Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Frankenstein Unbound

“Frankenstein Unbound” (1990) is a neat twist on the familiar story. It runs out of steam a bit towards the end, but there’s still a lot here that is very entertaining.

In the year 2031, Dr. Joe Buchanan (John Hurt) has an experiment that goes awry, opening up a time portal and transporting him (and his sleek, talking car) to 1817 Switzerland. Entering a tavern, he is astonished to find himself seated across Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Raul Julia). The Frankenstein Monster (Nick Brimble) is on the loose in the countryside and is on a killing rampage. An intelligent, if brutish creation, the monster forces both Buchanan and Frankenstein to make him a mate.

The famous Frankenstein story is ingeniously intertwined with a (somewhat) more historically accurate one, when Buchanan makes the acquaintance of the visiting Mary Wollstonecraft (Bridget Fonda), and her companions Byron (Jason Patric) and Shelley (Michael Hutchence). Mary will of course go on to become Mary Shelley and write her famous book, no doubt based on what’s happening around her.

This was director Roger Corman’s first film in 30 years, and, alas, he has yet to direct another movie. Too bad, because I appreciated the economy of the storytelling here, giving us a lot of story in the 85-minute running time. Unlike a piece of junk like the last “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, which gives us no story spread over a bloated two-and-a-half-hours running time, “Frankenstein Unbound”: gives us enough material for several movies while keeping to a running time of less than 90 minutes. We could use Corman’s talents today

I liked that the special effects were there to accommodate the story, and not the other way around. The time portal is a cool effect and it’s on just long enough to get us to the next dimension. No extraneous lights or annoying whooshing sound effects repeated ad nauseum. We get the point, and we’re on to the next scene. Never one to waste a dime, Corman knows we don’t need five minutes of effects footage when 60 seconds are more than sufficient. Bravo, Mr. Corman.

It’s a pleasure to see good actors like John Hurt and Raul Julia take their roles seriously. Boy, do I miss Raul Julia, taken from us far too young. Bridget Fonda is a vision of loveliness in her diaphanous gowns roaming around the Swiss countryside. It’s fun to consider that Corman directed her dad Peter in titles like “The Wild Angels” (1966) and is now directing his daughter.

This was the third film in five years to cover that fateful summer in 1817 where Byron, Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft and Dr. Polidori were traipsing around the countryside, which eventually resulted in Mary writing “Frankenstein” and Polidori penning “The Vampyre”, considered one of the first horror stories published in English. Director Ken Russell turned the event into a typically overwrought, baroque piece of hooey called “Gothic” (1985). A more serious look, called “Haunted Summer” (1988) starring Eric Stoltz and Laura Dern is duller than dull. Despite its science fiction trappings, “Frankenstein Unbound” remains by far the most entertaining look at that historic vacation.

The monster make-up isn’t the best I’ve ever seen, but it works well enough. The climax goes on a little too long too, but apart from these minor flaws, this is still a very entertaining movie.

I well remember when the project was announced and how anxious I was to see it. Unfortunately, 20th Century Fox really screwed up the distribution and publicity, and it lasted only a week in a handful of theaters, and no theaters by me. It never did open any wider. I was really looking forward to seeing the new Roger Corman movie in the theater, but had to settle for catching it years later on video and DVD. It was worth the wait.

Rating for “Frankenstein Unbound”: Three stars.

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