finish something amazing.

There are some cute nods to the Universal films, set design, a really cute music one. Also the humor. There’s a lot of humor in Frankenstein, presumably to compensate for the darkness. Except Dear (and Boyle in his filming choices) go real dark. So why not own it?

Well, they don’t own their good choices so why should own their bad ones. Bad choices like George Harris as Frankenstein’s father. He’s awful.

Naomie Harris is excellent as Elizabeth though. She and Miller’s scene together is heart-wrenching.

Cumberbatch’s disinterest aside, the script’s the problem. But Miller gloriously overcomes it.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Danny Boyle; play by Nick Dear, based on the novel by Mary Shelley; music by Karl Hyde and Rick Smith; released by National Theatre Live.

Starring Jonny Lee Miller (The Creature), Benedict Cumberbatch (Victor Frankenstein), Naomie Harris (Elizabeth Lavenza), George Harris (M. Frankenstein), Ella Smith (Clarice), Mark Armstrong (Rab), John Stahl (Ewan) and Karl Johnson (de Lacey).


Frankenstein (2011, Danny Boyle), the first version

Maybe the National Theatre Live just recorded a cruddy night for the Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature performance of Frankenstein. Maybe there was some immediate reason that night to explain why Cumberbatch’s performance consists of little more than speaking when inhaling and occasionally giving an angry look.

It’s not like Nick Dear’s play is good enough to compensate for a bad performance in the lead. The first act, introducing Cumberbatch’s monster to the world, is tedious. There’s no chemistry between Cumberbatch and Karl Johnson as his mentor. I won’t even get into Cumberbatch’s lack of glee during the gleeful discovery of the world sequence.

But then Jonny Lee Miller shows up and the play gets a whole lot more tolerable. He’s exhausted, tortured, selfish, shallow. He and Naomie Harris are excellent together, especially during the comic relief portions. Not so much during the dramatic parts, just because Dear’s script is really weak on them… but on maybe half of them.

Cumberbatch is best during a few of his scenes with Miller. Not all of them, not even the most important ones–Dear’s lukewarm ending is even worse since Cumberbatch runs the scene. But some of them. Maybe it’s just Miller bringing actual energy to the production.

Thanks to Dear’s writing–Miller has to fight for good moments as Frankenstein, while Cumberbatch wastes all the good ones for the Creature–there’s only so far this production can go. It’s unfortunate, since Harris and Miller do some excellent work.

Otherwise, it’s exceedingly pointless.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Danny Boyle; play by Nick Dear, based on the novel by Mary Shelley; music by Karl Hyde and Rick Smith; released by National Theatre Live.

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch (The Creature), Jonny Lee Miller (Victor Frankenstein), Naomie Harris (Elizabeth Lavenza), George Harris (M. Frankenstein), Ella Smith (Clarice), Mark Armstrong (Rab), John Stahl (Ewan) and Karl Johnson (de Lacey).


Frankenstein (1952, Don Medford)

For a twenty minute and change live performance, Frankenstein could be a lot worse. Director Medford occasionally will find a good shot. Mary Alice Moore (as Elizabeth) is real good at the beginning and competent, if not quite good, at the end. Medford showcases her during her best parts.

As the mad doctor John Newland isn’t particularly good. He’s got a couple okay moments, but his hysterics get tiresome fast.

Screenwriter Henry Myers both updates the novel to modernity and cuts it way down. The last act is the characters trapped in the castle with the angry monster. It’s a neat idea, but can’t be executed with this budget.

And, as the Monster, Lon Chaney Jr. He tries really hard and he’s not good.

Amusingly, the whole reason the Monster goes bad–besides Newland being a terrible scientist–is a mean little kid.

Frankenstein’s odd and nearly worth seeing.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Don Medford; teleplay by Henry Myers, based on the novel by Mary Shelley; “Tales of Tomorrow” developed by George F. Foley Jr. and Mort Abrahams; produced by Foley; aired by the American Broadcasting Company.

Starring John Newland (Victor Frankenstein), Mary Alice Moore (Elizabeth), Michael Mann (William), Raymond Bramley (Elizabeth’s Father), Peggy Allenby (Elise the maid), Farrell Pelly (Matthew the butler) and Lon Chaney Jr. (The Monster).


Frankenstein (1931, James Whale), the digest version

The eight millimeter digest version of Frankenstein removes all but three main characters. Colin Clive gets the most time, though loses all subplots and character, with Boris Karloff probably coming in second. It’s odd to watch Frankenstein and have the monster make so little impression but it’s clearly possible.

Dwight Frye, for a while, makes the greatest impact, but only because he’s present in most the background of the establishing scenes.

The digest also retains the drowned little girl, Maria, though she’s barely there too. It’s strange to see what the editors thought was the most resonate, but the little girl’s drowning does lead to the manhunt, which does feed the finish. I guess it makes sense.

The little edits are bad. Reaction shots are cut, the film’s just generally sped up. Frankenstein loses top much personality when s drastically cut.

Even the fiery windmill sequence suffers in this abbreviation.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by James Whale; screenplay by Francis Edward Faragoh and Garrett Ford, based on an adaptation by John L. Balderston of a play by Peggy Webling and a novel by Mary Shelley; directors of photography, Arthur Edeson and Paul Ivano; edited by Clarence Kolster; music by Bernhard Kaun; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Castle Films.

Starring Colin Clive (Dr. Henry Frankenstein), Boris Karloff (The Monster), Dwight Frye (Fritz), Lionel Belmore (Herr Vogel) and Marilyn Harris (Little Maria).


Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994, Kenneth Branagh)

I’m trying to think of good things about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It starts off poorly, with an opening title seemingly made on a cheap video editor from the late 1970s, then moves into the Walton framing sequence. Apparently, no one involved with the film—Branagh, the screenwriters, the producers—understood the point of these frames in the novel. Here, Branagh uses them as a warning about obsession. I think. He saddles that delivery on Aidan Quinn, who’s absolutely awful in the film.

But terrible performances are Frankenstein’s surplus. Branagh is laughably bad, sometimes so bewilderingly bad one wonders how he thought he was making a reasonable film. Tom Hulce is weak, as Branagh seems to have instructed him to play it like Amadeus. The elephant in the room is Robert De Niro as the monster.

Between De Niro’s risible performance and Branagh’s ludicrous direction, Frankenstein might actually work as a big joke. It’s somewhat unthinkable these two filmmakers—who have done such substantial work elsewhere—really thought they were making a good film. The film reminds one, on multiple occasions, Young Frankenstein is far better.

There are some good performances—Helena Bonham Carter is nowhere near as bad as the two leads, Ian Holm holds it together in his few significant scenes and Trevyn McDowell is good. John Cleese is… out of place, to say the least.

The film’s not an adaptation of the novel, rather an amalgam of every Frankenstein film before it; I can’t believe no one sued.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Kenneth Branagh; screenplay by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont, based on the novel by Mary Shelley; director of photography, Roger Pratt; edited by Andrew Marcus; music by Patrick Doyle; production designer, Tim Harvey; produced by Francis Ford Coppola, James V. Hart and John Veitch; released by TriStar Pictures.

Starring Robert De Niro (The Creature), Kenneth Branagh (Victor Frankenstein), Tom Hulce (Henry Clerval), Helena Bonham Carter (Elizabeth), Aidan Quinn (Captain Robert Walton), Trevyn McDowell (Justine), Ian Holm (Baron Frankenstein), Robert Hardy (Professor Krempe), Celia Imrie (Mrs. Moritz) and John Cleese (Professor Waldman).


Frankenstein (2007, Jed Mercurio)

“a monstrous creation ; especially : a work or agency that ruins its originator”

Frankenstein. (2008). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.

Retrieved October 2, 2008, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Frankenstein

I wish I could use the OED, but it doesn’t seem worth thirty bucks.

Especially ruins. Two important words for a Frankenstein adaptation. Jed Mercurio does a future Frankenstein, set in the near future–after a super-volcano covers the world with ash, presumably to allow for nighttime shooting and a small number of outdoor shots. What his Frankenstein, here a Victoria (played by Helen McCrory), does different than her filmic predecessors is create her monster for a reason–she needs to farm its organs for her dying son, William. William’s father is Henry Clerval (James Purefoy).

Purefoy is the only character, besides Neil Pearson’s Professor Waldman, whose surname the script verbalizes. The words Frankenstein are never spoken in the television movie’s ninety minutes and they’re only seen on screen briefly and half distorted. Discovering how Mercurio is going to bring familiar elements into the effort is one of the more interesting things. Because lots of the stuff is neat–a female Frankenstein married to Clerval, neat. Mercurio makes frequent homage to the 1931 film and maybe even some of the Hammer ones (I really wouldn’t know, I try to forget the Hammer Frankenstein movies).

But Mercurio’s neatness–his cuteness–is eventually problematic. Bad guy scientist Lindsay Duncan is revealed, in the end credits, to be Professor Pretorius. During the film, everyone just calls her Jane. So her status as a bad guy is disguised through a trick, but it’s also indicative of where Mercurio goes wrong. He comes really close to making something new, but fails because he’s not adapting the novel or even using it as a starting point… he’s making a neatly put together, kind of Frankenstein adaptation, one where cute homages overpower the story.

Mercurio introduces a lot of entirely new ideas to the standard–a female Frankenstein, a motive for creating the monster, a lack of responsibility (Duncan and Pearson are the ones who take over the project)… not to mention the good doctor putting her dying son’s DNA into the monster. With the rather adult romance between McCrory and Purefoy, Mercurio’s Frankenstein could go places and, until the twist ending, appears ready to plunge into the deep end. I trusted Mercurio to pull off the ending right, which might explain some of my displeasure. He copped out. He didn’t just cop out of a proper adaptation ending, he copped out of ending the story he told well. His ending is as sensational as a television movie with an obviously limited budget (the monster only gets one close-up) can get.

I think Mercurio was going for a stab at reality, but it’s unclear.

McCrory is good, though her determination in the first act is poorly paced. At ninety minutes, Mercurio’s script feels like a solid stage adaptation rather than a filmic adaptation. He’s restricted to certain sets but he doesn’t spend enough time on them. Purefoy starts out stumbling, but eventually turns in a respectable performance. Both Pearson and Duncan are goofy villains, never once believable as scientists working in academia. Benedict Wong is great as McCrory’s assistant–Ed Gore, get it? It’s cute, but it’s also only in the credits.

I wasn’t expecting much from Frankenstein–I thought it was the BBC holiday special from last year; it isn’t–but it had a lot of good material in it. But Mercurio got lost in all his busyness and didn’t concentrate on what was working right. I mean, there’s a whole subplot with the cops on the monster’s trail. It’s silly.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jed Mercurio; screenplay by Mercurio, based on the novel by Mary Shelley; director of photography, Wojciech Szepel; edited by Andrew McClelland; music by John Lunn; production designer, Will Hughes-Jones; produced by Hugh Warren; released by Independent Television.

Starring Helen McCrory (Dr. Victoria Frankenstein), James Purefoy (Dr. Henry Clerval), Neil Pearson (Professor Waldman), Benedict Wong (Dr. Ed Gore), Matthew Rault-Smith (William Clerval), Fraser James (Joe), Lindsay Duncan (Professor Jane Pretorius), Ace Bhatti (Dr. Dhillon), Julian Bleach (The Monster) and Cally Hamilton (Little Girl).


Frankenstein (1931, James Whale)

I’m trying to imagine how Frankenstein looks on the big screen–maybe on one the size of Radio City Music Hall; James Whale fills the screen upward. He directs the viewer’s attention always up, starting with the first scenes in the tower laboratory. The frames are obviously filled with extensive detail, which video certainly does not preserve. This style–tall screen (versus wide screen)–amplifies the watered-down Expressionist sets.

The film’s set design is stunning. Again, to complement Whale’s tall screen shots, the Frankenstein manor has cavernous rooms. The actors frequently occupy corners, making me wonder if theatrical audiences had to search for them in the expansive shots. But when the film’s sets are for the outdoors–the film’s famous graveyard opening for example–Whale uses the frame much differently. The painted backdrop, the endlessly murky sky, is Frankenstein‘s suspension of disbelief on-switch. Opening with it, Whale gets the viewer to accept he or she is no longer on familiar ground. Edward Van Sloan’s opening warning probably contributes as well.

Without a musical score, with incredibly delicate sound design and occasionally jarring cuts, Frankenstein is a strange dream. The first scene with Boris Karloff is the best example of this dream state. The nearly silent introduction to the monster, combined with the perspectively challenged sets, distances the viewer from Colin Clive and Van Sloan. This approach to the narrative–it being distant from the characters and more objective–really plays out in the last scene. As the Monster burns in the windmill, it’s hard not to feel sorry for him, but the film doesn’t encourage any sympathy. The lack of music really makes the narrative perspective indifferent.

That indifference only applies to the story of Clive and Karloff–and to some degree to Clive’s romance with Mae Clarke. The film’s very strange for the first act–with the grave-robbing, followed by Dwight Frye robbing the medical college (the lecture in the medical college is also worth some examination, which I’m not going to make time for here), then the rather frank scene between Clarke and John Boles. The friendship between Boles and Clive’s characters hardly gets any screen time, yet it’s present and important to the film. Frankenstein takes a lot of filmic shortcuts, usually to good effect, and that conflicted friendship is successful.

But it isn’t the most successful… the strangest thing about Frankenstein is the place of Frederick Kerr as Clive’s father. As it plays out, Kerr is the film’s main character. Even with all the conflict stemming from bringing a monster to life, the real focus is Clive and Clarke’s wedding, specifically what Kerr’s great scenes related to it. When Kerr first appears, Frankenstein changes direction–it goes from being uncanny to a bent traditional–and each of his scenes is better than the previous.

His performance isn’t the film’s best–all the principals are great, with Clive somehow turning that field day for overacting into one of Hollywood’s greatest portrayals of insanity. But in Whale’s detachment, Clive becomes even more removed in his recovering sanity. Boles and Clarke occasionally seem like they’re in a melodrama, but both have some great moments. Van Sloan’s great, as is Frye.

Karloff’s performance is singular.

Only in the end–like with most Universal horror films–does Frankenstein begin to show its stitches. The lack of content, of actual story, comes out as everything begins to run together (the Monster’s off screen rampaging, the attack on Clarke) and logic hops out the window. Around the same time, men in 1930s dress appear alongside the guys in lederhosen, which might give logic a shove.

It doesn’t really matter much, because by that time, Frankenstein‘s already established itself. Whale’s technically superior hunt through the mountains and the windmill finale, as narratively problematic as they are, still work great.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by James Whale; screenplay by Francis Edward Faragoh and Garrett Ford, based on an adaptation by John L. Balderston of a play by Peggy Webling and a novel by Mary Shelley; directors of photography, Arthur Edeson and Paul Ivano; edited by Clarence Kolster; music by Bernhard Kaun; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Colin Clive (Dr. Henry Frankenstein), Mae Clarke (Elizabeth), John Boles (Victor Moritz), Boris Karloff (The Monster), Edward Van Sloan (Dr. Waldman), Frederick Kerr (Baron Frankenstein), Dwight Frye (Fritz), Lionel Belmore (Herr Vogel) and Marilyn Harris (Little Maria).


Frankenstein: The True Story (1973, Jack Smight)

While Frankenstein: The True Story singularly credits Mary Shelley as source material, the actuality is a little more complicated. A Universal-produced TV mini-series, True Story actually mixes some of the Shelley (basically, the end in the Arctic and a brother for Frankenstein), with Universal’s 1930s films, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein (with a little of The Ghost of Frankenstein thrown in too). It also goes so far as to play Frankenstein as a bit of the patsy–he’s not particularly smart, just an assistant to a couple mad scientists. There’s also a serious homoerotic subtext to the film–first, Frankenstein rejects his fiancée for his mad scientist buddy, then becomes obsessed with the Creature’s physical beauty, rejecting it once it becomes ugly. The subtext disappears around the first hour mark, which is incidentally when Leonard Whiting, as Frankenstein, starts acting well. Until the point of betraying the Creature, he really doesn’t do anything but plead with his mad scientist friend to let him play too. However, once there’s some conflict, Whiting has something to work with, so much so, by the end, I was wishing True Story was a better story, just so Whiting’s acting wouldn’t be wasted.

There are a lot of good performances in True Story, but most of them follow the same pattern as Whiting’s. Slight in the first part, better and great in the rest. For example, Nicola Pagett was annoying as could be as Elizabeth (Frankenstein’s fiancée) in the beginning, but then she went from good to great in about twenty minutes. David McCallum as the first mad scientist is amusing, but nothing more. As the Creature, Michael Sarrazin is good once he starts getting ugly. When Frankenstein’s primping him around London (yes, True Story moves the setting to England for some ludicrous reason), Sarrazin looks like David Bowie glammed out. Once he gets ugly, he gets to show some emotion. Agnes Moorehead, unfortunately, gets stuck with this terrible housekeeper role with an awful accent. Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud both turn in small cameos (Richardson as the blind woodsman). Richardson’s terrible, but Gielgud’s great. However, whenever he’s onscreen, True Story belongs to James Mason. He’s playing this absurd, handless mad scientist (based on the one from Bride) but this time he’s got Chinese assistants and plans to takeover Europe. Mason realizes how crazy it is and he thoroughly enjoys it.

Unfortunately, True Story is a technical mess. The costumes seem to be intended to emphasis the men’s butts (given Whiting’s famous butt shot in Romeo and Juliet, I doubt it’s unintentional), while the set decoration looks like something out of the 1930s… at the latest. As True Story should be set in the late 1700s, I doubt I should recognize a chair as one I’ve sat in. Some of the sets are mildly interesting–like the lab–but once Mason’s pseudo-Chinese mysticism lab shows up, True Story‘s sets look like a farce. Jack Smight’s direction is, unsurprisingly, uninspired, but rarely bad.

For a mediocre three-hour film, True Story is actually pretty good. It moves fast and when it doesn’t have good performances, it has moments (the sets, the homoeroticism) to amuse the viewer in other ways. At times, in small ways, it comes close to being something special, particularly with Frankenstein and Elizabeth’s relationship, but more often than not, the writing stomps the life out of those moments.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Smight; screenplay by Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, based on the novel by Mary Shelley; director of photography, Arthur Ibbetson; edited by Richard Marden; music by Gil Melle; production designer, Wilfred Shingleton; produced by Hunt Stromberg Jr.; released by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring James Mason (Dr. Polidori), Leonard Whiting (Victor Frankenstein), David McCallum (Henry Clerval), Jane Seymour (Agatha), Nicola Pagett (Elizabeth), Michael Sarrazin (The Creature), Agnes Moorehead (Mrs. Blair), John Gielgud (the chief constable), Tom Baker (the sea captain) and Ralph Richardson (Mr. Lacey).


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