This writeup contains spoilers - do not read beyond the introduction if you intend to watch the film for the first time.
After the success of his critically-acclaimed film Bram Stoker's Dracula, Francis Ford Coppola set his eyes upon another classic Victorian horror story, Frankenstein's Monster, by Mary Shelly. As with Dracula, his aim was to recreate the original story in film without discarding or distorting the plot, as had happened
previously with both stories (most notably when Hammer Films produced them). Like Dracula, this was to present the story as a tragedy as much as a horror film.
The "blurb" on the back of the DVD edition is as follows:
Passion, obsession and horror combine to recreate the most terrifying and shattering story of all time - Mary Shelly's FRANKENSTEIN.
It is the late eighteenth century. After the death of his beloved mother, young Victor Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh - Hamlet) leaves his father and Elizabeth, the adopted sister he passionately loves (Helena Bonham Carter - Mighty Aphrodite), to attend university. Here he becomes obsessed with the teachings of Professor
Waldman (John Cleese - A Fish Called Wanda) who believes that living creatures can actually be recreated from dead matter.
One electrifying night, Frankenstein's efforts are rewarded as his Creature (Robert De Niro - Heat) struggles to life. Alone, despised and driven by a rage of emotional agony, it sets off to find its maker... And so begins the nightmare that will engulf Victor Frankenstein.
The film starts with high drama, as a ship, commanded by a captain obsessed
with reaching the North Pole, becomes trapped in ice. In the distance the crew
can hear dreadful moans and shouts, and the captain starts to investigate.
Through the Arctic fog, a figure approaches. We learn that this is Victor
Frankenstein, who demands that the captain and his crew take up arms and prepare
to kill a creature.
Taken on to the ship, Frankenstein recalls his story to the captain.
Flashback to Frankenstein as a young boy. His beloved mother introduces him
to his newly-adopted sister, Elizabeth, whose parents are both dead. As time
progresses, the two become closer, and a love affair starts to blossom. As he
approaches university age, his mother dies during childbirth, despite the
efforts of his father, a famous physician, to save her. Distraught by her
death, Frankenstein vows to find a way to stop the pain of bereavement by
preventing death or creating life.
He arrives at university at Ingolstadt having proposed to Elizabeth, and
immediately throws himself into working towards his goal of preventing death.
Despised by many of the professors, he befriends the mysterious Professor
Waldman, who has a terrible burden on his conscience which he refuses to reveal.
After Waldman's death at the hands of a peasant refusing to be administered a
vaccine, Frankenstein discovers a ledger, written by the professor, in which
he reveals his worst experiment - an attempt to reanimate dead matter. After
toiling, Frankenstein discovers the method that will allow him to do the same,
and he embarks upon a mission to create a creature from dead matter. He uses
body parts from hanged criminals - including Waldman's killer - but uses the
brain of the professor. Finally he is ready, and the Creature is brought to
life. Realising the horrific nature of the experiment, he hoists the Creature to
the roof of his laboratory and leaves it for dead, vowing to burn his journal
and abandon the experiment. Unbeknown to him, the Creature escapes.
The Creature is attacked by people thinking he is the perpetrator of the
plague sweeping across the city, and he escapes to the countryside where he
finds refuge in the pigpen of a small farmhouse. Here he discovers the journal,
and decides to meet his creator. Meanwhile, he helps the family, in secret, by
pulling vegetables from the frozen ground and leaving them for the family.
Repulsed by his own face, he attempts to hide but eventually makes contact with
the family's blind grandfather who invites him in and tells him his appearance
is immaterial due to his kindness. Nonetheless, the family force him out after
he kills a debt collector, and, distraught at his loss, he burns their farm,
vowing to take vengeance.
He struggles to Geneva, to the Frankenstein home, where he
kills Frankenstein's young brother in the woods. The family's beloved maid's
daughter is accused of the murder, and is lynched by a crowd. One evening the
Creature accosts Frankenstein - the first time the two have met - and asks
Frankenstein to meet him in the mountains. Frankenstein sets forth, and is
taken by the Creature to a cave. Here the Creature tells him how he killed
Frankenstein's brother, and demands that Frankenstein creates him a bride.
He reveals to Frankenstein the folly of the experiment: "You gave me these
motions, but you didn't teach me how to use them"; "What of my soul? Do I have
one? Or is that a part you left out?"; "Did you ever consider the consequences
of your actions?". Racked by guilt and grief, Frankenstein agrees to create
another Creature to fulfil the first Creature's desire to be loved ("I do know
that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I
have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine; and rage the
likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy one, I will indulge
the other"). He says that if a bride is given to him, they will travel to live
at the North Pole, away from the hatred of mankind.
Frankenstein starts to create the bride, but eventually becomes horrified
again at the prospect of creating another Creature when his first creation
chooses the body of the family's maid's late daughter as his bride. He is warned
by the Creature, "if you deny me my wedding night, I will be present at yours."
Choosing to ignore this, Frankenstein rushes home and marries Elizabeth, and
hires a team of mercenaries to kill the Creature. Nonetheless the Creature
slips through and kills Frankenstein's father and Elizabeth, ripping her heart
from her chest.
Utterly distraught, Frankenstein realises his last hope. He rushes
Elizabeth's body to Ingolstadt and attaches her head to the body of the maid's
daughter. He successfully reanimates her, and despite her hideous deformity
attempts to get her to remember her past life by uttering his name. The Creature
appears and calls the new creature to him as his Bride. She is torn between her
love for Frankenstein and her desire to be with the Creature who loves her for
herself as opposed to her former life. She commits suicide by burning herself to
death with an oil lamp.
At this point the film returns to the captain's cabin on the trapped ship.
Frankenstein warns the captain that discovery can cause immense suffering.
Nonetheless, the captain intends to press north, claiming that the death of
his sailors is a worthy sacrifice for their place in history. Frankenstein
dies, and the captain returns to his crew, who are near to mutiny. The
Creature manages to enter the captain's cabin, and is discovered by the crew
to be utterly devastated by Frankenstein's body. The Creature says that
Frankenstein is his father, and is grief-stricken at his death. As the ice
breaks around this ship, the Creature commits suicide on Frankenstein's
funeral pyre. The captain, asked by his bosun for their destination, simply
This is possibly Francis Ford Coppola's crowning achievement. A
film that fuses adventure, suspense, horror and romance, with a powerful moral -
that the voyage of discovery can lead to devastation and misery - in this
respect, Michael Crichton's classic novel, Jurassic Park could be
seen as a modern Frankenstein. The casting for the film is truly
superb. Kenneth Branagh, playing Frankenstein, draws upon all of his
Shakespearian skills to act the role of a man hopelessly obsessed with relieving
his grief at his mother's death, to the exclusion of his own creation's misery.
Helena Bonham Carter, playing Elizabeth, is superb in the role of a woman who
is deeply in love with someone whose drive and determination alienate the two -
yet, despite this, she continues to love him, even when she learns the horrible
truth of his experiment. Cameos by Ian Holm (who played Ash in Alien)
and the great British comedians John Cleese and Richard Briers, in
eminently serious roles, are also acted superbly.
Yet perhaps the greatest acting of all is displayed by Robert De Niro, who
plays the Creature. Throughout the course of the film he combines grief, hatred,
love, yearning, vengeance, and a desire for self-discovery effortlessly, and
with incredibly moving consequences. The longest encounter between the Creature
and Frankenstein, in the mountain cave, is tremendously emotional, as the two
confront the realities of Frankenstein's mistake. The overwhelming effect of
De Niro's performance is one of a devastated, empty Creature, who longs for
acceptance yet realises that his hatred and love are the only two emotions
strong enough for him to enact.
The film's score, composed expertly by Patrick Doyle, mixes heart-rending
slow strings during the film's many scenes of grief with powerful, jarring,
brassy melodies during scenes of high drama. In most films, a score is there to
compliment the acting, and is often relegated to the background. In this case,
the music is so powerful that this film would be incomplete without it. During
the most powerful scenes, Doyle's music seems to resonate within the plot,
creating a truly well-combined experience.
Of course, in any horror film one of the most important areas of production
is in make-up. The Creature's make-up, credited to Daniel Parker, is flawless.
To create the appearance of half-dead skin stitched together without it looking
artificial is a difficult feat, but Parker pulls it off with incredibly good
results. Costumes, too, have been selected carefully to reflect the historical
circumstances of late eighteenth century Austria.
This is possibly one of the best films of its genre. Any film that can
combine drama, horror, love and a strong moral without appearing overly-preachy
is an excellent achievement, and this film is eminently successful in doing so.
Acted with riveting intensity by a powerful cast, Mary Shelly's Frankenstein
remains a classic horror film, and should grace the shelf of anyone interested
in films about romance or horror.