DIRECTOR Bernard Rose WRITER Bernard Rose STARS Carrie-Anne Moss; Tony Todd; Xavier Samuel DVD 22 February

FrankensteinWith its themes concerning man-made monsters, the pursuit of knowledge, obsessive ambition and the dangers of modern technology, Mary Shelley’s Gothic masterpiece ‘Frankenstein’ has remained strangely timeless, its characters and concerns a near-constant in horror cinema and literature for almost two centuries now. There have been countless adaptations and reinterpretations, from James Whale’s classic 1931 version, which established Boris Karloff and the tragically misunderstood monster he portrayed as icons within the genre, to Hammer Horror’s luridly violent Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Kenneth Branagh’s sprawling 1994 adaptation.

While it remains incredibly sensitive and faithful to the source material, Bernard Rose’s adaptation is something of a daring departure which not only modernises the story and relocates the action to modern-day LA, but seeks to convey it entirely from the creature’s perspective. Throughout, Rose’s screenplay remains faithful to the various themes which abound in Shelley’s novel and he lifts lines and passages directly to give voice to the creature’s philosophical concerns. The film begins as the creature opens his eyes for the first time and the audience is invited to experience his disorientation through POV shots and tightly filmed close-ups which gradually convey his developing awareness. The bright lights of the lab and the endless dark corridors therein evoke obvious symbolism regarding birth and death, and the copious shots of needles penetrating flesh and surgical instruments slicing through bone speak of the pain of the life lived between birth and death. Xavier Samuel portrays the creature as an infant attempting to comprehend new surroundings and sensations as he emerges into an existence he didn’t ask for. As in the novel, the process by which life is created is left ambiguous — along with the reasons behind the scientists’ motivation.

The atmosphere of the early scenes is as cold and clinical as the subterranean laboratory where they take place. The screenplay briefly addresses issues such as abortion, euthanasia and moral responsibility as it depicts how a child learns from its surroundings and demonstrates how various civilising processes are present from birth, the child’s interaction with family and community shaping its values and morals. Rose delves into the kinds of philosophical concept one would expect to find in any halfway decent adaptation of Shelley’s novel, such as identity and what constitutes meaning and purpose in life. As soon as the creature escapes, Rose’s screenplay becomes increasingly concerned with exploring and depicting what can taint and corrupt absolute innocence. With a few exceptions, all of the creature’s encounters with other people are hostile and violent. He encounters unwarranted police brutality firsthand and his mistreatment at the hands of various custodians seems to speak of the treatment of the mentally ill in police custody. After the infamous moment when the creature throws a little girl into a lake and then rescues her when he perceives her fear and panic, he is hounded and assaulted by an angry mob of vigilantes from the local community. It is after this moment he christens himself ‘Monster’.

Social commentary is incorporated via the voice-over narration in which Monster ponders the state of the world as he sees it. He philosophises on the unfairness of society, the widening chasm between rich and poor, the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. Humanity is depicted as cruel and violent — nearly everyone the creature interacts with behaves horribly and reacts negatively to his appearance; mankind’s historically unwavering tendency to judge and make assumptions about appearance seems to be more relevant than ever. By honing in on the cyclical nature of violence, Rose shows us, in unflinching fashion, how society can make monsters; Monster however, like many incarnations before him, still invites sympathy. He is an innocent; one who is attempting to uncover his identity and garner meaning from a hostile world. Respite from the brutality comes in the form of Eddie (Tony Todd), a homeless man who takes pity on Monster and teaches him how to speak and survive on the streets. He even goes as far as arranging for a prostitute to further Monster’s sense of self-discovery. It’s during this scene that the creature’s pseudo-Freudian Oedipal feelings towards his female co-creator (Carrie-Anne Moss) is confirmed. Unlike many prior incarnations, and indeed Shelley’s novel, this ‘fallen angel’ doesn’t seek revenge upon his creators, he seeks reunion, answers and acceptance. That said, the film isn’t all poetic contemplation; violence frequently erupts, and it does so in frank and brutal fashion.

Like his previous genre offerings, including Paperhouse (1988) and Candyman (1992), Rose’s Frankenstein is a compelling, fascinating and immensely thought-provoking yarn. While it retains an air of unpredictability, it demonstrates, above all else, the timelessness and constant relevance of Shelley’s original novel.

Posted by James Gracey

James is the author of Dario Argento (Kamera Books) and a monograph on The Company of Wolves (Devil’s Advocates). He contributes to Diabolique, and has also written for Paracinema, Film Ireland, Eye for Film, Little White Lies and The Quietus.