There have been literally hundreds of adaptations of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein since it first published anonymously in 1818. The first filmed adaptation was 1910’s Frankenstein by J. Searle Dawley (at Edison Studios). From that time, owing in part to the fact that the excellent novel is in the public domain, there has been an absolute flood of filmed Frankensteins, each of which take a certain number of liberties with the source material.
One recent and largely overlooked movie version came in 2015 from writer/ director Bernard Rose. Told entirely from the point of view of the “Monster” (here known as “Adam”), there are aspects of this film that are remarkably close to the source material. The setting is not one of those aspects, however. Filmed in Southern California, Frankenstein is set in the current age with computers, modern medicine, automobiles and cell phones as its backdrop. That said, the core and soul of Frankenstein is very much present in this low budget but overall satisfying production.
Danny Huston and Carrie-Anne Moss play Doctors Victor and Marie Frankenstein, two brilliant researchers who are engaged in a project to create human life in a laboratory. Of course, this is a very modern laboratory with state of the art technology and science fiction devices that make the famous 1931 film look prehistoric by comparison. Being told exclusively from the point of view of the creation, our story actually begins at the time of birth… albeit a birth as a full grown man (played by Xavier Samuel). The film is quick to address the concerns one might have of a fully grown human being with the strength of ten men and adult urges but with the blank slate mind and level of self-control of an infant.
However, as the experiment hits a few snags and the creature’s cells begin to degrade, his “parents”, the Frankensteins, are forced to go back to the drawing board… which means that “Adam” is treated not unlike medical waste. Luckily (so the film isn’t a mere ten-minute play ending in tragedy) the creature escapes from its confines and sets out into the cruel world to learn about life.
Many moments in this journey are fascinating, and it’s interesting to see how Rose re-crafts the nearly 200 year old story (so familiar to horror fans) into a more modern tale befitting of its filmed locations and low budget. Most every Frankenstein story involves a blind man who teaches the creature more about humanity. Here that role is filled by Tony Todd’s Eddie, a homeless Blues guitarist who takes the (then) nameless monster under his wing. Todd’s performance is typically excellent and his dynamic take on the character is very much worth seeing.
However, there are other moments that fall completely flat and feel decidedly contrived. Rose seeks to enhance both the pathos and moral ambiguity of the monster by illustrating his run-ins with the police. While promising, this plot quickly stops making sense and leaves the viewer shaking the old head bone.
However, in general, Samuel’s performance as Monster/ Adam proves to be one of the most compelling parts of the film. In that this is a horror film, you can bet that the infamous creature is going to do some things that are, well, decidedly horrific. However, Samuel’s performance is canny and believable and his creature comes off as a misunderstood kid. In spite of his super strength and fits of rage and undisciplined actions, Adam never quite loses our sympathy, as what we are seeing is basically an overgrown toddler who is looking to be loved and to survive in a world he never made.
Sadly, there are times in which much of this breaks down due in no small part due to the low budget. Make no mistake, however, Frankenstein is far from “amateur” in execution. This is the same Bernard Rose who directed not only Candyman (1992) but also Immortal Beloved (1994) and Anna Karenina (1997) (See the PopMatters interview with Rose, “Finding Hope in the Horror“). Rose’s vision is decidedly high concept and he adeptly creates a very good looking film that is at once modern and in touch with its source material. However a few times, including the ending, the budget gets in the way of truly bringing this high concept and lofty goal to the “life” it should have, if you will.
That said, Frankenstein is surprising and overall manages to be a success. This is one of the most unique films based on Mary Shelley’s masterpiece and potentially one of the most risky. With very few exceptions the risk pays off and Frankenstein manages to be smart and engrossing. However, because of the sharp execution of this well-thought-out retelling, when flaws do arise they are impossible to ignore.