January 27, 2015

Frankenstein Unbound (1990)

21st century scientist Joe Buchanan (John Hurt) attempts to create the ultimate military weapon - an energy beam that can completely remove its target from existence. Its creation has unexpected and devastating side effects, and Buchanan is soon caught in a time-space rift. He wakes in early 19th century Geneva, where he encounters the future novelist Mary Godwin, later Shelley (Bridget Fonda), as well as the deranged scientist Victor Frankenstein (Raul Julia).

Frankenstein Unbound is a 1990 science fiction film directed by Roger Corman. Corman has a remarkable place in cinema history as a producer of low-budget genre pictures. He was notably generous in giving up-and-coming artists the opportunity to act and direct, helping to kick-start the careers of Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard and Peter Bogdonavich. This was his first film as director in 20 years, and his final directorial effort to date.

Frankenstein Unbound is a maddening film to watch. Every thing it does well is seemingly matched by something that it does badly. Some part are impressive, and some are tedious to sit through. It features some of the best actors of its time, and also some really tin-eared performances by less accomplished co-stars. It is also remarkably short, running a total of 82 minutes including the credits. In the end it feels rather like watching a rough cut of a longer, much better film that we're never given the opportunity to see.

John Hurt makes for a sympathetic lead, and the film repeatedly parallels Frankenstein's creation of a monster with Buchanan's development of a universe-destroying weapon. It's an obvious comparison to make, but also a clumsy one that never quite gets properly expressed despite repeated attempts. Raul Julia, one of my favourite actors, gives a fairly disinterested performance. He receives far less interesting material with which to work than Hurt does. Bridget Fonda gives a rather poor performance as Mary Godwin; this was one of her earliest performances, and certainly I've seen her do far better things in subsequent films. There's a weird sort of Highlander vibe to the casting: just like that film cast a French actor as a Scot, a Scot as an Egyptian and an American as a Russian, here Frankenstein Unbound features an English actor playing an American, an American actress playing English, and Puerto Rican playing a Swiss.

Pop singer Michael Hutchence has a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo as Percy Shelley, which is more odd than anything else. He has third billing on the film's poster, despite only really appearing in one scene. Jason Patric appears almost as briefly as Lord Byron. One wonders how much of their performances were left on a cutting room floor. Nick Brimble is positively awful as the Monster. Whether it's the restrictive make-up or poor direction, he doesn't convince for a single moment and is one of the main reasons why the film feels so uneven to watch.

It must be said that Joe Buchanan is just about the most cavalier time traveller I think I've ever seen. He realises he is 250 years in his own past without so much as a minor panic attack. He drives his futuristic car around 1817 Switzerland with reckless abandon, and even takes Mary for a ride while explaining her entire future to her. Clearly this is a scientist who has never read about the Grandfather paradox.

Something I found particularly interesting is how much the film appears to have influenced Kenneth Branagh's later film Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Plot points from one appear in the other, not to mention several visual and stylistic elements. There's more than a passing resemblance between Raul Julia's hair and costume and Branagh's. It could all be a coincidence of course, but I'd be interested to know if Unbound did have an influence on the latter film.

Ultimately there are good bits to this film as well as bad. To a large extent its good elements rely heavily on John Hurt; in the hands of a less capable actor the whole film might have been unwatchable. As it stands it's a fascinating diversion; full of faults, but faults can often be overlooked.

1 comment:

  1. Have you ever read the book it's based on? Much better than the film.


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