“I am a scientist. I cannot sin.”
Roger Corman’s reputation as the creator of low-budget, high-fun B-movies was well established by 1990, even though he hadn’t directed a film since 1971, choosing instead to be a producer of others’ zero budget thrillers. Still, knowing he had an enormous fan base, 20th Century Fox approached him with an opportunity to direct again, with a remake of Frankenstein. Corman didn’t want to do just any old remake, though, remembering instead the twists that science fiction writer Brian Aldiss gave the well-known characters in his novel, Frankenstein Unbound. Fox agreed, and allegedly put up $1 million for the project, the most money ever budgeted for a Corman movie, by far.
In the distant future of 2031, in the city of New Los Angeles, scientist Joe Buchanan (John Hurt, V for Vendetta) has developed a new weapon, a particle beam that causes its target to literally disappear. Powerful, sure, but it’s causing some serious side effects, including severe weather and mysterious “time slips” which threaten the entire city. When Joe takes the weapon home with him to work on it, he gets caught in one of these slips, and finds himself and his futuristic tech sent back in time to Vienna in 1817.
Getting used to his new surroundings, Joe encounters several famous and infamous individuals, including Mary Godwin (Bridget Fonda, City Hall), who will eventually become author Mary Shelley, and Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Raul Julia, The Escape Artist), who, as Joe already knows, is hiding his monstrous creation (Nick Brimble, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) out in the woods. Several local villagers have recently been found dead, therefore Joe and Frankenstein know they must meet the creature’s demands before it kills again.
What we’re looking at here is a mix of that which is familiar and that which is new. What is familiar is the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. When we first meet the two of them, they’re already in the midst of their story. If viewers are somehow not familiar with the classic story, they’re not going to get any explanation as to how or why the monster is created. We’re expected to know that already, just as Joe does. A little less familiar, perhaps, is the subplot about Mary Shelley and her two boytoys, Percy (Michael Hutchence of INXS) and Lord Byron (Jason Patric, Narc). What’s new, then, is the time travel aspect, with our protagonist, Joe, his futuristic technology, including the deadly weapon and a K.I.T.T.-style car with its own artificial intelligence.
With so many different characters and plot elements stuffed into the film’s lean 85-minute runtime, there’s a danger of losing viewers. Fortunately, Corman has John Hurt carrying the film, and he does so nicely. Hurt throws himself into the role with enthusiasm, so whether he’s marveling at the simple wonders of 1817 Vienna or plotting mass scientific destruction, he sells every scene.
That brings us to Raul Julia as the famous doctor. Even when performing cheese, Julia always brought his best to the table, and that’s the case here. This Dr. Frankenstein isn’t conflicted about his creation, and he feels no remorse over what he’s done. Instead, he’s a downright evil bastard from beginning to end. In every one of his scenes, Julia exudes pure menace, and he’s great at it. Story-wise, though, this leaves Hurt’s character as the one to play the conflicted “oh-my-God-what-have-I-done” scientist.
That, then, is the biggest problem I have with the movie. I’m not entirely clear on what Joe wants. At first, he seems not to care that he’s causing the time slips, but then shows some remorse over them. Once he goes back in time, he seems less concerned about going back than he is about seeing the sights. He happily shows off his futuristic tech, amazing Frankenstein with his digital watch and taking Mary for a drive in his gleaming silver car. He tries to rescue an innocent girl from a wrongful hanging, and he romances the free-spirited Mary. And yet, he shows his dark side by using Frankenstein’s experiments — and Frankenstein’s monster — for his own means. I enjoyed Hurt’s performance here, but I would have enjoyed it more if I had a clearer idea of what’s going on in his head.
And hey, how about that monster? As with previous versions of the character, this Frankenstein’s monster goes more for our sympathy than our scares. It’s more misunderstood than it is monstrous. When we first meet the monster, it demands to know more about its creator, and what its creator wants from it. The monster is in a unique position, able to ask its version of “God” about its purpose in life. Dr. Frankenstein is hardly godlike, though, and doesn’t offer any answers — or, more accurately, he isn’t able to. And this is what leads to the monster rampaging through town and tearing innocent villagers’ limbs off. The monster’s look is…interesting. I like the various wormlike growths around his head and neck; it gives a sense that there are cables and wires under there. Also, the three-eyeballs-sown-into-one isn’t just a memorable poster/cover image. The monster’s eyes actually look like that — and yes, it is creepy. On the down side, somebody decided it was a good idea to give the monster long, bright red hair. Others have attempted long hair on Frankenstein’s monster, and it has never been a good idea, and long red hair an even worse idea. I know, I know, they want to make the monster visually different from Karloff’s iconic version, but perhaps this hair wasn’t the way to go.
Next question: How does Corman fare with a big budget (big for him, anyway)? I’m going to go out on a limb and say, pretty good. People who criticize the movie for being low budget should check out Corman’s 1950s films like Attack of the Crab Monster or A Bucket of Blood to see what low budget really looks like. Corman benefits from filming on location, such as using genuinely historic villas to recreate Vienna. This gives the movie a feeling of size, making it seem bigger than it is. To be fair, some of the gore effects look amusingly phony. Other effects, though, notably the time slip that appears in the sky, look fantastic, especially considering this was one of the last non-CGI special effects films ever made. During the movie’s ending, in which the plot makes a freakish left turn, Corman treats us to some bizarre lighting effects. Some might argue that Frankenstein mythology doesn’t need funky disco lights, but I say Corman should be applauded for going the extra mile to make sure the finale is that much more visually interesting. When I try to imagine the same ending without the crazed lighting, I imagine the scene would lose a lot of its energy.
The video quality here is mostly good, even if it’s a little soft at times. I thought I saw a few flecks on the image, but it was nothing that should deter anyone’s enjoyment of the movie. The 2.0 surround track lacks the power of a full-blown 5.1 track, but it can be impressive at times, especially when the nice score by Carl Davis (Scandal) kicks in. The DVD comes with a booklet that provides some background about Corman and the creation of the movie. I guess all the other extras got sucked into another time slip, because that’s it for this disc. Really, Corman did a commentary for The Trip, but not for this?
The cheese factor is pretty high here. There’s the ultra high-tech future cityscape, the overuse of nightclub-style lasers to depict weapons, a talking car that can drive itself, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley going on and on about poetry and “free love,” the fact that everyone in 19th century Vienna speaks fluent English, and so on. I personally find this rather interesting despite these cheesy flaws, but some of you out there will file this one under “unintentional comedy.”
Trivia time: the Frankenstein’s monster makeup was created by Nick Dudman, who went on to create makeup effects for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which reunited him with John Hurt.
Frankenstein Unbound was the last time Corman sat in the director’s chair — to date, anyway. Rumor has it the folks behind Showtime’s Masters of Horror tried wooing him to direct an episode of that anthology, but until that happens, it looks as if Corman will continue producing for the time being, leaving the art to others. That’s too bad, because he’s a real idea man, and it’s always interesting to see what he comes up with. Take Frankenstein Unbound for example. Rather than do just another remake, Corman took the time slip less traveled, and put a wild new spin on the classic story. A lot of up and coming filmmakers learned the craft by studying Corman’s efficient behind-the-scenes style, but I’d wager filmmakers could learn about basic storytelling from Corman as well.
Although it is a flawed film, Frankenstein Unbound is certainly worth a rental at least, thanks to some intriguing ideas and some good actors giving it their all.