Sony // 1994 // 123 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 16th, 2009
"I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other."
Victor Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) is a gifted young doctor with a particularly inventive and imaginative mind. He likes to ponder possibilities in the field of medicine that are regarded by his 19th Century colleagues as the preposterous stuff of witchcraft and fantasy. Despite enduring ridicule from doubters, Frankenstein becomes obsessed with the pursuit of one concept in particular: raising a human being from the dead. After years of work and experiments, Victor's efforts finally pay off. Alas, the consequences are far more terrifying than he ever expected. He has created a monster (played by Robert De Niro, Goodfellas), and in doing so has unintentionally triggered a series of horrific tragedies. What hath Man wrought?
Before Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was released in 1994, Kenneth Branagh was something of a critical darling. His Shakespearean adaptations Henry V, and Much Ado About Nothing had been very well-received, as had Branagh's inventive Hitchcockian thriller Dead Again. The actor/director's adaptation of Mary Shelley's classic novel Frankenstein was his biggest-budget and most lavish production to date, and it was supposed to be one of the prestigious releases of the year. Alas, the finished product failed to meet expectations. Screenwriter Frank Darabont was very unhappy with Branagh's significant rewrites, producer Francis Ford Coppola publicly denounced the film due to what he felt were poor artistic decisions on Branagh's part, many critics proclaimed the movie to be a laughable dud, and the film was a flop at the U.S. box office (though it would do significantly better later on when released overseas).
Even so, I've always found Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to be a magnificently entertaining (if significantly flawed) piece of entertainment, offering a stylish and terrifically gothic slice of old-fashioned horror melodrama. Sure, the screenplay is a little clunky, the acting is over-the-top, and the tone seems a bit contradictory at times, but Branagh seems determined to make the film work through sheer force of will. When he stands above his fleshy creation, screaming, "Live! Live! Live!" one might almost suspect that he is speaking to the film itself. Branagh takes the bombastic energy that enlivened Dead Again (and later, his brilliant Hamlet) and turns it up to 11, giving the movie a potent sense of electricity both literally and figuratively.
The tone is set early on, as even the more ordinary events in Frankenstein's life are given an operatic tone, from a bloody birthing scene to a lightning-enhanced romp through the field to his days as a student challenging the teaching of his professors. These scenes are given as much energy as most directors would give the scenes of mad scientist fun, so when the Big Moments arrive Branagh has to make them stand out by giving us everything but the kitchen sink. Fast cutting, bombastic music courtesy of Patrick Doyle, frenzied acting, significant levels of gore, impossibly lavish sets and a generous, omnipresent dose of bright blue electric energy define these moments, and they are a true joy to behold. Now don't get me wrong; I'm not simply a fan of sound and fury signifying nothing. However, I'm always happy when a good filmmaker finds moments in which he can organically take full advantage of the medium he is working in. If nothing else, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a truly cinematic effort.
Interestingly enough, the other exceptional aspect of the film is a good deal more subdued. That would be the performance of De Niro as the monster. The once-great actor has been phoning it in for the past decade or so, but he really does something exceptional in this role. The part is a particularly challenging one, and if it had been presented in as melodramatic and over-the-top a manner as the rest of the film it undoubtedly wouldn't have worked. De Niro wisely plays the role in a subdued and surprisingly affecting manner, creating a truly tormented soul that is more likely to generate pity than terror. His scenes are some of the film's strongest, creating moments that seem to exist outside the world of the film and approach something resembling reality. Thankfully, the film recognizes that the monster is merely a symptom of the story's true horror, not the source of the horror.
The Blu-ray transfer is kind of a mixed big, comparable to the so-so work done on Bram Stoker's Dracula a while back. Like that transfer, this one represents an accurate rendering of what the film's original theatrical release looked like. Also like that one, the image is quite grainy and just a bit messy at times, containing a number of scratches and flecks (far more than one expects to find in a film made just 15 years ago, much less a big-budget outing like this one). The disappointing aspect of the grainy look is that the big set pieces don't quite leap off the screen the way they ought to. It looks better than it did on DVD, but not dramatically. On the positive side, there seems to have been little unnatural interference with the image, preserving the filmic look of Branagh's work. The audio is quite solid, particularly in terms of the boisterous Patrick Doyle score (often asked to carry the scenes by itself with only a minor assist from the relatively light sound design). Dialogue sounds fine, if just a little bit less than crystal-clear at times. Your subwoofer will get a moderate workout, and distribution is acceptably immersive though somewhat front-heavy at times. Unfortunately, there are no extras of any sort on the disc.
The dialogue (particularly dialogue not involving Frankenstein or his monster) tends to be rather stiff and unconvincing; sounding like the stuff of a small-town theatre production. Despite the presence of a very strong cast that includes Helena Bonham Carter, Ian Holm, John Cleese, Tom Hulce, and Aidan Quinn, most of the characters feel pretty one-dimensional and uninteresting. Finally, the inconsistencies in tone tend to make the film ultimately seem like just a bit less than the sum of its parts.
It isn't a perfect film, but it's a tremendously enjoyable one. At best, it's a moving and exciting adaptation of Shelley's work, and at worst, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is still a more enjoyable big, loud guilty pleasure than something like Van Helsing (no offense, Judge Steve T. Power). Unfortunately, the Blu-ray disc doesn't offer anything to warrant an upgrade.
The film is free to go, but the Blu-ray disc is guilty of being much too
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (French)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Portuguese)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Rated R