C.H. Newell chats with filmmaker Larry Fessenden about his new film, DEPRAVED, Mary Shelley, the state of America, and more.
The newest film from Larry Fessenden is a fresh take on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein that takes aim at our violent patriarchal culture.
Frankenstein’s Army. 2013. Directed by Richard Raaphorst. Screenplay by Miguel Tejada-Flores & Chris W. Mitchell from a story by Tejada-Flores & Raaphorst.
Starring Robert Gwilym, Hon Ping Tang, Alexander Mercury, Luke Newberry, Joshua Sasse, Mark Stevenson, Andrei Zayats, Karel Roden, Klaus Lucas, Cristina Cataline, Jan de Lukowicz, & Zdenek Barinka. MDI Media Group/Dark Sky Films/Pellicola/XYZ Films/Sirena Film/Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic/The Czech Film Industry Support Programme.
Rated R. 84 minutes.
★★★★ There are no end to people sick of the found footage sub-genre, no matter how it’s used or in what genre it gets repurposed. I’m not one of them, though. For me, if a film can find a way to use found footage that’s at least a little fresh, unique in some way, then I’m really able to get into it. Frankenstein’s Army chooses to not only mash-up the horror and war genres, it further throws in some Mary Shelley DNA with a found footage setup. Honestly, even if it’s not your cup of tea in the end, this is at the very least an idea worth giving a chance.
The film has a lot of creepy things going for it, as well as the fact so much of everything is done practically, using long takes that lend themselves to the found footage format. Director Richard Raaphorst tells an interesting story with an incredibly terrifying plot that never quits. While not everything works all of the time, Frankenstein’s Army is fairly well acted, and the monsters – oh, the monsters! Above all, the horrifying creatures are exactly one of the major reasons why this is effective. Plus, the feeling of a movie trying hard to do some unique monster work, especially through practical effects, is something we’re not often seeing these days. With a few things that could’ve been improved most of the movie is entertaining, as well as dark and definitely disturbing.
On orders from Josef Stalin himself, near the end of World War II a group of Russian soldiers are sent on a mission for the Fatherland. Stalin specifically requests they film everything, so that it might make Russia proud. The troop end up hearing of a number of other soldiers in need of help. When the come across the caretaker of a church, the Russians are led into a terrifying house of horrors; a place where strange creatures lurk in every corner. But what starts as merely an isolated incidents devolves into the soldiers pushing through a massive German factory filled with awful monsters, pieced together from living flesh and metal, pieces of machinery, even propellers. When they discover the caretaker is really Dr. Viktor Frankenstein (Karel Roden), descendant of the original Dr. Frankenstein, the group of soldiers descend into what may as well be Hell.
As the nastiness piles up, none of them are sure they’ll survive until the war is over – in fact, it’s just begun.
After 4,200+ films and counting, a good chunk of those horror, I tend to believe not a whole lot truly scares me. Although, every so often there are things that creep me out, give me a few chills. I must say, there are a couple moments here where I found a creep or two. One scene is after Dmitri (Alexander Mercury) gets tossed down a chute by his fellow soldier, then a creature comes in and grabs a dead body nearby – right after, as Dmitri turns the camera I found that, plus several moments afterwards fairly unsettling. It didn’t shock me to the core, but the way it’s filmed is unsettling. Then once Dmitri goes further and ends up in an office, finding a teddy bear with a woman’s head sewn onto it, the whole thing goes from unsettling to disturbing (check the credits; you’ll find out who that woman-teddy bear is). I love this whole section because then we start getting into the Frankenstein aspect.
And that’s another big reason why I enjoyed the screenplay. Because Frankenstein adaptations are a dime a dozen, or movies and stories that draw from Mary Shelley, such as ‘modern retellings’ and so on. Yet Frankenstein’s Army takes the legacy of the infamous doctor and extends it so that World War II, the Nazis and all they were up to, gets included. That opens up a whole new aspect to the story because the Nazis were into a lot of things experimentation-wise, from medical experiments to hopeful tries towards making ‘supermen’. The original Dr. Frankenstein may as well have gone on to be a Nazi doctor because his work was out of control as it was, attempting to essentially play God, which his supposed descendant here takes to an entirely new level of disturbed.
Many found footage films suffer from a dearth of proper acting. Here, though, we get a main cast who do a fairly good job carrying the material. In addition, Dr. Viktor Frankenstein is played by the ever fabulous Karel Roden, whose talent gives the film an extra quality in the final 20 minutes. His exuberance is terrific, as Viktor starts out subtle then moves quickly into mania, with each minute getting wilder and wilder. Watching him walk around the factory explaining his process, talking of his family history and more, it is quite a treat. In the most morbid way possible. If it weren’t for the actor playing Dmitri and Roden as Frankenstein this wouldn’t have such an interesting finale. But really, the entire cast does a decent job, aside from the old German man that ends up with the soldiers for a short time, along with a boy (the kid wasn’t so bad). It’s not award-winning acting, however, it does the job. Again, the final half hour is a ton of fun, especially the last 19 minutes or so. Dmitri has to endure watching plenty of terror, a few patches of blood and guts, too. It is a grueling end, but packs a gruesome punch.
I’ve got to give Frankenstein’s Army a 4-star rating. Yes, things could’ve been improved at certain points, perhaps some of the bits with the soldiers would do well with a tightening of the screenplay. But it is still one hell of an entertaining horror, bits and pieces of action thrown in and a heavy splash of science fiction. The genre mash-up, all captured in the found footage sub-genre, is spectacular and whereas some films try to do that then end up with too much this movie keeps its eye on the prize. Because really what it aims to be is a monster flick, a creature feature of sorts. Only the jumping-off point is WWII, Nazis, with that extra spice of Frankenstein stirred in. You can do much worse than this if looking for a weird horror to enjoy, or a found footage film. It at least employs the sub-genre in a different way than most of the ‘lost in the woods yelling’ or ‘trapped in a mental hospital yelling’ found footage efforts out there already. Give it a chance.
Victor Frankenstein. 2015. Directed by Paul McGuigan. Screenplay by Max Landis.
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, James McAvoy, Jessica Brown Findlay, Bronson Webb, Daniel Mays, Spencer Wilding, Robin Pearce, Andrew Scott, & Callum Turner. Davis Entertainment/TSG Entertainment/MPC/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
Rated PG. 110 minutes.
As a fan of Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking novel Frankenstein, the various adaptations throughout the years, as well as stories giving homage to the original while taking liberties with its thematic elements, are always of interest to me. Then there’s Paul McGuigan who was announced to direct this film, which grabbed my attention. I love several of his movies, most of all Gangster No. 1 and the underrated Willem Dafoe-starred The Reckoning, so to imagine him doing some sort of retelling of this science fiction/horror classic seemed exciting. However, in comes Max Landis. He’s a guy many enjoy hating, but I don’t, I never enjoy disliking anybody. It isn’t because of his attitude so much as it’s a disdain for his narcissism in light of his abilities as a writer. He constantly blames studios and anyone else other than himself for the failure of the films he writes to make big box office numbers. His screenplays are often cliche-ridden, though, somehow he insists on being this original thinker of some sort. To be honest, Chronicle and Deer Woman (a short for Masters of Horror directed by his father John Landis) are the only things of his I’ve felt were actually top notch – the former an awesome subversion of the superhero genre, the latter a hilarious take on horror and folklore mixed into one. Unfortunately, the writing in Victor Frankenstein is no better, and it is one of the biggest problems of the film. With a creepy monster that is certainly unique in its own right, a couple good performances (most of all Daniel Radcliffe), this could’ve been a retelling that worked. Only the writing drags this down to a barely mediocre romp through beat down territory, masquerading as if it’s something better.
The look of the film is certainly dark and full of wonder. McGuigan and D.P. Fabian Wagner certainly capture a gritty aesthetic, which helps a great deal. If this looked like any other period piece I wouldn’t have much to enjoy. Particularly, I love some of the gruesome imagery when Victor and Igor are first trying to bring things back to life. The monkey thing they manage to resurrect, then have trouble with, is downright terrifying! Dig it, so hard. Even the body parts Igor works on, as Victor brings them to him “piecemeal”, are nasty and hideous to look at. These elements really take us to the time, like sitting in on the early days of modern technique in medicine. Overall, though, it’s the dreary and bleak aesthetic, the creepy atmosphere and dreadful tone which makes the look and feel of Victor Frankenstein the best part of this whole experience. Lots of nice looking visuals, on the opposite end of the spectrum there are all the shadowy and also disturbing scenes/shots. These two opposing elements make the film great to look at. The sound design and the score are also well worth their work, I really liked the music – favourite part is the piece playing when Igor finds Victor in the massive lab working on resurrecting his Prometheus; lots of good horns, of which I’m a fan.
Max Landis can harp on all he wants about this movie not succeeding as well as planned. Ultimately, his supposed knack for writing eludes me. I was a huge fan of Chronicle, still am. Other than that I’m not exactly sure why anybody thinks he’s anything special. Not trying to rag on the guy. I’m a published author in the short story realm, I know it isn’t easy. But he simply can’t take any criticism, or else you’re labeled someone who “doesn’t get it”, or whatever. Case and point re: his poor writing, some of the quips Victor makes throughout the film are impressively lame. Such as the whole “It‘s alive” scene when the success arrives. I get it, Landis tries to be oh-so-clever and subvert a well-known scene concerning Frankenstein. It simply doesn’t fly, it is lame and he can do better than that. Another thing I don’t like is the tone. At times there’s a playfulness which detracts from all the darkness; the dark I love, Landis pulls out the grittiness of the period, especially all the horrors of burgeoning medical practices (think: draining of abscess). I’m not opposed to comedy. There’s a time and a place for it, and Landis forgets each of those things.
In many parts, Victor Frankenstein is a fun amalgamation of Mary Shelley’s original novel, as well as both the 1931 film Frankenstein and its 1935 sequel The Bride of Frankenstein. The reason it falls short is because there are too many reaching qualities that never get where they intend to go. First, there’s the heavy handed in vitro fertilization remark Landis tosses in, as if Victor is some champion of women. Only that’s just a one-off bit of dialogue for Victor to spout instead of it playing further into his advances in modern medicine (maybe Landis is trying to boost his credibility with women; who knows). The screenplay could’ve done something with this bit, instead it comes out to make Victor look crude instead of it being a testament to his visionary qualities. Second reason for this movie’s failure to be what it ought to – another movie that has an artificial, manufactured love story tossed into the middle of it. While the Kenneth Branagh directed Frankenstein did have a love interest that part of the story helped to further the torment of Frankenstein’s creature, the relationship in this screenplay only serves to fill in spots where nothing else is happening. Really, I don’t understand why so many movies have to include a love angle, as if it’s written into the rulebook somewhere. If it’s organic, sure, but why does there have to be one in here? Why does Igor have to fall for a woman in order for us to watch him develop? Yes, he’s living life now outside of the circus and everything is different. There are enough things going on, though, and adding the love interest in only muddies things, taking away from the main relationship between Igor and Victor. The bit of time spent on this other relationship could’ve been spent strengthening everything else happening.
The finale is exciting, if you like loud bangs and sparks flying, yells, those types of things. Other than that I wasn’t too impressed. This is a 3-star film at best. Shelley’s original story is one I love, and there are absolutely some excellent revisions here, making parts of the film fun. But in the end, Victor Frankenstein has tonal issues and drags on due to a lack of focus. The efforts of McAvoy and Radcliffe are not enough to save this picture, which is too bad because they are talented actors with plenty to offer. Everyone here tries, I can’t even fault Landis for not trying. Simply put, a swing and a miss. Entertaining enough to watch some night with the lights down low, but don’t expect any sort of classic in the making. Because this is only a relatively decent popcorn flick.
Closer to God. 2014. Directed and Written by Billy Senese. Starring Jeremy Childs, Shelean Newman, Shannon Hoppe, David Alford, and Isaac Disney. LC Pictures. Unrated. 81 minutes. Horror/Sci-Fi/Thriller.
Usually I keep my ear out and head up for any new horror films that sound different, or for whatever reason pique my interest. Closer to God went on the checklist of my IMDB account a long while back, before there was ever a trailer, any pictures online. It was just a poster. Not the one I’ve put on here, but a simple red background with a black outlined tree extending its roots out underneath down towards the movie’s title.
I was surprised when I finally got to see Closer to God because, though it’s not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, the film was really interesting. Billy Senese, both writer and director, crafts a decent tale of horror, which acts as a film metaphor for the fears people get over human cloning, genetic manipulation, and the ethical/moral implications and ramifications of these practices. While it very literally tackles the subject, the ideas work well with the horror element of the film. This turns out to be more horror than science fiction, even if it wishes to be more the latter.
Dr. Victor Reed (Jeremy Childs) has completed the first successful cloning of a human being. He creates a baby girl – Elizabeth. She is a full-on experiment; made for research and genetic modifications. Not to mention little Elizabeth is made with the genetics of Dr. Reed/an unnamed individual. Naturally everyone is outraged. People hate what the doctor is doing, but they’ve got no idea what else is going on inside the house.
While the storm of angry people push on, morally outraged by the new cloned baby, another child is causing trouble – Ethan.
The housekeepers at Dr. Reed’s home, Mary and Richard (Shelean Newman and Richard Alford), are trying to take care of this boy, troubled little Ethan, who seems to be proving too much. Things only get more difficult, and it turns out Ethan is growing, he’s hurting, and he might just want to get the hell out of the good doctor’s family home.
Something I’m a little tired of is all these indie films, horror or science fiction, which try to be the next Frankenstein. I love Mary Shelley – I’ve read the book, loved it, and I even enjoy the Kenneth Branagh starred-directed version. What I’m sick of is the fact that either critics try to claim a movie is drawing from Shelley, or the film itself relies too heavily on those comparisons within the script. I mean, there’s even a point where we see someone hold up a sign that says – you guessed it – FRANKENSTEIN! And someone literally calls Dr. Reed – Dr. Frankenstein.
Plus, Dr. Reed’s first name is Victor. Y’know, it just feels like a thick layer of cheese over top of what could be a good enough film on its own.
It’s a tired, tired comparison. And I get it, the obviousness of it sits right in front of us. I’ve discussed the ethics of human cloning enough via university courses in Philosophy and English Literature to last me a full lifetime.
My biggest issue is that, by relying on the comparison between its own material and Shelley’s Frankenstein, Senese creates an environment where there’s too much reliance on the comparison itself. Frequently the Frankenstein connection comes out, as I mentioned before, and it’s so often that the whole concept becomes annoying. Senese easily created an atmosphere of dread and tension without invoking Shelley, over and over.
When Closer to God really works, though, it works.
A scene truly got to me a little ways in; when Mary (Shelean Newman) goes up to bring Ethan some food. We get a glimpse of him in the corner – you can only barely make out his face, but it is one of pure evil, or emptiness, a void lacking any humanity. He doesn’t make a sound, Mary is clearly unnerved. She leaves, but just as she does and the camera moves back with her Ethan comes running out to the table, smashing things, and screaming in this utterly soul crushing voice that cuts through your skin and your bones. I like to think I’ve seen a lot of horror – in general I’m up to almost 4,100 films in total – but this moment genuinely frightened the shit out into my pants. I was wide-eyed and actually had to text my girlfriend, who is out on a Saturday night unlike her cinephile boyfriend, to tell her how scary the damn scene came off. A great, great bit of subtle horror.
There’s another creepy, brief scene I like, but it’s not nearly as terrifying. There’s an almost horror-beauty to it: Dr. Reed heads out to the gate in front of his house and watches as protesters lob burning plastic baby dolls over and into the yard, just about right at his feet. The way Childs simply stands there, watching these flaming plastic heaps come at him – it’s eerily appealing.
As most of the reviews so far have pointed out, the perhaps greatest part of the entire film is the central performance by Jeremy Childs as Doctor Victor Reed. He is an unconventional looking guy to be the lead of a movie – not that I care because I love movies that feel like their characters are real people. There are just so many perfect moments where Childs pulls off the doctor so well. A great exchange happens after SPOILER AHEAD Mary is killed by Ethan – Victor and his wife Claire (Shannon Hoppe) have a short yet rough argument, and Childs does great work with the dialogue between them. He is believable, and that’s what sells the character of Dr. Reed; no matter how cheerily named after Shelley’s titular doctor he may be.
I think if the lead in Closer to God had to have been someone weaker there are tons of scenes that wouldn’t have been able to carry the emotion they did. The chemistry between Childs and Hoppe as the troubled married couple is good stuff. Too many independent films suffer from having wooden acting, along with bad dialogue. These two really sell the fact they are a married couple, it feels like a bad relationship of course, especially considering the circumstances of the film, but it’s real, it doesn’t come out forced and you don’t see two actors acting as husband and wife. The movie is immersive, and certainly the fact Senese wrote a decent script helped that along.
In the end, I think what detracts most from this movie being great is the fact it doesn’t pay out on all the ideas of morality and ethics surrounding the original premise. We get excellently developed tension, a slow and steady pace for most of the film, and then it devolves from what could’ve been, at times, fairly profound horror/science fiction.
Instead of doing more with the science fiction angle, Closer to God drops off into complete horror. Not that there’s anything wrong with that either, I am a horror hound. But I can’t help feeling at least slightly cheated, in a sense. There’s a promise of grand concepts here. The finale of the film becomes a typical sort of thing – I don’t want to fully ruin the ending or anything. Mainly, I love how creepy the Ethan character was, I just don’t think Billy Senese went anywhere innovative or fresh with what he was doing. Essentially all those Frankenstein comparisons never truly go anywhere, all paths leading to a slasher film-like conclusion.
I think Closer to God, for all its creepiness and tension and the incredibly believable performance by Jeremy Childs, is still only a 3 out of 5 star film for me. There was so much promise in the whole project, but I feel as if Billy Senese squandered a lot of what he’d built up. Again, the comparisons to Mary Shelley’s famous gothic horror novel is an angle I’m frankly done with unless it gets taken somewhere useful.
Don’t get me wrong. There are some beyond creepy scenes in this film. So much of the material involving the failed experiment of Dr. Victor Reed’s that is his “son” Ethan could have really went into incredible territory. Unfortunately, that territory never gets explored. What Senese does with the material is creep us out awhile and then go for the jugular with a far too heavy handed approach at the finish.
Check this out if you’d like to see some interesting horror/science fiction, but know this: it is mostly generic horror you will find. Even with the supremely creepy bits sprinkled throughout, Closer to God is closer to nothing special. See it for, if anything, Jeremy Childs, and a handful of eerie scenes.
The Bride of Frankenstein. 1935. Dir. James Whale. Screenplay by William Hurlbut.
Starring Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, Colin Clive, Valerie Hobson, Ernest Thesiger, Gavin Gordon, Douglas Walton, and Una O’Connor. Universal Pictures.
Rated G. 75 minutes.
★★★★ (Blu ray release)
For my earlier Blu ray review of James Whale’s original Frankenstein click here.
I can tell you one thing off the bat – I really could have done without Gavin Gordon’s eloquently rolling speech as Lord Byron in the opening scene. Really love how the film starts, I just cannot handle his dialogue. It nearly prompted me to fast forward, but I rarely ever do that.
Plus, if I did that I would’ve missed a beautiful shot I love: as the present day gives way to the story’s plot, starting after The Monster has apparently died and fire burns, the camera pulls away from Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Shelley while they all talk about her story Frankenstein. This shot slays me. It is as beautiful as anything you could ever see. The camera hauls back, transitioning to the story, and while it does we see the room grow larger and larger, looming around Byron and the Shelleys. There’s a haunting quality to it.
The Bride of Frankenstein for me is almost better than its predecessor. It has to do with the fact I didn’t particularly care for a lot of the changes the first film made to Shelley’s original novel. Where The Bride of Frankenstein is itself a new story, inspired by parts of the original novel and of course the film before, it thrilled me more because it was James Whale taking on fresh material; essentially, building on his vision of Frankenstein further.
There is a little bit more hamming in regards to acting. You can’t let that take away from this film. In 1935 there was still, naturally, a lot of reference to the stage. Film was not exactly an old medium. Many actors no doubt relied on their training as stage actors in plays or musicals, whatever, to guide their performances on film. The one performance which I really can’t stand (aside from the irritating portrayal of Lord Byron in the opening scene, which I can forgive as it isn’t long) is that of Una O’Connor who plays Minnie. She was apparently a favourite of Whale’s, and supposed to be comic relief from what I gather. However, this film could have, and would have, worked just as well with no overbearing comedy, which is exactly what O’Connor provides. Her shrieking and wailing does nothing for me. I hated every minute of it. I particularly hate her overreaction to meeting The Monster, just moments after he has grimly dispatched a couple people (that part is actually crazy for the time). O’Connor’s reaction to The Monster is so over the top it pains me to watch. It could’ve been a really frightening moment. Instead they go for a real gag almost. May as well have been Curly, Larry, or Moe instead of Minnie.
Aside from O’Connor, however, I really enjoy a lot of the other performances. Clive, again, is a good Frankenstein, albeit still named Henry of course. Ernest Thesiger comes as a great addition to this sequel. He plays the part of Doctor Septimus Pretorius, who is the former mentor of Henry Frankenstein. His performance is more than adequately creepy and quirky.
Not only that but the inclusion of the character provides a particularly memorable scene for The Bride of Frankenstein when Pretorius shows his protege a bunch of miniature people he has created, homunculi, such as a king and queen, and more. For the time, especially, this one scene was incredibly innovative. Today we take those things for granted. In 1935, showing a doctor displaying a bunch of tiny people in snowglobe-like encasements, moving around and talking, et cetera, was incredible. It looks flawless. On Blu ray this scene looks really incredible, the picture is beautiful and it would be hard to imagine someone not being able to appreciate it.
One of my other favourite scenes from The Bride of Frankenstein is the meeting of The Monster and the blind hermit. The Monster wanders into his home because the man is playing the violin; he does a beautiful rendition of “Ave Maria”. This scene looks wonderful, as does most of the film, but it’s also emotional. The two meet and become friends. The blind man identifies with the grunting man-monster; neither of them are working with their full faculties. Of course it doesn’t last long. While it does, though, it is spectacular. Karloff again does a great job of subtly portraying The Monster as a misunderstood and confused character. He truly was one of the greatest actors. In the first film he did a magnificent job, here he is able to expand upon that characterization, and really makes The Monster a good tribute to what I believe were Shelley’s intentions for him in the original novel. They fit very well together. Also, this pairs well with Elsa Lanchester’s portrayal of The Monster’s eventual life partner, which is a sight to behold.
Though The Bride of Frankenstein Blu ray doesn’t have as many features as the first film’s release by Universal Pictures, there is still a great featurette (featuring the ever-knowledgeable Joe Dante) called “She’s Alive! Creating The Bride of Frankenstein“, which examines all sorts of aspects related to the film. This includes interviews with a bunch of people, such as Bill Condon and and great narration by Dante. I really enjoyed this small documentary. The focus honed in on James Whale in particular. Everyone discusses The Bride of Frankenstein, but touches on his other horror films, and the incredible visionary outlook he had. Also included on the Blu ray release is some nice commentary by film historian Scott MacQueen, as well as “The Bride of Frankenstein archives” which is a lot of production stills from the film set, posters, artwork, and so on.
As a film, I would have to give The Bride of Frankenstein a 4 out of 5 stars. I really wish some of the outright comedy didn’t find its way in here. They say Whale is known for his playfulness in that sense, and in other films I can totally jive with it, but here it feels out of place to me. Or maybe it’s only out of place for my taste, and that could be because of O’Connor’s performance. Regardless, there is a still a ham-ish quality to The Bride of Frankenstein which I don’t feel totally belongs. I know the concept is a bit out there, and perhaps due to that the slight bit of comedy in here works for some. I just don’t necessarily believe that in a horror film an out there concept needs to be treated with any sense of comedy. It’s not as if the laughs are dripping out of every scene, not even many really, but it is there, and if the whole film were played with an even more deadly serious tone it would have worked. It works as is, but that’s just my opinion on something it may have lacked.
The Blu ray release also gets a 4 out of 5 stars. I really did like the special features included, but I feel like for a Universal Pictures film, one that is so adored according to most sources, there’s a lack of extras. The featurette narrated by Joe Dante is awesome, but really – they couldn’t find anything else except a slideshow of pictures over music and a film history’s commentary? I just find it strange. The Blu ray restoration of Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein has a lot of great stuff, and this just seems like they didn’t have much. Maybe there wasn’t much, but still – I find it hard to believe. Enjoyable features included nonetheless, though not as much as I would’ve liked.
The picture itself is unbelievable. Whale’s film uses setting and atmosphere, as well as makeup and lighting, to really make its story work. There are beautiful and horrifying moments, sometimes all wrapped into one, throughout the film. The mood is set completely through how Whale makes everything so grim and gloomy. The Blu ray definition makes this classic truly worthwhile. Especially if you have never seen the film, you will be blown away at how gorgeous the picture quality looks here in this release. You’re able to capture all the shadows and the creepy lighting and the terrifying makeup in such beauty here. Really an incredible job.
Anyone who has yet to see this film, do check it out as soon as possible. It is no doubt a classic. However, don’t feel like it’s untouchable. Classics aren’t perfect just because they’re classics. No matter, The Bride of Frankenstein is a beautiful horror film worth watching, and will always remain a classic.
Frankenstein. 1931. Dir. James Whale. Screenplay by Garrett Fort & Francis Edward Faragoh.
Starring Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, and Boris Karloff. Universal Pictures.
Unrated. 70 minutes.
★★★★★ (Blu ray release)
For my review of the excellent sequel, 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein, click here.
I won’t bore anyone by recounting the plot of Frankenstein because, not to sound snobbish or anything, if you haven’t seen it by now then that’s ridiculous. This really is one of the classic horrors of the film world. Regardless, everyone knows the story of Frankenstein because it’s one of those tales that really stood the test of time; in fact when Mary Shelley wrote the book it was ahead of its time. And if you haven’t seen it you’ve probably seen some other work which had its primary influence developed due to Shelley’s novel.
That being said the film is excellent. My personal problem with this version of Frankenstein is mainly a subjective thing. I try not to negatively judge the film adaptation of a novel of which I’m a fan. It isn’t fair. Film and novels are two entirely separate universes. While reading a novel you have no choice but to use your imagination, guided by the words of an author. However, while watching a film you’re essentially subjected to the imagination of the filmmakers. You have no choice but to shut off your imagination, for the most part (depending on what sort of film you’re watching – avant garde film, for instance, usually requires the imagination to be in full gear). Either way, I can’t help but feel as if James Whale’s adaptation of the Shelly novel missed out on some spectacular opportunities.
Now, of course, this was made in 1931. Though at the time I’m sure it was a lot of money, the film only cost a little over $250,000 to make (it would go on to make $12-million in domestic box office and who knows how much in video sales, and continues to make). I can forgive them to a certain extent for not fully going along with the entire story. There’s also the fact portions of Shelley’s novel are written in epistolary pieces, which frame the story; letters to and from characters. These, which occur right at the beginning of Frankenstein, are set on an expedition near the North Pole. My first thought as to why the screenwriters (the credits for the writing are actually a mess, as far as I’m concerned) decided not to start the film the way in which the novel begins is because maybe they felt audiences at the time might not respond to Henry Frankenstein (another change I just didn’t like) the same way. In the novel, we meet Victor Frankenstein through the eyes of Captain Robert Walton (who is writing the letters); he is near the North Pole, in the freezing cold, disturbed, lost, all sorts of a mess. Before he recounts the story of his terror-filled life, we already know he has suffered the consequences of whatever he’s done. I just feel as if the novel’s opening works perfectly for the characters. But of course, Henry Frankenstein is quite a different sort than Victor.
The monster looks great for 1931. Not to mention Boris Karloff does an incredible job of acting as Frankenstein’s monster. The performance isn’t overdone. Some of the subtleties in Karloff’s Monster are amazing. The first time we actually see him it’s brilliance. Everything moves so slow. And of course there’s the famous scene of the Monster befriending a little girl; you almost well up with fear beforehand, wondering exactly what will happen, and the Monster goes right ahead subverting our expectations. Until things go a little bit too far. It’s a really wonderful moment.
However, all that being said, I still prefer the descriptions of the monster in Shelley’s novel to the visualization in film. You can’t simply pass that off as this being done in 1931, either. It’s not the problem. They simply toned it down. Yes, that has to do with audiences in 1931, but that didn’t totally limit them. The make-up effects didn’t have to be terribly gruesome. I just imagine Frankenstein’s monster looking less like a man in a lot of regards. Karloff looks great, and actually does appear creepy a lot of times, mostly in his facial expressions. But the Monster in the novel is far more terrifying. I know, again, this is a very subjective line of critiquing. Whale’s film did a fine job enough with the horror, but that there were a lot of other opportunities he could have mined to really horrify audiences. I can only imagine seeing this at the time – I would’ve shit myself. Still, this movie does a great job even today of being highly creepy. There are just a lot of missed chances I wish Whale had taken.
Aside from my problems with the translation into film, it’s still a classic, as I mentioned in the beginning. The iconic status of Frankenstein’s Monster is unparalleled. He is parodied in countless other films and television shows (I think of, more recently, a skit on Chappelle’s Show involving African-Americanized versions of Frankenstein’s monster, as well as the Mummy and the Wolf-Man). The core of the story about Frankenstein and his Monster has been used in various other novels, films, and so on; the idea of playing god, making a man, et cetera. It is something that endures on and on. It’ll continue to do so, as every Halloween you no doubt see at least one kid walking around with a Frankenstein’s Monster costume on (although everybody mistakenly calls the Monster Frankenstein when really he has no name, and is Frankenstein’s Monster… but whatever). It’s one of those tales we cannot forget. And film adaptations help these novels extend their lives further into new generations.
The Blu ray release by Universal Pictures is absolutely magnificent. The picture was digitally restored, and it’s shocking how great the film looks in such beautiful high definition. I’d seen Frankenstein countless times before. Once I watched this I couldn’t believe my eyes. Not only is the picture worth the price, but there are a bunch of really interesting special features. One such extra is a short film called Boo! which is a comedy lampooning Universal’s own horrors such as The Cat Creeps and Frankenstein, as well as their own Dracula; however, instead of using footage from their own version they used the German Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. It’s actually a riot. You can imagine this being done today, honestly. A few jokes about cosmetic surgery and congress, a couple more using quick reverse-fast forward sequences, and hilarity ensues.
Other extras include a fun little bit called Monster Tracks: basically at various points throughout the film bits of trivia will pop up on the screen. For instance, there are some fun pieces concerning the scene where Frankenstein ‘plays’ with the girl by the lake (such as how Whale wanted Karloff to throw the girl in insisting “You see it’s all part of the ritual”). Furthermore, you’ve got some little documentaries & featurettes like “Karloff: The Gentle Monster” (including interviews with everyone from several Karloff biographers to the likes of Joe Dante, Ramsey Campbell and Richard Gordon) and “The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster”. These are some awesome little bits to fill in the release. We got a lot of great insight behind the film itself, as well as its star, the Monster himself Boris Karloff.
As a film, I give Whale’s Frankenstein a 4 out of 5. It’s classic, it’s amazing, yes, but I really do feel they missed opportunities here. If they were able to adapt Shelley’s actual novel they should have used some of the best bits, which unfortunately they did not. It doesn’t ruin the film at all. Look at this as a much more subjective review than I would normally do. I only do it this way because the novel is an absolute masterpiece. Some say different, that it’s overrated. So wrong. It’s near perfect as a horror novel can be.
The Blu ray release gets a flawless 5 out of 5 star rating. How can it not? The picture alone is enough to justify buying the Blu ray. I can’t get over it. Everything looks so wonderful for a film that was done over 80 years ago now. Plus, all the features included on Universal’s restored version are a blast. You can spend hours going through this disc just to get through all the wonderful material they’ve added.
I highly recommend anyone who hasn’t seen this film, please, go do it. Especially if you’re a horror fan, or consider yourself a horror buff. Your viewing isn’t done until you’ve seen this. And also, if you have yet to read the novel, go get a copy. Shelley is an absolute master. A really wonderful read. And just like a film, it will grip you, and shock you at times. One of my all-time favourites.