Frankenstein is a name that everyone will know. Whether you’ve watched a film with the character in it or not, whether you’ve ever read the original book, you’ll know the character. And you’ll likely have an instant image of what the creation looks like too. Thanks to some great design choices and brilliant marketing, that image would probably be the version that was made popular by Universal Pictures and Boris Karloff. But this image of the creature, this huge, green-skinned man with a flat head and bolts in his neck, who’s little more than a grunting behemoth, is pretty far from what Mary Shelley originally crafted.
One of the closest ever adaptations of the source material, which is arguably the first ever science fiction story put to print, is 1994’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Released hot on the heels of 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the film aimed to be another big budget adaptation of the source material that would try to earn the studio millions. And whilst it definitely was those things, it failed to capture the public the same way, and became the least popular of these two films. But now the film has been given a stunning new 4K restoration from the original camera negatives, giving audiences a new chance to experience one of the best versions of Frankenstein put to film, in high quality.
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The film begins following a polar exploration vessel in the late 1700s, as an obsessed captain tries to find fame and fortune. When the ship becomes trapped in the ice the crew are stunned when a figure comes out of the snowy fog surrounding them: the scientist Victor Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh), who warns the crew of the danger lurking close by. When questioned as to what’s out there, he begins his tale. From here we experience the story of Frankenstein’s life, watching his childhood in Geneva, and him growing up to be a young man interested in following in the footsteps of his father, played by Ian Holm, to become a doctor. However, when his mother dies giving birth to his younger brother, Victor’s course is forever changed, as he becomes obsessed with finding a way to bring people back from the dead using medical science.
Travelling to medical school in Ingolstadt, Victor continues his research into bringing the dead back to life; something that leads him to Professor Waldman (an unrecognisable John Cleese), who performed similar experiments in the past. However, whilst Victor only sees the good in such ideas, Waldman warns him of the ‘abominations’ it could create, and refuses to share his research. When Waldman is stabbed and killed by an anti-vaxxer during the cholera outbreak, Victor is determined to bring him back, and steals the research. Using pieces of corpses, and his own cutting edge equipment, Victor assembles a new body for Waldman’s brain and brings him back to life. However, the resulting creature (Robert De Niro) is not what he was expecting.
The Branagh film is one that I’d watched as a kid when it first came out but hadn’t seen since, although I had some vivid memories of a couple of shocking scenes. As such, I was excited to watch it again knowing more of the source material, and was pleasantly surprised by how close it is to the book in all the right ways. There is a lot different here, for sure, but the spirit of the book, the main themes and ideas, are translated incredibly well by Branagh. For example, this is the only Frankenstein film that uses the framing device of the polar expedition, and was one of the first adaptations that actually had the creature be more than a mindless monster.
Speaking of the creature, Robert De Niro‘s performance in this film needs to be talked about. Robert De Niro is probably not the first actor you’d think of to play Frankenstein’s monster, especially in a film where they’re trying to show the creature as a tragic figure. I think that’s understandable given a lot of the roles De Niro has played over the years, but watching him in this film shows how wrong my preconceptions were. De Niro is absolutely fantastic. He’s able to bring huge amounts of pathos and suffering to the role; he makes you feel hugely sorry for this man, yet he’s also incredibly believable as a monstrous figure able to perform evil deeds. It’s strange, but thanks to how wonderfully he plays this character I still felt sorry for him come the end, even after he’d killed people, including an innocent child, and all of that was down to his performance. I honestly struggle to think of a better version of the creature that I’ve seen.
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In addition to this newly restored version of the film, the new Blu-ray comes with a brand new audio commentary from film historians Michael Brooke and Johnny Mains, who not only talk about the film itself and its making, but the history of Frankenstein, and how the film differs from the book. They even give small readings from the original novel where appropriate. There’s also a trio of new interviews with the films composer, costume designer, and make-up designer that give insight into the creation of the movie. There’s a pair of documentaries that are very interesting too, one that looks at the creation and evolution of Frankenstein over the years, and another that discusses the difference and changes between the original text and the film. Perhaps most interesting, however, is that the film also comes with the first ever version of the story that was ever put to film, 1910’s Frankenstein: A Liberal Adaptation from Mrs. Shelley’s Famous Story for Edison Production, a black and white silent movie by Thomas Edison that is definitely of historic interest.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a film that does away with a lot of the changes and tropes that have become part of the popular perception of the story over the years, and instead gives us the closest, most faithful adaptation of the original book we’ve ever had. Because of that, and because of the amazing performances and lavish production values throughout, this is still one of the best Frankenstein movies almost 30 years after it was released, and this new set might be the best presentation of it ever. Well worth taking notice of for any fans.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.