Review: Frankenstein (1994)


In the history of literature, few works have inspired quite so varied and vast a wealth of adaptations as Mary Shelley’s classic Gothic horror Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. Reproduced times innumerable on stage, screen, and radio, Frankenstein’s fate has been eternally sealed, its monster character among the most iconic symbols of fear itself.

Well known for his Shakespearean adaptations, Kenneth Branagh directs and stars in the 1994 Frankenstein, bringing to the chilling tale an epic dramatic style. Motivated by the untimely death of his mother, Victor Frankenstein experiments with artificial life, producing by his experiments a vengeful but human monstrosity.

Any cinematic adaptation of the Frankenstein story must inevitably be held up to James Whales’ 1931 and 1935 interpretations, the first feature length takes on Shelley’s novel. Whales’ films are rightly regarded as classics of horror cinema; mention Frankenstein to anyone and they will immediately picture the unforgettable image of Boris Karloff in full monstrous guise. Branagh’s film takes an interestingly different approach to the monster’s appearance, Robert De Niro made up to seem more a heavily scarred human than his high-foreheaded predecessor, perhaps evoking more immediate sympathy with him as one of us. Different too is Branagh’s faithfulness to the source material, including the original framing narrative and more intimate details of Frankenstein’s family life, both omitted from the 1930s films, and both potential bearers of added character depth and motivation. Despite these early items of interest, the film rapidly begins to lose itself under the weight of its substandard script and Branagh’s grandiose direction. Affected perhaps by his theatrical career, Branagh has his actors (and himself, appearing in the eponymous role) approach each line with an emphatic boldness, as though they were trying to reach with their voices the back of a packed theatre. To call Frankenstein a melodramatic film would be to do a gross disservice to the ludicrous extent of its grandisonant flamboyance. It is increasingly difficult to take serious the film’s story with each overwrought and deliberately pronounced syllable which comes forth from the actors’ lips. De Niro, it should be mentioned, is the exception to this nonsensical theatricality, bringing to the table a much more reserved and realistic performance, though even he falls prey to Branagh’s fondness for excess, throwing his arms to the heavens and decrying his master whilst the camera pulls dramatically back. Few scenes of dialogue are not marked by an incessant circular motion surrounding the characters, an impressive addition to some conversations, but one which is overused to the point of lunacy. Frankenstein is a film that needs to be seen to be believed, its direction so insane, irrational, and jaw-droppingly over the top that it seems to match the growing madness of its titular character. Were it just the direction alone, the film might have some chance of redemption, but its pacing is just as dumbfoundingly manic, scenes leaking into each other without any sense of control whatsoever. It seems as though Branagh is desperate to cram the entirety of the book into his allotted two hours, almost all scenes rushed in one way or another and immediately followed by more of the same, leaving the viewer little time to breathe and contemplate the narrative developments. This is no way to tell a story, and trying to enjoy it is made all but impossible by this blithering hysteria.

Near unfathomable thanks to its breakneck pace, rapidly tearing through scenes in order to have them done with, Frankenstein is an unfathomable mess bizarrely constructed by a director who appears to have lost his grip on reality. Though improved to a degree by De Niro’s mostly impressive performance, it is a shamefully poor take on a classic story.

[notification type=”star”]25/100 –
Frankenstein is a film that needs to be seen to be believed, its direction so insane, irrational, and jaw-droppingly over the top that it seems to match the growing madness of its titular character.[/notification]


About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.