The Curmudgeon


Friday, February 26, 2016


Bernard Rose 2015

The interesting British director Bernard Rose emerged a quarter of a century ago with two excellent supernatural horror films, Paperhouse and Candyman; and has recently teamed up with actor Danny Huston for updated adaptations of various works by Leo Tolstoy, including two fine psychological horrors, IvansXTC and The Kreutzer Sonata. Rose's version of Frankenstein also features Huston, but in a supporting role; the sole point-of-view character is the creature (Xavier Samuel), whose major parental figure is not Huston's bluff and ruthlessly bungling father, but the ambivalent mother embodied in Victor's wife and colleague Elizabeth (Carrie-Anne Moss).

Besides having the creature describe his emotional state in a voice-over drawn from Mary Shelley's original, the screenplay borrows from various filmic sources. (In the same spirit, but rather less aptly, the British DVD packaging is a disingenuous ripoff from that of the recent critically-mauled comic-book fantasy I, Frankenstein.) The action is removed from eighteenth-century Europe to twenty-first-century Los Angeles, and Rose works inventive variations on the drowned moppet and blind benefactor from James Whale's films with Boris Karloff; while the creature's physical nature recalls that of Michael Sarrazin's incarnation in Jack Smight's misbegotten 1973 miniseries Frankenstein: The True Story. In the novel, Frankenstein aims to create a man of consummate physical beauty, but lacks the necessary finesse and rejects his creation almost as soon as it's completed; in the Smight and Rose films, the creature is beautiful on initial assembly, but gradually becomes hideous owing to a cancer-like flaw in his organism.

Like the creature's narrative in Shelley's book, Rose's film focuses on the inner ugliness of mainstream humanity, whereby unthinking parents, callous scientists, brutal officials and vengeful mobs drive the physically adult and superhuman but mentally childish creature to manslaughter and murder. Shelley's creature undergoes a rapid intellectual development and eventually becomes capable of reading Paradise Lost and of disputing in articulate and sophisticated fashion with his arbitrary and hysterical maker; but, except in the voice-over, the creature in the film remains largely monosyllabic to the end: a hoodie-clad ragamuffin whose rotting face and unthinking violence differentiate him barely, but just enough, from the dregs of society among whom he temporarily finds a place.

The archaic cadences of Shelley's prose in the voice-over may jar for some, especially as the creature barely speaks a coherent sentence on-screen; but for me it worked considerably better than most voice-overs, contrasting the horror of the creature's appearance and actions with the innate strength and honesty of his spirit. The borrowings from the Whale films are sufficiently re-invented to avoid the sin of hommage, and fit much more convincingly into the present-day setting than would Shelley's family of outcast nobles. Although episodes with policemen and dogs verge, respectively, on caricature and the maudlin, the film is well-acted, commendably concise and no shot or scene outstays its welcome. Rose has attempted the same tricky balancing act as in his Tolstoy films - convincingly updating the story while remaining faithful to the spirit of the original - and, on the whole, has brought it off very well.


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