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Monsters: Two recent takes on Mary Shelley’s 'Frankenstein'

Two versions of Frankenstein, a novel which has been adapted to film countless times, were released in 2015, taking drastically different approaches to the story, the characters, and most of all, to Frankenstein’s iconic monster. They are Paul McGuigan’s Victor Frankenstein, a big-budget, high tech thriller; and writer/director Bernard Rose’s Frankenstein, a creative but grim and melancholy update of the original novel.

Victor Frankenstein (2.8 out of 5)

While Victor Frankenstein is set in Victorian England, it is the more drastically altered version of the story, containing a great deal of original material including an entirely new back story for both Dr Frankenstein (James McAvoy) and his assistant Igor (Daniel Radcliffe). Drawing as much from the various film versions as from the novel, Victor Frankenstein tells the story from the point of view of Frankenstein’s assistant, with the stock character name of Igor. In this film, Igor first appears as a nameless circus clown, despised for being a hunchback and abused by his self-described owners. However, he is also unnaturally and improbably intelligent. Although living like an animal, he teaches himself to read, obtains books and secretly pursues a course of study, specializing in human anatomy and physiology, and becoming as knowledgeable as the average physician.

The plot becomes still more unlikely as the clown’s knowledge saves an injured trapeze artist. A medical student, Victor Frankenstein, observes this and encourages the man to leave the circus for better things. As the clown is held captive, Frankenstein helps him escape, in a dramatic and creatively filmed sequence. The scene is also a very implausible one, as Frankenstein shows himself to be adept at both martial arts and magical illusions, skills he uses to liberate the young clown.The nameless young man is brought to Frankenstein’s home and forcibly subjected to a cure for his hunchback which takes only minutes to effect. At this point, his place in the story is finally made clear when Frankenstein, in a flagrant shout-out to movie convention, instructs him to take on the name of his long-absent flatmate, Igor.
These opening scenes are too absurd even for a spoof of the story or the genre, let alone the dramatic thriller the film is intended to be. However, these exaggerated scenes soon settle into a more straightforward drama.

Igor is made an assistant in Frankenstein’s efforts to revive dead tissue using a combination of electricity and select chemicals delivered by an elaborate steampunk apparatus. Once special effects have provided a demonstration of his achievements so far, the team set to work, using organs stolen from a local zoo.

Meanwhile, the theft of animal parts has come to the attention of police inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott), who makes the unwarranted leap to an assumption of unnatural arts, and begins to track the case, his level of obsession matching Frankenstein’s.

Frankenstein’s fixation on reviving the dead, and Igor’s ambivalence about the morality of his work, make up a large part of the story. The monster itself is a surprisingly minor part of the story, and only appears in its completed form near the conclusion of the film. We follow Frankenstein’s experiments with individual organs and his furious disputes with anyone who questions his ideas, and Inspector Turpin’s dogged pursuit, as the experiments move toward their conclusion.

The monster concept is moved forward in a horrific scene in which Frankenstein gives a demonstration to potential patrons. He uses the assembled body of a chimpanzee, not only dead but in an advanced state of decay, and brings it to life. The ghoulish animal breaks free and attacks the participants in a scene that is at once grotesque and slapstick.

The story becomes more intense and more convoluted, as Turpin’s efforts to snare Frankenstein become more reckless, one of Frankenstein’s patrons attempt to murder Igor for unclear reasons, Igor pursues an extraneous romance which adds nothing to the story, and Frankenstein is forced to move his laboratory to the country when his disapproving father withdraws his support. The plot becomes jumbled, with Frankenstein’s increasing mania the one constant.Only when the monster, in updated Boris Karloff mode, is finally brought to life in an extravagant scene of simulated Victorian-tech fireworks, does Frankenstein recognize that he may not have achieved what he had hoped. This insight is quickly followed by a violent and grisly scene of mayhem, leading to a rather anti-climactic ending.

The movie’s strong suit is its production design, which captures Victorian gloom and nascent technology beautifully, and often expands into flashes of nineteenth-century blueprints, prototypes, and medical graphics. In fact, some of the visuals and special effects have the unfortunate tendency to distract from the story rather than enhance it. The acting is solid throughout, both central characters doing their utmost with the script, and James McAvoy throwing himself into Frankenstein’s manic fanaticism with a great deal of exuberance.

The main flaw is in the writing. The early, comic-action scenes are not repeated, but the script occasionally lapses into exaggeration to the point of farce, and into half-joking references to Frankenstein folklore: when Frankenstein is warned, “No one will remember Frankenstein the man, only the monster,” for example; or Frankenstein himself lamenting, during a setback in his experiments, “I was going to be the modern Prometheus!” It seems as if the writer cannot unconsciously commit to the story, but must remain a little above the Gothic nonsense by occasionally taking refuge in parody. That reluctance may be what has kept the film from being a wholehearted success.

Frankenstein (4 out of 5)

Bernard Rose’s adaptation of Frankenstein seems, on the surface, to have altered the story drastically. To begin with, it has been updated, and is set in present-day Los Angeles. Rather than a scientist and his humble assistant, the experiment which produces the monster is conducted by a married couple, Viktor and Marie Frankenstein (Danny Huston and Carrie-Ann Moss), both scientists, along with their assistant. The nature of the monster is also drastically altered. In spite of these changes, or perhaps in part because of them, the story captures the tone of Frankenstein perfectly. It uses these revisions to draw out the central tragedy of a story the filmmakers are prepared to treat with respect.

The film is shown from the perspective of the monster (Xavier Samuel), who is revived, by means which are not outlined in any detail, at the very beginning of the film. The story begins with a voice-over narration by the monster himself, speaking clearly and fluently, recounting his earliest memories. There is no attempt to tell a backstory which is already well-known. The movie cliché, “He’s alive!” called out by the exultant Dr Viktor Frankenstein does not come across as satire, especially in the very mundane present-day laboratory environment, but as the triumph of scientists who have worked long and hard for this goal.

The monster (who is known by no other name for most of the film), or at least his face, is not outwardly monstrous in appearance. However, having been newly brought to life, he has the mind and instincts of a newborn child. This comes as a shock to Viktor Frankenstein, and his wife steps in, bottle-feeding the man-child, leading him through the stages of infancy, and acting as a nurturing mother figure. The initial scenes are shown in a slightly unclear and disjointed manner, to replicate reality as seen by a newborn, and become clearer as the monster gains experience of the world.Before long there are indications that the experiment was not a complete success. The monster develops tumours and lesions due to some miscalculation in his revival from death. Dr Frankenstein insists on euthanizing him and starting again. The monster’s engineered resilience allows him to quickly revive. During the attempted post-mortem dissection, the monster lashes out at his perceived tormentors, and unwittingly kills Dr Frankenstein’s assistant in a scene of particularly gruesome violence. The man’s delight at the monster’s capabilities, proof of their experiment’s success, even as he is dying, is a quiet but effective glimpse of the archetypal obsessive mad scientist.

The monster, now at the mental level of a young child, and with a vocabulary of only a few words, escapes from the laboratory, disoriented and covered in blood. Police try to stop him, but his engineered strength allows him to fight them off easily, and outrun them. He finds himself alone in a wood. At this point, the voice-over narration resumes, and we watch the monster’s attempts to survive alone in the woods, while hearing the events described in precise and eloquent language, either in the voice of the monster years in the future, or the voice of his own mind freed of language restrictions.

The monster befriends a dog, which leads him into the nearest inhabited area. From here, he has one encounter after another which begins as an attempt at human contact, but which is either misunderstood or sabotaged by the monster’s nature and ignorance of human behaviour, resulting in hostility from the people around him. His dog is shot, he is wrongly accused of trying to drown a child, and he ends by killing a policeman. He flees, and is set upon by the modern equivalent of townsfolk with torches and pitchforks: a group of angry Americans carrying baseball bats. He is called a ‘monster,’ is beaten and dragged behind a truck, and finally arrested.

In custody, he withdraws into fantasies of being safely at peace with his dog and his ‘mother,’ as he regards Marie Frankenstein. The monster is presented, consistent with Mary Shelley’s novel, as a sympathetic character. He is dangerous but not evil by his own design, only due to the amoral scientific hubris of his makers.

At this point, the monster undergoes a still more painful rejection. Marie Frankenstein is brought to his jail cell, located by the police through a piece of ID which the monster carried with him. The monster is overjoyed, calls out “Mama!” to her, and seems to think his troubles are at an end. However, she denies knowing him, presumably because she was involved in an illicit experiment. She leaves, and the monster’s grief overwhelms him.Eventually released, he is beaten and shot by vengeful members of the police department, and left for dead, but he survives and escapes. Now more closely resembling the classic monster as a result of his injuries, he drags himself to a secluded alleyway to recover. He awakens to music, a new and delightful experience, and is taken on as a companion by a blind, homeless man named Eddie, who has been playing the guitar for coins on the street. The monster, now known by the nickname Monster, is taught to speak and to look after himself, and his voice-over shares his observations of the world. All seems well until Monster’s nature once more leads to calamity, and Eddie is accidentally killed.

Completely giving way to despair, self-loathing, and rage, Monster flees once again. The audible narration describes his desperation at being forced into a state of detachment from the human race, using direct quotes from Shelley’s novel: “I shall avenge my injuries. If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear.”

After finding his way to the home of the scientists who created him, Monster confronts them, accusing them in halting English of selfishly producing a being cursed to loneliness and grief, and reproaching Marie for denying him. She tries to apologise, and he is distracted from his rage when Marie calls him by his intended name, Adam, and he allows himself to be soothed. But when Viktor Frankenstein, still the single-minded scientist, takes interest in him only as a way to renew his experiments, and shows him the new creature they intend to revive, the reunion ends in violence and ultimate tragedy.

Frankenstein is melodramatic, but in a way that fits perfectly with its origin as a Gothic horror piece – which it remains in spite of its contemporary setting. The look of the film is carefully realistic, using minimal special effects and conceding very little to the science-fiction nature of the story. Unlikely as it seems, the approach works magnificently. The trials of Frankenstein’s monster, from the perspective of the monster, drive home the evils behind his creation more effectively by this choice of viewpoints; and the monster himself remains a tragic figure even at his most threatening.

The primary cast is excellent. Danny Huston is believable as the obsessive scientist, and Carrie-Ann Moss performs admirably here, as in any film she takes on. It is Xavier Samuel as the monster who really makes the film what it is. His performance in this unusual and demanding role is heartbreaking and brilliant, and allowed for the success of what might be considered a delicate and risky undertaking.

Monica Reid.