In Bernard Rose’s filmography, this faithful-yet-radical adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel – which also references James Whale’s film versions – is less like Candyman and Paperhouse, his best-known genre films, than the low-budget, shot-on-DV modernised adaptations of Leo Tolstoy (Ivansxtc, 2 Jacks) he has been making with star Danny Huston. Among the goriest Frankenstein movies ever made, almost on a par with Flesh for Frankenstein, it relocates the story to contemporary Los Angeles and is much more an essay on the text than a straight-ahead horror film. Dispensing with the period trappings of most adaptations (it’s worth remembering that Whale ambiguously set his film in 1931), this eliminates Dr Frankenstein’s extended family of potential victims (plus the trip to the frozen North) and makes a couple of daring innovations. The effect is that the old, old story is still worth the telling.
Rose splits the character of Frankenstein in two, with Victor (Danny Huston) and his wife (Carrie-Anne Moss) expressing different feelings about their creation (Xavier Samuel, the kid from The Loved Ones). Using a digital printer, the Frankensteins and their colleagues – including a waspish Dr Pretorius (Dave Pressler) – create a perfect human being, an adult-sized baby which Victor warily admires and his wife nurtures with hugs. However, as in Frankenstein: The True Story, the innocent being’s beauty is marred by tumorous growths and Victor wants to terminate him and start all over again. In reference to Jack Pierce’s Karloff make-up, the first boil looks like a neck electrode and the creature sustains a cranial drill scar across the forehead. Escaping from the science facility, the creature has an innocent encounter with a little girl playing pooh sticks which goes awry when he tosses her into the water (like Karloff) then rescues her (as in Shelley) only to end up beaten by a Californian mob and violently apprehended by the cops. The key trauma of the novel is reiterated when the caring mother visits the jail and denies knowing her creation, who takes the name ‘Monster’ from the insults of the crowd. Taken off by cops for summary execution, Monster escapes and falls in with a blind jazzman (Tony Todd), who – in a lift from Of Mice and Men – looks after him until he unintentionally, through lust and rage and not knowing his own strength, kills a hooker (Mata Erskine) the beggar has paid to sleep with his protégé. Making his way back to the Frankenstein place by trudging along the freeway, Monster finds Victor has started work on an upgraded experiment – not a bride, but a doppelganger – and his family reunion goes badly awry. Uniquely, the film ends with a depiction of the monster’s self-immolation – planned but not carried out in the novel.
It might well be a dictum that in making a Frankenstein movie, the monster should be taller than the blind hermit – but Todd (Rose’s Candyman) towers over the huddled-in-a-hoodie Monster, and Huston is similarly more imposing in stature than Samuel. However, Samuel is among the best screen Frankenstein’s Monsters – beautiful yet progressively warped, inarticulate and violent (but reading prime passages from Shelley’s prose in voice-over – the Monster’s Milton-fuelled articulacy has recently been referenced in the TV series Hemlock Grove and the one-man stage show Frankenstein’s Creature), tragic and tender and childlike (a little like Terence Stamp in The Mind of Mr Soames) yet authentically savage and terrifying when he unintentionally (or intentionally) strikes back. Rose, who also scripted, spends little time on the mechanics of creation – we’re told it took six months to print the eyes alone – but is acute about the social and emotional abuses that turn innocent Adam into a Monster. Like Danny Boyle’s stage production, this Frankenstein starts with the creation scene – which Rose uses as a way of telling the whole story from the viewpoint of Monster. Huston and Moss, therefore, are more ambiguous and intriguingly contradictory figures – because the Monster doesn’t understand, we never learn why Mrs Frankenstein rejects the creature she has mothered and his sense of being outside of society (having no friends, no property and no name) is reinforced when he peeps through the screen window and finds his creators indulging in foreplay he interrupts.
The film’s low-budget aesthetic, traipsing along highways from a clinical institution to scuzzy skid row, is deliberately desaturated. Rose was one of the first filmmakers to embrace the opportunities afforded by Digital Video, and there’s a vast chasm between his achievements in the medium and the simply ugly look of too many shoot-it-fast-and-cheap horrors. As with Dracula and Jekyll and Hyde, Frankenstein is a constant presence in horror – whether directly or as a pervading influence – and yet there have been very few decent uses of this great material lately. Rose admits to a certain presumption – a word stressed in this script, which was the title of the very first theatre version of the story, Presumption,or: The Fate of Frankenstein – in using the single-word title, which in the cinema has hitherto been owned by Universal and Whale. He earns the right by delivering a significant contribution to the ever-expanding Frankenstein filmography.