It's Horror Movie Month! "Frankenstein (1994)" Review

Photo Credit: TriStar Pictures

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It's Horror Movie Month! "Frankenstein (1994)" Review

Rating: R (horrific images)
Length: 123 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 4, 1994
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Genre: Drama/Horror/Romance

Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh) is a scientist obsessed with creating life after having become curious about the subject at a young age when his mother died giving birth to a sibling. He seems almost jealous that a woman can give birth but a man cannot, which may explain why he starts trying to conceptualize an experiment where dead organs and body parts can be stitched together to form a new life. This is a bizarre notion that would likely get him sent to a sanitarium, but he keeps it a secret from all but his closest confidantes, who include his adopted sister Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), with whom he has a sexual relationship despite the fact that they were raised as siblings.

Frankenstein uses the research of his mentor, Professor Waldman (John Cleese), and his own knowledge to piece together the Creature (Robert De Niro), who he then tries to animate. After one unsuccessful attempt, the second one works, and the Creature begins writhing in pain and confusion, covered in amniotic goo and completely disfigured by his transformation. The Doctor is at first rapturous over his ability to breathe life into something, but eventually becomes disgusted with the ugliness of the creature. Frankenstein ultimately rejects it, and it runs away into the nearby village.

In the village, the Creature encounters a family, whose patriarch (Richard Briers) is blind. He can't be repelled by the appearance of the Creature, so he befriends him, and the two sit by the fire and talk. It's the creature's first real human interaction that didn't involve disgust, which gives the audience the impression that the Creature's luck might be changing. Unfortunately, the village is soon beset with cholera, and the scared townspeople blame the Creature for spreading it. Now, he must decide to fight back or run for his life, neither of which he is emotionally equipped to do. It leads to a lot of tragedies, not the least of which is the loss of any humanity the Creature was starting to gain.

The most iconic image of the Creature to grace the screen is probably the first one, played by Boris Karloff back in 1931. In it, the Creature was a stiff, speechless mess with neck bolts and big stitches who could only groan to communicate. It's the image that graces Halloween decorations and is still largely used in film and television references to the character. "Frankenstein" completely dispels this notion of the creature, turning him into a talking, thinking, emotional creation who tries very much to fit in and be as human as possible. As played by De Niro, the Creature is not the monster that pop culture has largely made him out to be. In fact, it is Dr. Frankenstein himself who is the monster, abandoning his "son" because he is disfigured and aesthetically unpleasing. It's tantamount to a mother leaving her helpless baby on the side of the road because the Creature doesn't know how to take care of himself or survive in a world where people are afraid of things that are different. And boy, is the Creature different from others, in almost every possible way.

De Niro, who was still at the height of his very long and storied career when the film was made, turns in a great performance that is occasionally hammy but very solid and nuanced overall. Though his Creature does talk quite a bit, most of the best acting is done with his eyes, and most of it is sad. In particular, the scenes where the Creature watches the happy family interact from a small hole in the wall is heartbreaking, as the audience gets to see just how much the Creature longs to be loved. His loneliness is palpable and makes the audience want to take pity on the character. Even after he begins to act out, the audience will likely still be largely on his side because it is implied that the Creature can't be held responsible for his actions when Dr. Frankenstein abandoned him without knowing what he was capable of.

In her classic gothic novel, author Mary Shelley asked some deep questions about the nature of a man and what makes him human. She also posed some fairly difficult questions about nurturing and what happens to people when they don't receive enough of it. She never did answer those questions, instead leaving it up to the reader to decide. Branagh, who also directed the film, aims to answer at least some of those questions, while posing a few of his own. If humans are shaped by their past, what shapes a man (or creature) who has none? "Frankenstein" tries to answer these questions while also treating viewers to a tense, visually stunning movie.

Rating: 3 out of 5