skip navigation
Remind Me

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

In the early '90s, after strong critical praise and impressive receipts were generated by Francis Ford Coppola's stylized take on one of the great gothic horror staples, Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), Sony Pictures was eager to have the filmmaker return to the same well for inspiration. Much as the powers-that-be at Universal had done sixty years prior, Coppola settled upon Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994) as a follow-up. While neither the artistic or financial success of the vampire movie was duplicated, the end result remains a compelling entertainment that's fairly faithful to both the narrative line and thematic concerns of the Shelley novel.

Coppola opted to only serve as producer on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. He chose instead to hand both the director's reins and title role to Kenneth Branagh, who'd been one of the most in-demand actor/directors of the period due chiefly to his vibrant realizations of Shakespeare in Henry V (1989) and Much Ado About Nothing (1993). Coppola also knew that for the role of the scientist's patchwork creation, he wanted to avoid the familiar look and tone of prior films and instead present, as did Shelley, a creature that could articulate its torment. While speculation for the casting ran from John Malkovich to Jeremy Irons to Gerard Depardieu, Coppola knew who he wanted-and was ultimately successful in convincing Robert De Niro that he was ideal for the part.

De Niro had been intrigued both by the movie's intent to hew to Shelley's text and by the challenge of playing Frankenstein's monster. "We wanted someone who could act through the make-up," Branagh recalled in Andy Dougan's Untouchable: A Biography of Robert De Niro (Thunder's Mouth Press). "We also wanted someone who could come up with a make-up which was not a mask or suit to hide behind. We very much wanted to see Robert De Niro's eyes, De Niro's soul - there and available."

For the requisite effect, Branagh turned to British make-up whiz Daniel Parker of Animated Extras, whose staff would procure an Oscar nomination for its thoughtful work in constructing De Niro's tragic appearance. "One complication is that, once revived, the Creature actually heals over the course of the film," Parker recounted for Dougan. "He starts off with open wounds which have no blood, but then the wounds become bloody, gradually close and the stitches fall out. By the end of the film these wounds have become scars, so that we had to create six different stages that involved either color changes or sculpting changes."

As Shelley had in her narrative, Branagh has his scientist mysteriously arrive in the wastes of the Arctic, where he is discovered by a sea expedition under the command of the obsessive Captain Walton (Aidan Quinn). In explaining his presence, he revisits the lavish upbringing he enjoyed courtesy of his prosperous physician father (Ian Holm) and the lifelong affection he held for Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), the family ward. In a harrowing sequence, his beloved mother (Cherie Lunghi) dies giving birth to his younger brother, and a distraught Frankenstein vows to free mankind from the reach of death.

Having reached manhood, Frankenstein journeys to Ingolstadt to commence his medical studies, where his queries and arguments on resuscitation are shot down as blasphemous twaddle by an increasingly infuriated faculty. The sole exception is a Dr. Waldeman (John Cleese), who has covertly dabbled in these forbidden theories. Opportunity arises after Waldeman's murder at the hands of a beggar (De Niro); the vagrant is swiftly hanged for the crime in turn. Frankenstein gathers the teacher's research and the necessary "raw materials" to bring it to fruition.

While the ceaselessly kinetic visual style that Branagh brought to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein didn't really allow for shock to build, it worked to best effect in the lab sequence, creating a genuinely riveting interpretation of one of the most familiar episodes in horror cinema. The creature - birthed in a copper chamber filled with amniotic fluid and charged with the output of electric eels - soon escapes Frankenstein's lab and takes shelter in a family's barn, learning to grasp language as he observes them from afar. He soon comprehends enough to read Frankenstein's journal, and enraged with self-awareness, he hunts his creator to Geneva and begins taking bloody vengeance on Victor's family. The monster gives his maker an ultimatum: create a mate, or the carnage continues.

While thoughtfully played by all its principals, including Tom Hulce as Victor's school chum, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein did not meet the popular reception that greeted Coppola's Dracula opus. It's unfortunate, as Branagh actually pumped new life into the oft-told tale.

Producer: David Barron, Kenneth Branagh, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert De Niro, James V. Hart, Jeff Kleeman, David Parfitt, John Veitch
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay: Steph Lady, Frank Darabont
Cinematography: Roger Pratt
Film Editing: Andrew Marcus
Art Direction: Desmond Crowe, John Fenner
Music: Patrick Doyle
Cast: Robert De Niro (The Creature), Kenneth Branagh (Victor Frankenstein), Tom Hulce (Henry Clerval), Helena Bonham Carter (Elizabeth), Aidan Quinn (Ship Captain Walton), Ian Holm (Baron Frankenstein).
C-123m. Letterboxed.

by Jay S. Steinberg



Also Playing on TCM

Also playing
Scorsese Screens for February
An exclusive monthly column

In partnership with The Film Foundation, Turner Classic Movies is proud to bring you this exclusive monthly column by iconic film...more