Frankenstein (1984) Frankenstein (1984) **

     In this century, original productions for cable TV are among the most respectable gigs in the entertainment industry, especially the ones made to air on HBO, Showtime, and the other premium channels. Shows like “The Sopranos,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Game of Thrones” came as close as today’s minutely fragmented pop-culture landscape realistically could to duplicating the universal currency of the pre-cable era’s dominant network hits.* But more than that, as Hollywood grows increasingly monomaniacal in its focus on blockbuster franchises, made-for-cable programming has emerged as an oasis of perceived seriousness in a vast desert of howling portals that need to be closed before it’s too late, muscle cars airdropped from the loading ramps of C-130s, and witlessly quipping human action figures with bloodstreams awash in synthetic growth hormone. And best of all for those actually employed in that sector of showbiz, made-for-cable nowadays means money, not only for showrunners and headlining stars, but for their undertakings as a whole. No need to pinch pennies when you’re working for HBO!

     That wasn’t how it worked in the 80’s, however. Back then, producing original programming for cable television entailed a pretty stark tradeoff: creative freedom exceeding anything to be had in broadcast TV, in exchange for itty-bitty budgets and ittier-bittier audiences. That was the environment from which sprang the present version of Frankenstein, made for Showtime as part of an intermittently ongoing series of stage-to-screen transplants that began in the late 1970’s, and petered out most of a decade later. Based on a Broadway play by Victor Gialanella (albeit one that got hooted off the stage on its official opening night after 29 troubled preview performances), shot on location at a genuine castle in Yorkshire, and cast with a mix of jobbing British character actors and name stars whose reputations conveniently exceeded their asking prices, Showtime’s Frankenstein is recognizably a prototype of today’s prestige cable productions, made at a time when the resources needed to do that sort of thing right simply weren’t available.

     As that probably implies, Frankenstein consciously belongs to the same adaptational tradition as the two big televised versions from the preceding decade, although it owes more to Dan Curtis’s Frankenstein than to Frankenstein: The True Story. One important difference, however, is that Gialanella (who is credited as screenwriter) has Victor Frankenstein (Robert Powell, from Asylum and The Survivor) carrying out his blasphemous scientific experiments not at the university in Ingolstadt, but in the tower of his family’s castle, which hasn’t otherwise been used since his father, Alphonse (The Vault of Horror’s Terence Alexander), came down with the illness that has left him wheelchair-bound and frequently bedridden. Nor does Victor have anything to fear from the rest of the household, which consists of his kid brother, William (Krull’s Graham McGrath); William’s governess, Justine (Susan Woodridge, from Afraid of the Dark and The Shout); Busch the butler (Arnold Peters, of The Body Stealers); and a young woman named Elizabeth (Carrie Fisher, of Star Wars and The Time Guardian, looking, sounding and acting woefully out of place among all these Brits), whom Alphonse took in when her parents, who were friends or cousins or something, died and left her an orphan. Women, children, and servants are in no position to interfere with a young lord while he tampers in God’s domain. Forget uncomfortable questions about what he does in that tower at all hours of the day and night; Victor can even conduct business with Metz (Edward Judd, from Island of Terror and First Men in the Moon) and Scholz (James Coyle, from The Crucifer of Blood and Brazil), the Burke-and-Hare knockoffs who supply him with raw materials, without attracting unwanted attention!

     All that is about to change, though. Victor and Elizabeth love each other, and have sort of an open-ended engagement to be married one of these days. She therefore finds it very concerning that he has spent most of the past year shut away in the tower, doing heaven alone knows what— and while she herself might lack the social standing to challenge Victor on the subject, there’s nothing to stop her from bringing in somebody else who could. Specifically, Elizabeth has invited Henry Clervall (Michael Cochrane), a mutual friend of hers and Victor’s, whom neither of them has seen in a matter of years, to come stay a while at Castle Frankenstein. What’s more, she’s kept that a secret from Victor, and upon Henry’s arrival, Elizabeth implores him specifically to interrogate her fiancé about the nature and progress of his research. That turns out to be much easier than Elizabeth was expecting, because Victor is overjoyed to have Henry butting in. Not only does it mean a chance to reconnect after the long separation following their matriculation at different medical schools, but Clervall is the very person with whom Frankenstein has been longing to collaborate on his secret project. When Henry comes knocking at the tower door that night, Victor welcomes him in without a qualm, and shows him everything.

     This version of Frankenstein’s big experiment is rather less ambitious than what I’m used to seeing. On one workbench, he’s got “the brain of an intelligent man” in a jar, kept alive in the manner of Donovan’s Brain. And on the gurney in the center of the lab, he has the body of a freshly hanged criminal, into which he proposes to transplant said brain before bringing the whole carcass to life galvanically. And although Frankenstein does require the thunderstorm currently brewing in order to proceed with the main event, he isn’t interested in lightning per se. Rather, his reanimation engine runs on hydroelectric power, and the stream running alongside the castle needs to be at full flood to generate sufficient energy for his purpose. Clervall is leery of taking part once he understands what his friend is asking of him, but when Frankenstein vows to carry on with or without him, Henry acquiesces. Unsurprisingly, then, Henry is downright relieved when the envigoration seems to fail. It looks like even a torrential flood can’t get Frankenstein’s dynamo cranking out enough juice to raise the dead. That’s where the lightning comes in. No sooner has Frankenstein admitted defeat than a direct hit on the tower roof channels an unbelievable surge of power through the resurrection machine, bringing the creature (David Warner, of Time After Time and The Island) to life after all, but at the cost of burning most of its head to an ugly crisp. The synthetic man awakens violently delirious, too, and Victor finds himself even more horrified by his handiwork than Henry. Neither doctor is able to stop the thing escaping from the lab, however, and there’s no realistic prospect of tracking it with the storm still raging.

     In the aftermath, Victor completely renounces his research into the creation of artificial life. Instead, he throws himself into repairing his strained relationship with Elizabeth, bringing joy to the heart of his ailing father, who longs to see the two of them married at last in accordance with the late Mama Frankenstein’s dying wish. Meanwhile, Henry, who has always loved Justine despite their mismatched ranks, begins paying timid, tentative, yet unmistakable court to her, as if hoping to make it a double wedding when the day finally rolls around. Neither Victor nor Henry speaks another word about what they did that night in the tower, even to each other— although I note that they don’t set about dismantling the equipment up there, either.

     The creature, for its part, has a much less pleasant time during the ensuing weeks. Although its delirium passes quickly enough, its mind remains a confused mass of unformed potential. Cold, wet, and miserable, it has the foul luck to meet Metz and Scholz, of all people, in its first fully conscious encounter with natural human beings. Evidently enough remains of the creature’s ravaged face for the grave-robbers to recognize the corpse they sold to Frankenstein the other night, and I’m sure you can imagine several reasons why they wouldn’t be happy to see it walking around under its own power now. The creature’s efforts to communicate accomplish no more than to get it stabbed in the face with a broken bottle, but it does note the one intelligible word that Metz gasps out while fleeing: “Frankenstein!”

     The creature’s situation briefly improves when it comes upon the cottage of a kindly old blind man deep in the woods. The hermit calls himself De Lacey (John Gielgud, from The Clue of the New Pin and Caligula), and although he’s frightened at first to hear an inarticulate stranger barging into his home uninvited, his inability to see the creature’s hideous visage enables him to perceive instead its childlike incomprehension and helplessness. De Lacey picks up the ball that Frankenstein so callously dropped, socializing and educating the creature so that it becomes, morally and mentally, at least a first approximation of the man it was intended to be. Impressively, for one who has lost his sight with age, he even makes some headway in teaching the man-made man to read the Bible. But then, while the creature is out in the forest gathering firewood one afternoon, Metz and Scholz reenter the story once again. Somehow or other, they’ve convinced themselves that De Lacey is hiding some cache of secret wealth, and they’re determined to take it from him. The old man can’t withstand the ruffians’ efforts to beat the loot out of him, but since the only thing he has of value is his father’s gold-plated pocket watch, De Lacey can’t save himself by giving in, either. He’s dead by the time the creature returns from its errand.

     Thus begins a frequently inadvertent reign of terror that will ultimately claim not only the grave-robbers’ lives, but William’s and Justine’s as well. Eventually, Victor and Henry realize what must be leaving the trail of bodies, and Frankenstein even encounters his creation face to face. Upon realizing who Victor is, the creature begs him to make a companion for it, and even brings him Justine’s corpse to serve as the starting point. Frankenstein is in no mood to repeat his mistakes, however. That, ironically, is a mistake of a brand new category, for the creature vows that if it must be alone forever, then so will its wayward maker.

     Most Frankenstein movies are about either the monster or its creator first and foremost, with the other becoming a supporting character in the one’s story. Both approaches are equally valid, and have yielded movies well worth watching over the years. Focusing on the renegade scientist opens up themes of intellectual arrogance, technology run amok, and blinkered disregard for the cost of advancing human knowledge. It also lends itself to treating Frankenstein as a Byronic antihero or a magnificent bastard, creating opportunities for vivid and entertaining performances. A creature-centric vision, meanwhile, invites contemplation of parental (or indeed divine) responsibility, empathy toward the wretched and the outcast, and the revenge of the exploited against those who use and discard them. You will note, however, that these are rather different sets of very big ideas. It isn’t necessary to choose between them when translating Frankenstein from page to screen, but it certainly does help— especially in a film of modest length, like this one. Indeed, the only adaptation I can recall seeing that did full justice to both parties while dividing its attention equally between man and monster was three hours long! In the Showtime Frankenstein, the result of constantly shifting focus back and forth between Victor and his creation is that the movie lacks any firm center at all.

     The trouble starts when Victor Gialanella fatally assumes that because we’ve already heard this story a thousand times, he needn’t bother to establish any motivation for Frankenstein’s experiments. Maybe he could have gotten away with that in something unrepentantly schlocky, like Lady Frankenstein or Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, but it won’t do at all in any adaptation as serious as this one aspires to be. The further a Frankenstein movie seeks to rise above the oafish old “corpse-parts monster on the rampage” model, the more important it becomes to examine Frankenstein’s objectives, because they’ve been one of the most variable aspects of this story from one telling to the next. Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein flattered himself that he could create something akin to the perfect men of the mythical Golden Age, and was so viscerally horrified by the malformed monstrosity that he got instead that his reason was overmastered at the crucial moment. James Whale’s Frankenstein, in contrast, was testing a pet theory about the role of cosmic rays in the origin of life on Earth, and didn’t care how the creature turned out, just so long as it lived; his subsequent decision to have it disassembled and destroyed was a dispassionate one based on the recognition that it was physically dangerous. And the Frankenstein envisioned by Terrence Fisher and Jimmy Sangster was an embodiment of all-encompassing, unabating hubris who, given his druthers, would have gone on modifying and rebuilding that monster as many times as it took to get it right. I could go on, but you get the point. So what does this Frankenstein want when he fires up his dynamo to jolt his creature into life? There’s no way to tell, and consequently there’s also no way to tell why he washes his hands of the thing once it escapes from the lab. Frankenstein is left unable to explore any of the possible themes on Victor’s side of the story, because there’s no text to derive any subtext from. Its treatment of the central experiment is as rote and disengaged as that in even the dumbest exploitation take on Shelley’s old tale, no matter how hard it might try to distance itself from that tradition in other respects. And with no accounting of Victor’s motives for monster-making, we lose an all-important baseline against which to measure and understand the rest of his character in the aftermath. Is he a good and godly man temporarily seduced by the lure of forbidden knowledge? A wild idealist scared back onto the straight and narrow for the time being by the unexpected outcome of his work? A master of mental compartmentalization who has decided at last to give full personal integrity a try? I don’t know, and Gialanella isn’t telling.

     That vagueness fucks up the monster’s side of the story, too, by muddying the nature of the creature’s basic grievance. The form and scale of Frankenstein’s culpability is crucial for determining how much and what kind of sympathy the creature provokes. It also establishes the moral and philosophical framework that gives the monster its symbolic meaning. This is a very different story depending on whether, for example, the creature is a child cruelly abandoned by the closest thing to a parent that it will ever have, or whether its mere existence is an affront against God, nature, and human life. What’s more, developments later in the film show that director James Ormerod himself was unclear on this point. The extravagant bummer ending and the metaphysical turn of the dialogue in the second confrontation between Frankenstein and his creation point toward the “irredeemable abomination” model, but David Warner’s extraordinarily raw-hearted and piteous performance makes nonsense of any attempt to read the creature that way. Frankenstein’s creation has by that point been too obviously mistreated, too obviously fucked over by both the naturally occurring humans of its acquaintance and an uncaring cosmos— and above all, it has too obviously suffered throughout all of it. I don’t believe in souls, at least not in the supernatural sense of the term, but when the creature plaintively demands to know why Frankenstein didn’t endow it with one, my immediate response is to object that it’s behaved far more soulfully, in the colloquial, figurative sense, than any other character in the film save De Lacey. Even when the creature behaves despicably, it does so with a degree of moral awareness and an acceptance of the gravity of its actions that neither Frankenstein nor Clervall, for example, ever approach.

     Unsurprisingly, Warner’s interpretation of the monster is far and away the best thing about Frankenstein, for all that it finds itself frequently at odds with the rest of the film. Although it parallels in many ways Bo Svenson’s portrayal from eleven years earlier, this performance is on an altogether different level. Warner is just a much more capable actor, even in comparison to Svenson’s unexpected best. Indeed, so effectively does Warner capture the expression of the creature’s childishly outsized emotions that one barely notices how little he looks the part from a purely physical perspective. The only time the actor’s tall but lanky physique becomes a problem is when the creature literally hugs William to death, failing to appreciate the fragility of human bodies in the face of its titanic strength. “Titanic” is simply not a word that can plausibly be applied to David Warner, unless you want to count those times when he played supporting roles in a movie about the ship of that name. Warner’s true triumph, though, comes during the monster’s climactic attack on Elizabeth. His discordantly apologetic manner as he wraps his hands around Carrie Fisher’s throat gives that scene a power unmatched by anything else in the film, and all by itself makes this Frankenstein worth watching once despite everything wrong with it.



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* Although I personally didn’t watch any of those— just as I mostly didn’t watch the networks’ big zeitgeist shows back in the day.