Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Less Gothic Horror, More Shakespeare in the Park

Following Francis Ford Coppola’s successful updating of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it’s not surprising that Hollywood would go back to the same grave … or well. After all, this was the same decade that gave us two volcano movies and two killer asteroid movies. And so Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was pegged for a glossy, big budget resurrection. Though Coppola returned as producer, Shakespearean actor and director Kenneth Branagh stepped behind (and in front of) the camera. With a $45 million budget, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein positioned itself to catch lightning in a bottle for a second time. Like 1992’s Dracula, the movie promised a more faithful adaptation alongside stunning modern visuals. But the end result was less than the sum of its parts. Inevitably, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein failed to impress critics. And its box office haul fell short of expectations.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein a Manic, Overstuffed Production

At just over two hours, it’s not hard to understand why Branagh’s adaptation feels exhausting. In its quest to faithfully adapt Shelley’s work, this Frankenstein is overstuffed. Too much is packed into the movie’s runtime. As a result, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a tiring race from scene to scene at a breakneck pace. In addition to including the North Pole framing story, Branagh spends an exhausting amount of time with Victor Frankenstein. From the death of his mother to the mentorship of John Cleese’s Professor Waldman, a good 40 minutes passes before the Creature comes to life. Keep in mind that the 1931 Frankenstein clocked in at just 71 minutes. Yet in spite of the painstaking attention to Frankenstein’s psychology, this adaptation ends up feeling much less insightful.

In its quest to faithfully adapt Shelley’s work, this Frankenstein is overstuffed.

When Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein slows down – like when De Niro’s Creature secretly befriends a farmer and his family – it’s at its best. However, these scenes are few and far between. Simply put, Branagh includes too much story at the expense of atmosphere and mood. This leads to arguably the biggest problem with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It’s not particularly haunting or scary. Everything about the movie feels big; it boasts the same visual grandeur as Coppola’s take on Dracula. Branagh, a capable director, includes several impressive shots albeit not as innovative as Coppola. Throw in Patrick Doyle’s score and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein should be modern Gothic classic. Still very little here feels like ‘horror’. Branagh gets close with his ‘Bride’ climax. But then another problem emerges.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein Feels a Bit Like an Overwrought Shakespeare in the Park

Just two years earlier, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was over-the-top in a good way. Well, except for maybe Keanu Reeves’ performance. In contrast, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is an extremely melodramatic affair. From top to bottom, the cast is excellent. As Victor Frankenstein, Branagh makes his ‘mad scientist’s’ obsession more empathetic than villainous. Though she’s less quirky here than in most of her roles, Helena Bonham Carter is no less impressive. And the supporting cast – which includes Tom Hulce, Ian Holm, and John Cleese – is strong. Perhaps in an effort to keep up with the movie’s past, everyone seems to oversell the dialogue. What we get in return is a Frankenstein that’s heavy on Shakespearean soap opera theatrics and light on Gothic horror.

Though she’s less quirky here than in most of her roles, Helena Bonham Carter is no less impressive.

If there’s a highlight in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, its arguably De Niro’s Creature. First, the Creature’s updated make-up effects are appropriately grotesque. It’s a necessary re-interpretation to an iconic but dated monster. Yes, at times, De Niro feels out of place in the role. Not all of this problem stems from the performance itself. In 1994, De Niro was almost too big and familiar to truly disappear into any role for audiences. Nonetheless, De Niro’s Creature accomplishes two necessary things. It’s both sympathetic and filled with the rage originally found in Shelley’s novel. Whether De Niro is as successful at updating a classic role as Gary Oldman is open to debate. But De Niro is hardly the problem here.

This Universal Monsters is Still Better Than Tom Cruise in The Mummy

To be perfectly fair, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is hardly a bad movie. It’s a gorgeous looking movie that’s never too far from achieving some level of greatness. There’s too much talent here for the movie to be a waste. On the contrary, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein suffers from an overly ambitious attempt to tell its story. Branagh clearly understands the source material, but he struggles to strike a consistent atmosphere and tone. Too often the movie feels almost hammy rather than frightening. At least Branagh can take some consolation in knowing that his attempt to reboot a Universal Monster is still better than Tom Cruise’s The Mummy.

FINAL VERDICT: KEEP THIS UPDATE IN THE 90’S

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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