What a tricky devil Roger Corman is. Frankenstein Unbound is the first movie the legendary schlock king has directed in nearly two decades (his last one was the 1971 Von Richthofen and Brown), and so you might expect it to be the worst sort of how-to-cash-in-on-your-own-legend disaster. Surprise! This is vintage Corman. In fact, it feels like one of those Corman camp-a-ramas from the mid-’60s (like The Raven), with its cast of name actors reading their B- movie dialogue as though it were actual drama. After all these years, Corman still knows that the secret of good trash is that it’s like Tinkerbell — you’ve got to believe in it, or it won’t fly.
Frankenstein Unbound is a pleasingly understated piece of time-travel surrealism. John Hurt stars as Dr. Joseph Buchanan, a futuristic weapons researcher who, in his computer-equipped sports car, travels from Los Angeles in the year 2031 back to mid-19th-century Geneva. There, he runs into Lord Byron (Jason Patric), Percy Bysshe Shelley (Michael Hutchence), and Shelley’s future wife Mary Godwin (Bridget Fonda), who has just commenced work on the manuscript of Frankenstein. And wouldn’t you know it — right down the block is the good doctor himself (Raul Julia), along with his monster, a murderous but strangely eloquent patchwork-flesh giant who roams the woods longing for a bride.
The movie has the three Corman essentials: sex (”Percy and Byron preach free love,” says Fonda’s heavy-breathing Mary, ”I practice it!”), violence, and a ”message.” (Nuclear weapons are seen as the modern-day Frankenstein’s monster.) Most of all, it has the eccentric ingenuity that made Corman’s ’60s films the classiest trash around. Frankenstein Unbound seems to make itself up as it goes along (the plot is a series of what-the-hell whims), and that’s exactly what’s fun about it. You have no idea where the movie is going — and neither, apparently, does Corman. B-movie cultists have often been guilty of wallowing in Corman’s mystique, but this movie does that mystique proud. Next to today’s assembly-line exploitation fare, his deadpan outlandishness almost passes for style. B