Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) | 31 Days of Horror: Oct 12

by Jovial Jay

It’s alive! It’s alive!!

Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein may be more accurate to the original novel, but does it give the audience what they’re looking for? Tonight’s review will look at the 1994 film and compare it to both the original text and the 1931 classic.

Before Viewing

Francis Ford Coppola and Kenneth Branagh present a remake of the original Frankenstein story based on the original text. This looks only passingly like the original film, with some equipment and a dead body and lots and lots of lightning. Obviously a much more complex retelling, and possibly accurate account of the novel, with Robert DeNiro playing the monster. How does this hold up to the original film? Let’s find out.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Spoiler Warning - Halloween

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein title card.

After Viewing

In the Arctic Sea in 1794, Captain Walton (Aidan Quinn) and his crew crash into an iceberg on their way to the North Pole. On the icy plain they meet Victor Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh) who shares his story of hubris with the megalomaniacal captain. His story begins when an orphan named Elizabeth comes to live with the Frankenstein family in Geneva when both she and Victor are young children. A decade or so later, Victor’s mother dies giving birth to his brother William. Three years later Baron Frankenstein (Ian Holm) celebrates his son’s graduation, and in 1793 Victor attends medical school in Ingolstadt.

While at school Victor meets Henry Clerval (Tom Hulce), another student, and Dr. Waldman (John Cleese), one of the faculty. Victor asks Waldman to allow him to follow the teacher’s experiments on life and death. While this group is out administering smallpox vaccines to the public, a sharp featured man (Robert DeNiro) with a peg leg kills Waldman, believing the vaccine is going to make him sick. The man is hung, and Victor sees the ability to start an experiment of his own.

Stealing the corpse of the killer, a replacement leg, and Waldman’s brain, Victor assembles a patchwork humanoid. He puts the body in a vat of amniotic fluid and introduces electric eels into the mixture to bring the creature to life. During a cholera outbreak the reanimated human escapes town, with Victor believing that it perished of the disease. Victor reunites with Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) who has fallen in love with the mad scientist, as they plan their wedding.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Dr. Waldman discusses his experiments with Victor, cautioning him on proceeding with his own.

The creature hides in the barn of a nearby family, providing assistance with their harvest unbeknownst to them. The children call him the spirit of the forest. Finding Victor’s diary in the coat which the creature left town in, he begins to learn to read, and hearing the family discussions he begins to learn to speak. He befriends the blind grandfather of the family, but is chased away by the husband one day.

Having read the diary, the creature learns that Victor thinks him evil and an abomination. He vows revenge on his creator. At the Frankenstein home in Geneva, young William (Ryan Smith) goes missing. Elizabeth finds him dead with a locket that William had now in the possession of Justine (Trevyn McDowell), a young nursemaid in the house. An angry mob grabs Justine and hangs her. It is then that Victor learns the creature has framed Justine for the murder and wants Victor to create him a mate.

When Victor ignores the request, the creature rips out Elizabeth’s heart on their wedding night after killing the Baron. Inconsolable, Victor uses Justine’s body and Elizabeth’s head to bring his dead wife back to life. But when she awakens from the procedure she realizes what she has become and immolates herself in front of both Victor and the creature, which burns down the house. The story returns to the Arctic where Victor dies of exposure. As Capt. Walton sets a funeral pyre, the ice breaks up causing the bier to float away. The creature, who has arrived and told Walton that Victor is like a father to him, ignites the logs and throws himself on the fire as well.

What of my soul? Do I have one? Or was that a part you left out?” – The Creature

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Leaping onto the container which contains the dead body, Frankenstein screams for it to return to life.

While Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a closer adaptation to her original 1818 Frankenstein novel than the classic 1931 film, it unfortunately suffers from a distinct lack of horror in comparison. It certainly contains moments that can make the audience uncomfortable as well as a few jump scares, but it doesn’t really generate a mood the way the original film or other horror films might. Kenneth Branagh’s direction of the film is more Wagnerian and epic than Gothic and subtle which doesn’t provide the necessary fluctuations in tone and drama needed to evoke good scary moments. If horror films are to work properly, audiences must be allowed to have elevated moments, but also come down in tension and become comfortable before the next scare. Sitting through an entire film at an elevated level of tension and effort gives the audience no place to go in scarier moments. There are many moments where Branagh spins the camera around a pair of characters, creating a dizzying sensation, but nothing that creates the necessary tension or concern for the characters. There is also not a character that the audience can really get behind as a protagonist. Victor is a pure SOB and he gets what’s coming to him, and yet this version of Frankenstein doesn’t create the same level of pathos for the monster that the original did.

Let’s talk about the monster for a minute. Robert DeNiro is a talented actor, but at the end of the day he’s always Robert DeNiro. He’s bigger than life. When he shows up in Goodfellas, or The Untouchables or Heat, he’s very much DeNiro. So putting him in monster makeup does not distract from his persona and allow audiences to forget who he is. Even though his portrayal of the creature was well done, the very nature that he was cast is distracting to audiences. The character of the creature was also written to be more cunning and evil in this version. As with the original novel, the creature has the ability to speak. These moments create reasoning within the mind of the creature, and the audience can therefore understand why it does what it does. There’s no longer the compassion for a creature that is so simple that it can’t understand its own plight as in the 1931 adaptation. Here, DeNiro’s monster reasons, plots, and executes a plan of revenge against Victor and his loved ones, destroying what could have been a more tragic character.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

In a scene that parallels one from the original film, the creature meets with a young child, who it later kils.

With this film being a closer adaptation to the original text, it brings to light several things that might only be known to people who have seen the other various Frankenstein films. Firstly the 1931 version has Frankenstein’s name as Henry, while his friend and Elizabeth’s confidant is Victor. Most versions adhere to the novel’s naming convention, but for some reason the original Universal film opted a different direction. There are also a number of moments in this film that fans can find in the 1935 sequel The Bride of Frankenstein, such as the monster meeting with a blind man, and Frankenstein creating a mate for his monster. The original film omits William and substitutes a young village girl to play a similar role, as an impetus to get the mob of townsfolk to come after the monster. Here the townsfolk go for the presumed murderer, Justine, with the final showdown with the monster just being Victor and the creature alone. There are numerous other nods to various other Frankenstein films between 1931 and 1994 that fans can look for.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein feels very much like it was an attempt to capitalize on Coppola’s success with Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992. As if the time was right to create a definitive version of this story. Unfortunately, even though it feels very much like a period piece, and “of the time” that the book was written, the film sort of drags on. Branagh portrayed the scientist as a man possessed of knowledge about the world that others would discover in the 20th Century, and a man who has little ethical impediments towards “pure science.” However he is neither likeable nor relatable in his mania. There have certainly been other versions of the story where the creator and creation were seen as more interesting characters. In a direct comparison to the original 1931 Frankenstein, I would recommend that over this modern day Prometheus any day.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Victor’s reanimated bride questions the nature of her reality and the two people that want her in their life.

Assorted Musings

  • In a moment that seems ripped from current headlines, when the sharp featured man is brought in for vaccine, he loudly decries the process claiming that he will be infected with Pox. It’s almost as if he didn’t believe that a vaccine was a necessary way to stop the spread of a disease amongst the population.
  • Rather than utilize the lightning of passing storms, as seen in a brief experimental moment on the hill in the Alps, Victor uses electric eels to generate the necessary current to reanimate his creation.
  • Screenwriter Frank Darabont (The Mist, The Shawshank Redemption, Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors) was very disappointed with the final product, voicing his dislike of Branagh’s film publicly.

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