Whether we need it or not, there's a new Frankenstein afoot, and it's a freak of nature. Kenneth Branagh, the British boy wonder who's given us a pair of soaring Shakespeare adaptations and the clever thriller Dead Again, clearly had at least two goals: to recapture the dark poetry of Mary Shelley's original horror story (the author's name even appears above the good doctor's in the movie's title) and to unearth from a novel written 176 years ago the fears of the 1990s. In service of the latter idea, the remake is sprinkled with references to wholesale organ transplantation and primitive genetic engineering, and this Frankenstein talks plainly about everlasting life (if not universal health coverage). The revisionist monster, moreover, is no longer a pale, mute giant with bolts sticking out of his neck. Instead, he uses real three-syllable words. And he looks, well, he looks like Jake LaMotta after going ten tough rounds with Sugar Ray Robinson.
Therein lies the trouble. James Whale's 1931 horror classic and its wonderfully gruesome centerpiece, Boris Karloff, still loom so large in the public imagination that this major (and very expensive) reconstruction of the Frankenstein mythology looks puny by comparison--and a bit presumptuous. Over more than sixty years, of course, there have been dozens of cheap spinoffs, ripoffs and imitations: Consider the classic Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter. But Branagh, producer Francis Ford Coppola and the unfortunate Robert De Niro are dead serious about scaling Mount Karloff. Too bad almost nothing springs to life as it should.
For one thing, Branagh's origins in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art may have gotten the best of him this time around. This is a frantic, highly theatrical retelling of the Frankenstein tale, in which Patrick Doyle's emotional music is forever bursting from the screen and even minor characters throw themselves at each other, chomping the scenery, declaiming like hams in a crude melodrama. Some of this can be written off to nineteenth-century excess, but the jumpiness and discontinuity of the piece are always getting in the way of the terror and of Branagh's rather Oedipal portrait of a mystic scientist obsessed not only with finding the elixir of life, but also with Mom (Cherie Lunghi). Even when Mel Brooks spoofed the genre in Young Frankenstein, Gene Wilder showed more restraint as the doc. Branagh lurches all over the screen, and as director he's let his entire cast do the same.
Meanwhile, Roger Pratt's color cinematography looks a bit rich and sumptuous for the subject matter, even in the cholera-plagued town of Ingolstadt, where young Victor starts fooling around with the esoteric medical arts. There are, however, at least two scenes that transcend the film's mediocrity and infuse it with the horror Shelley's great story deserves. In one, Frankenstein struggles to hoist the naked, grotesquely stitched, freshly reanimated creature from the slime of the laboratory floor, and in that moment, we understand just how the two doomed souls are linked. Later, the doctor's beloved and beautiful Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), just out of the galvanic tank herself with a major facial, dances dazed in the arms of her creator, then reels toward the monster who would take her for his wife. In this vivid and truly frightening scene, we grasp the folly of playing God--which has been the heart of the matter for two centuries.
Would that Branagh had maintained such intensity for two hours.
As for De Niro's creature, British makeup designer Daniel Parker has laced him straight up the spine and crisscrossed his chest with what looks like boating line, while his face is as busily stitched as a box of baseballs. That's fine--not even the famous makeup Jack Pierce created for Karloff need be sacrosanct. But when De Niro speaks, he still sounds (I swear) as if he just got off the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Being slapped together from spare parts is one thing, but in this case, shouldn't they be vaguely German/Swiss spare parts? Including the scavenged mouth and larynx?
In the end, when the despised and pathetic creature once again implores his creator to answer his query--"Who am I?"--we are forced to smile and, just maybe, butt in: "You're still De Niro--but miscast."
If there's a minor tragedy buried in this ambitious failure, that may be it.