The actor-director Kenneth Branagh is one of the few figures in contemporary movies equally at home with high culture and low; his films range from the ardent Shakespeare adaptations Henry V (1989) and Much Ado About Nothing (1993) to the winkingly trashy shell-game thriller Dead Again (1991). And so MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (TriStar, R) ought to be the perfect project for him. Published in 1818, at the dawn of a revolutionary scientific age, Shelley’s cautionary gothic nightmare is full of high-minded speechifying — the characters express themselves in tormented monologues — yet at heart it’s a queasy psychosexual fantasy of megalomania and death, of human flesh transfigured. It’s about the monstrous consequences that occur when man, as opposed to woman, starts wishing that he, in effect, could give birth. The 1931 Hollywood version of Frankenstein is, of course, one of the most famous and beloved horror films of all time. Its story, along with the image of Boris Karloff’s anguished square head, is practically imprinted on our nervous systems, and I was eager to see how Branagh would reinvent it.
The early scenes have suspense and verve. When Victor Frankenstein (Branagh), the young scion of a wealthy Geneva family, arrives in Germany to study medicine, the movie draws us into his upstart idealism, his brash desire to break through the boundaries of conventional medical science. Savvy and ebullient, with glamorously wavy red hair and a gaze of intellectual vigor, Victor has everything going for him: passion, rebellious curiosity, a beautiful and devoted fiancée (Helena Bonham Carter). Yet he also has a demon in his closet. Several years earlier, his mother, whom he adored, died in childbirth. Now, still haunted by her tragedy, he burns to find a way to defeat death. Having discovered that animal tissue can be revived through the new miracle of electricity, Victor envisions himself on a quest to better mankind. He begins to gather body parts — including the brain of his late professor mentor — for his own experiments, using them to enhance the corpse of a recently hanged beggar (Robert De Niro).
The sequence in which Victor brings his creature to life needs to be a sci-fi showstopper, and Branagh doesn’t disappoint. As the souped-up cadaver lies in its copper chamber, Victor, in a violent fever, jabs electrodes into its head, torso, and feet, and there’s a dazzling image of the gloomy attic laboratory lit by hundreds of fuzzy blue flashes. There follows a grisly reckoning: Victor struggling to prop up the creature’s naked, quivering body, the two of them sliding around in the oily muck of the monster’s ”birth” fluid. Victor thought he was creating life; instead he has made the dead walk.
Up until this point the film is edgy and engrossing, with little tickles of perversity, such as the encounter between Victor’s goofy university comrade (Tom Hulce) and a reanimated monkey’s paw. And De Niro’s creature is a haunting image. Head shaved, with dead eyes, barbed-wire stitches curlicued across his face, and an upper lip mashed into a sad grimace, he lumbers through the snow like a demented monk, shielding himself from angry townsfolk. As imagined by Shelley, the creature, who learns to speak, is no mindless zombie but a poetically instinctual man-child, as tender one moment as he is brutal the next. De Niro might have taken his cue from the great 1931 scene in which Karloff made flower boats with a little girl — shortly before drowning her in the river. But then, as De Niro’s creature prepares to confront the ”father” who has abandoned him, something unexpected happens: The dramatic life begins to seep out of the movie.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a work of lavish dedication and skill, yet as soon as the creature is let loose the film becomes rather listless. Branagh, for all his craftsmanship, hasn’t succeeded in tapping the morbid core of the material, the feeling that Victor Frankenstein’s experiment in creating ”life” is really a mask for his obsession with death (indeed, he can no longer tell the difference). The key problem, I dare say, is the director’s performance. He plays Frankenstein with all the spirit he can muster, yet he’s too conventionally engaging — his Victor is a kind of fervid yuppie workaholic who never seems truly possessed of a dark side. Watching Branagh, with his ruddy cheeks and easy smiles, his plummy grandiloquence, I realized how much the power of the 1931 version derived from Colin Clive’s seethingly neurotic performance. One felt his Frankenstein was a man divided — between the daylight world of his fiancée and the forbidden allure of his dreams (a conflict many believe was augmented because of the homosexuality of director James Whale). In Branagh’s film, there’s very little symbiotic tension between Frankenstein and his monster — might not a part of Victor remain thrilled that his creation walks? — and the result is that the creature quickly loses his mystery, taking on the trappings of a standard psycho intruder. When De Niro has to deliver a line like, ”You gave me these emotions, but you didn’t tell me how to use them. Now two people are dead,” he sounds like Cape Fear’s Max Cady spouting Mary Shelley Cliffs Notes.
Perhaps Branagh shouldn’t have remained so faithful to the book. Near the end, the plot takes a twist that isn’t in the novel — and it’s more audaciously creepy than anything that has preceded it. Victor, having lost his fiancée, attempts to resurrect her by turning her into his second experiment. The best performance in the film is Helena Bonham Carter’s during this sequence — she has a fragile, this-can’t-be-happening spookiness that’s the stuff of true nightmares. The scene comes out of nowhere (when it’s over the film reverts to its plodding moralistic earnestness), but for a few moments it puts the life back into death. B