Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

By Rike, Jennifer L. | The Christian Century, February 15, 1995 | Go to article overview

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein


Rike, Jennifer L., The Christian Century


Perhaps it was somehow fitting that two long-awaited film versions of horror tales - Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Interview with the Vampire - were released just before Christmas, when Christians were pondering the miracle of God made man. Both films testify to the devastating results of humans' trying to be gods.

Frankenstein is the Faustian over-reacher whose quest to create life brings death to all he loves. Shelley subtitled her tale The Modern Prometheus, associating Frankenstein with the Titan who stole fire from the gods and was condemned by Zeus to eternal torture for his presumption. By his title, director Kenneth Branagh dares us to expect a rendition faithful to Shelley's original, but he delivers one too close for comfort and too far for praise.

What ordinarily makes a horror tale horrifying is the careful construction of a situation which has the appearance of normalcy but then discloses some terrifyingly "other" reality" Unlike Shelley, however, Branagh never establishes the veneer of normalcy; in fact, he strives mightily to do the opposite. Cameras shoot from wild top-down or down-up angles, swirling around the actors. Conversation proceeds at a dervish-like pace, with much screeching and shouting by Frankenstein's adoptive sister and fiancee Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) and fellow medical student Henry Clerval (Tom Hulce). Whereas Shelley's Frankenstein seeks out the serene beauty of the Swiss Alps to escape his guilt and dread, Branagh's Frankenstein fights his way through torrential thunderstorms and fog, encountering disaster at nearly every turn. I found myself tiring of the film's frenzied pace - every scene seeking a climax and the sound score hammering it home. Apparently Branagh intended with this surrealistic style to evoke Frankenstein's megalomania, his hubristic desire to create as only God can.

But Branagh switches to a stark realism just when those accustomed to Star Wars special effects would least expect it - in portraying the creation and transformation of the creature. Reviewers have slammed Robert DeNiro's portrayal of the "monster" (Frankenstein never named his creation) as "Brando in stitches"; he does look more like a hapless survivor of a car wreck than a fiend of suspicious origins. But most important is that, unlike most renditions, including the 1931 version starring Boris Karloff, Branagh's film attempts to represent Shelley's insights into the psychological dynamics of any creature who is abandoned, scapegoated and abused. …

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