ThePageBoy

Writing, Reviewing and Criticism In The Internet Age

Tag: Frankenstein

Classics Month II, or, It’s alive….ALIVE!

Promotional photo of Boris Karloff from The Br...

Promotional photo of Boris Karloff from The Bride of Frankenstein as Frankenstein’s monster. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Right,

Firstly let me get this out of the way as early as possible in order not to affect the rest of this week’s post. I’m not quite sure how to put this but….

YEAH!!

WE ARE BACK IN ACTION BABY!

THE PAGE BOY LIVES!!

The more sharp eyed may have put two and two together and realised that this week’s blog title fits with this theme and really quite nicely with today’s book, the classic Gothic horror novel from 1818, Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’. Now in order to make this one a little special, this comeback blog is mixing things up a little, with not one, but two films under discussion, just as little treat to those of you who have stuck with the blog in the last few weeks whilst I haven’t done anything.

So here it is people! Frankenstein (1818) vs. Frankenstein (1931) vs. Frankenstein (1994)

Let’s begin with the book, as per usual I’m going to do my best to avoid any major spoilers but this is really one of those that you should have already read and so I hope that anything I can come up with is more jogging your memory rather than telling you something completely new. Ready? Then here we go…

The book is written in an epistolary style, somewhat unusually for the turn of the 1800’s as the more technically sophisticated third person style was starting to gain traction. Basically this means that we as readers encounter the story at a step removed. The novel opens in a letter written by a sea Captain, Robert Walton, who is writing to his sister back in England detailing his adventures in the North Pole in order further his scientific knowledge and in the hope of gaining some fame. The expedition, after glimpsing a mysterious figure in the snow comes across a man on the ice, bring him aboard and his story is told to the captain, who then relates it to his sister and thus to the reader.

The man is a Swiss scientist called Victor Frankenstein raised in a wealthy family in Geneva with his adopted sister Elizabeth. After his mother dies of scarlet fever Victor goes to university and becomes a scientist. Here, he discovers the secret of re-animating the dead and it is here that he creates the famous monster. In a classic ‘man shouldn’t play God’ moment Victor is horrified by what he has done and needs to be nursed back to health by his friend Henry. The rest of the novel revolves around this idea of the monster seeking Victor’s acceptance, Victor’s rejection of his own creature and the two vow destruction on each other.  It is brutal, costing Victor his best friend, his younger brother, his wife and even his father whereas the monster knows nothing but pain instead of love and that experience turns him into monster that he becomes.

A novel as rich in ideas as this one was initially not as successful as you might think, the literary star-maker of the day, Sir Walter Scott, called it a work of genius whereas the Quarterly Review labelled it ‘a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity,’ But quality will win out and the book swiftly established itself into the classics canon with its rich ideas, imagination and technical skill so it was only a matter of time before different mediums came calling.

So in 1931 the first major adaptation of the novel was released and if you know nothing about the book I can almost guarantee that his film informs what you know about the monster. Boris Karloff has gone down in cinema history in his portrayal of the monster, with his blank eyes, lumbering gait and the famous neck bolts. The plot is also a little different – Henry Frankenstein and his faithful assistant Fritz, bring the monster to life. Due to Fritz’s incompetence the monsters brain has been taken from a criminal. Simplifying the plot of the novel a great deal the film ends with the classic scene of the monster trapped in the windmill that is burned to the ground. As one of the first great horror movies it has become part of modern cultural history and been incredibly influential on film making. After all, you can tell if a film has made it when Mel Brooks makes a movie based on it.

Yet as an adaptation?

Well…it isn’t great. The plot is stitched together from the novel’s synopsis and it avoids the more nuanced approach that the book sets up in favour of an easy morality tale. That being said I feel uncomfortable laying into this film too much. Karloff gives a seminal performance and the film is a lot of fun to watch, particularly if you have any familiarity with the tropes of horror movies. The classic line of ‘its….ALIVE’ is just as fun as you think and though the plot is simple it still manages to generate a surprising amount of pathos.  With a certain application of retro nostalgia it is a whole lot of cheesy and enjoyable horror movie fun but in comparison with the book this film feels insubstantial and intellectually light-weight.

With this criticism in mind let me turn to the next adaptation, this time from 1994. To avoid the fairly merited accusation of me being a rabid fanboy I should fess up as quickly as I can. Yet again, Kenneth Branagh will be making an appearance here once more. As someone with a background in the classic dramatic position Branagh is no stranger to the challenge of fitting works from one medium into a new one. He takes the director’s chair here for the 1994 version and I think I may have already said too much about Branagh as a director in my Thor review, but I will try and say something new here. Obviously this is much more a retelling than the earlier film and the period detailing and costume is as accurate as you would expect it be.

The cast is, aside from one major problem that I will return to later, uniformly excellent. Branagh has the necessary flourishes of melodrama and gravitas to convince as Victor and Helena Bonham Carter does great work as Elizabeth.  The supporting cast features Ian Holm and John Cleese among others and they are all top-notch. What’s nice about the film, clearly a labour of love for it’s director, is that it makes the attempt to engage with the issues and intellectual themes of the novel such as the idea of nature vs. nurture, the nature of humanity and how who we are is affected by those around us. Whilst it may not manage it successfully all the time the fact that a horror film tries to engage with something deeper than, ‘oh…SCARY’ is something to be applauded.

At the top of the last paragraph I made it clear that there was an elephant I the room with this film and one that has to be addressed. Whereas with the 1931 had possibly the classic movies monster, this film has Robert De Nero. Yes. Robert De Nero. In makeup. As a monster. I cannot begin to express what a colossal piece of miscasting this is. Now, this isn’t to say that De Nero is bad, far from it. But for someone who is supposed to inspire terror just by his very appearance De Nero just doesn’t cut it. And for this movie, with the amount of screen time that De Nero gets this is a major flaw in the film.

In the films defence this is partly because of the films desire to explore the humanity of the creature and grapple with the philosophical issues in the novel. Whether that is enough to make up for the monster being, well, not that much a monster, is up to the viewer to decide.

I hope what has come through is that this novel is dependent upon ideas rather than action. A big, bold, plot driven story that uses the revenge storyline as a means to discuss the issues that interested the novel’s young and breathtakingly talented author. To say which film is better or worse is a little reductionist of me though in terms of which is truer to the book I would probably side with the 1994 version. Though if you haven’t seen these films, make sure you check out both of them.

I know, I know, I should have split more hairs here, that was what you were expecting. I must be a little rusty, but don’t worry – I’ll get back into it.

Anyway, I guess it’s just good to be back!

Thanks

ThePageBoy

“I vant to like this movie” or, ‘This really isn’t good for my blood pressure.’

Right,

So Marvel Month is over and done with and I decided I needed to make a clean break – establish some critical distance from the comics to the rest of the blog. So, thinking it over, I settled on doing a classic – something with a fine pedigree, something that is usually found in the classics section. As an English student I am a fan of the classics in the literature section and I have always had a fondness for the horror classics of Gothic literature. This was the thought process that lead me to the 1897 novel by an Irish writer by the name of Bram, one of my favourite novels and one of the first horror novels I ever read… Oh yes, this week is Dracula week.

Dracula is THE classic horror story and has been adapted multiple times, some of them now considered film classics. However I decided I would focus on a more recent adaptation by one of the best directors working in modern cinema. Francis Ford Coppola has been behind some of the best films of the 20th century; and for the twelve of you who don’t know, here’s a few highlights of things he’s been behind…

The Godfather. Yes, that one. widely regarded as one of the best films ever made. EVER. and Part II. And Part III. THE gangster movies of modern American cinema.

– Apocalypse Now.

Lost in Translation (executive producer)

Sleepy Hollow

Frankenstein

And many, many, many more. As a writer, director and producer this man has been one of the heavy hitters of Western cinema for decades now and in 1992 he was responsible for an adaptation of Stoker’s classic novel.

I feel for the sake of my own integrity I need to declare my own feelings here. I really, REALLY dislike this film. As an adaptation I think it is possibly the worst application of a text into a new medium I have ever sat through. If you’re a fan of this film, maybe it is for the best you come back next time because you’re not going to enjoy this one. If there is anyone still reading who wants to know how I’m going to justify this extreme opinion please bear with me whilst I state my case.

Firstly, the positives. The film looks nice. The design of the whole thing is really quite well done. The cast all know how to act properly.

Good, that’s out of the way…Now, onto the problems.

This film has some of the worst casting choices possible. I would have loved to have sat in the meeting discussing the casting options for this film; I imagine a room full of healthy and tanned American executives discussing Coppela’s latest project.

“So, we’ve got Jonathan Harker, he’s an English guy, seems to have formed the trope of the English Gothic hero. Who should we get?’

” I know, what about Keanau Reeves?”

“Really Charlie?”

“Yeah! He’ll be great!”

“Charlie, how much coke are you on? Keanau Reeves!? He’s from California! He has the emotional range of a roll of carpet samples!”

“Yeah, he’ll rock it! And for his wife, the perfect English Gothic rose? You know who I’m thinking – Winona Ryder

“Charlie – she’s from California! She can’t do an English accent to save her life!”

“No no no, these are the people we need to carry this film…now who wants some more drugs?”

And those are the people they went for. It does not work. At all. The first time Jonathan Harker opened his mouth I had to pause the movie and laugh for a good minute, Reeves is woefully out of his depth and it cannot help but show. Ryder as Mina Harker is better, but not by much and her topless scene smacks of the gratuitous. The rest of the cast is solid but burdened with a script that hinders every single one of them.The reason for this is a script that forces the actors into a plot, that in places, reads more like a poor Harlequin romance than a horror.

It is in the plot that this films lets itself down so badly – the novel sets out to establish the vampire as something dangerous. Not just dangerous, but damning – an encounter with Dracula will not only cost you your life but also your spiritual salvation. Dracula isn’t sexy. Or fun. Rather an encounter with a Dracula, in the book, is portrayed as something so horrific that it will cost you your soul – Mina Harker’s reaction to discovering that she has been tainted by Dracula is nigh on hysterical with terror. On the other hand, the film takes a very different approach…

This starts with the establishing opening sequence, where we see the character of Dracula in the past as solider, who, thinking his wife dead, renounces his faith in God and swears to come back from the dead using the power of darkness. I will admit that the film does this very well, the scene where the chapel fills with blood shows off the production and design and Gary Oldman as Dracula gets to show off his acting chops with his dialogue in Romanian. From here, the film takes an entirely different tangent as to what a vampire is. Instead of being something dangerous, the film effectively sanitized the idea of a vampire – Oldman becomes a sympathetic figure seeking the love of his resurrected wife that will redeem him and enable him to get him into heaven.

Now, if you are still reading this as a fan of the film, I want you to re-read that last sentence and then compare it to the tone and character arc of Dracula in Stoker’s novel and then try and tell me with a staight face that this is a good way of adaptating the text. It isn’t even accurate. At all. The idea of a vampire ceases to be dangerous and no ammount of erotic seduction or lavish production will ever disguise the fact, that this is a horror film that just fails to be scary in the smallest degree.

Now, I know what you might be thinking. “Jon, you just don’t like anything that deviates from the book you’re a fan of..You hate someone who disagrees with you and can’t deal with the idea that someone might have a different take on a character!”

Well, no. I have no objection to the idea of someone making bold choices with a character but this is not what vampires ARE. If you want to make a movie about a supernatural creature looking for his reincarnated wife fine. No problem. No objection here. But there is a well established literaray tradition of what vampires are and how they behave. This tradition isn’t just the work of writers from the 1890’s but something based on the myths and legends of Eastern Eurpoe stretching back centuries. To ignore and neglect this part of the vampire mythos is not good adaptation, if anything it is ignoring the history of the genre and character and trying to make it into something new. In fact, the movie is an indulgence, it’s a fantasy puff piece designed to appeal to the people who grew up to write Twilight fanfiction. Yes, that’s right – I am going to blame this movie for spawning that horror of pop-culture mediocre waste of time that infatuated a generation of tweens. And for that, there will be no pit of hell deep enough… *sigh*

I started with saying that this was a biased review. I love this book, I read it as a teenager and I have constantly re-read it and it has never failed to inspire a little terror every time. I was initally excited about this film version but all that I was left with, when the credits rolled was an over-whelming sense of a missed opportunity . Someone wanted to make a vampire movie but didn’t get what a vampire was, didn’t get why a vampire was scary and had no idea how to make it work with this lavish and over-blown production.

I wanted to like this. I did and I swear I tried to, but as I mentioned with my review of X-Men how you feel about a film does colour the opinion you hold as a critic and enjoyment of a film does tend to cover the worst of filmic sins. But this…this is just terrible.

Don’t let me convince you. If you haven’t either read the book or seen the film then take a weekend and you tell me. Tell me why you think they got it right as an adaptation or tell me if you agree with me and get it off your chest. This is not just bad – this is not getting it, missing the point and producing something that doesn’t deserve to be called a vampire movie, it’s a romance movie for those with a fetish for biting. Classic literature deserves more than that.

But, hey – that’s just my two cents 🙂

Thanks

The PageBoy

PS I promise that next week I’ll do something that makes me less grouchy…

PPS Oh, and the classic black and white Dracula is so so so so much better. Simply on the grounds that the actors all have English accents that sound like English accents puts it over and above this one in terms of quality.