Actor-writer James Swanton first boiled Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or: The Modern Prometheus down to an impressive one-man stage show, stripping out the frame stories of Walton’s voyage and Victor’s college days to give the creature a dominant voice – and putting the audience in the (uncomfortable) position of standing in for the abusive creator … if not hypocritical humanity as a whole. Director Sam Ashurst’s film version makes no pretence of opening out the theatre piece: the fixed frame shows only a stage-like alcove in a dilapidated house, where the creature is found. Whenever the monster needs to be seen in close-up, Swanton advances and looms close to the lens, as eloquent in his minimally-made-up face-pulling as in the creature’s bitter, articulate, cunning monologue. The subtle make-up design by Roz Gommersall and Dan Martin is closer to Conrad Veidt’s Caligari look than most other stitches-and-bolts products of the workshop of filthy creation, though the scary clown black lips and eyeshadow are also a fair rendition of Shelley’s often-ignored description.
Early screen incarnations of the character – by necessity in the case of Edison’s 1910 silent and by intent in James Whale’s 1931 film with Boris Karloff – rob him of the voice which, in the novel, is one of his sharpest weapons … it’s seldom noticed that, without the benefit of Whale’s chatty Dr Pretorius, Shelley’s monster literally talks his creator into embarking on the project of manufacturing a mate, see-sawing between intimidating threats and reasoned, emotional appeals and promises. Swanton – who has done sterling work under make-up in Double Date, and could plainly have a career as Britain’s Doug Jones or Javier Botet if he’s willing to subject himself to special effects make-up mad scientists – puts himself and us through the wringer in a radical take on the text, playing up the misunderstood martyrdom of the creature but also flashing wily menace when talking about the murder of his maker’s little brother and the hanging of an innocent woman for the deed. Many Frankenstein adaptations make the creature into a big dumb lug who doesn’t really mean any harm, but Shelley understood what abuse does to the soul – and, though sinned against, her creature becomes a genuine monster, and she uses terms like ’demon’ and ‘fiend’ more and more as the book goes on. Swanton’s creature performs an emotional – and physical – striptease, divesting himself of layers of male and female clothing as he unburdens himself (and burdens us) with the horrors of his situation, and his making.
Made in a cool, blue-ish monochrome – with a few chilly beach superimpositions to convey arctic wastes – with a thrumming score from Johnny Jewel, Frankenstein’s Creature is gripping but also demanding. That steady frame forces you to look at the gaunt monster, adding to the Ancient Mariner effect of the audience being grabbed by the lapel and told things they don’t necessarily want to think about. As much theatre as film – it’s so still that it’d be difficult to call a movie – but an intriguing, valuable addition to the thriving filmography of Dr Frankenstein and All His Works.