X Men: Saved by the Decades (Part One)

 X-Man Wolverine Monalisa

X-Men Days of Future Past has enacted justice. Not Magneto’s, Trask’s, Phoenix’s or Apocalypse’s justice, but the only one that counts. It took well over $500 million in two weeks, crushing X-Men: the Last Stand’s diabolical record in its puny hand. Now comfortably over $700 million it looks like the X-Franchise’s future is secure off the screen… And it took a trip back to school of course…

IT’S BLOODY GREAT TO BE ABLE TO SAY THAT X MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST IS THE BEST FILM IN THE X- FRANCHISE SINCE X2. It really is; good for comics, cinemas, the genre, competition… But it’s been a rather long and painful 11 years. Not just for Fox’s stuttering franchise, for the hopes of a real Magneto standalone, for a mostly limping Wolverine, for Fox who sat on the consistently best selling comic book and watched their partner rivals Marvel slip into the comic slipstream like a Mario Quicksilver. “Let’s a go!”

Forge

As we all know, it was 1998’s Blade that kick-started the ongoing comic boom, not Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000. However, that film did add veracity, even a little realism – or perhaps better put, actor gravitas – to proceedings. But hooking itself around, and concentrating on, the core of black leather-bound mutant superheroes it was just a little low key. It needed an extra action scene, it needed to marry the themes of division, segregation and history over a longer run-time.

Three years later, X2 converted that subtlety to a strength. It built on every aspect, teasing new metaphors while retaining mysteries and most importantly, setting a phenomenal cliff-hanger. Expectations were so high, the third film would have always struggled. That must be why they surrendered at the first hurdle. X-Men: the Last Stand squandered its predecessor’s set-up and frankly, the less said about it the better. It rocked the box office hollowly, leaving a franchise that lurched slowly toward wasted chances of spin-offs and inevitable reboot.

It took Marvel’s determination to build an interlinking and self-selling franchise to make Fox appreciate what they had. Perhaps an easy mistake to make in the era of ‘back-to-back’ filming and in-built ‘trilogy’. Possibly inadvertently, when Fox woke to the fact they found everything was in place to not only quick fire a spawning franchise that lived up to its name, but also lived up to the scope, ambition and behemoth status of its parent comic book. It just took a few risky hires and a step back to that comic’s birth decade.

Wolverine close-up

The 1960s – X-Men: First Class (2011)

Darwin

The children of atom form the first class of the Xavier school…

The first’ reboot’ film, wasn’t the film that single-handedly changed things, but what a start. To think it could have been released as X-Men Origins First Class. After X-Men Origins Wolverine, it’s chilling to remember the threat of a repetitive title.

Behind the lens, they couldn’t have chosen better for the reboot. Matthew Vaughan’s main qualifier was 2010’s Kick Ass, and it was an astute if not unpredictable move by Fox to bring him on board to capture some of that energy for themselves – with franchise midwife Bryan Singer present as producer. Vaughn brought trusty lieutenants with him, including writer Jane Goldman.

It would be totally partisan to suggest that this British weight added a lot, but it certainly didn’t hurt. That said, the creative team would have struggled to mess up the 1960s setting.

It just works. Sure, things are a little creatively flourished. This isn’t particularly 1961/62 in fashion, music or scope. It’s a generic 1960s of Bond, referencing a few points of that franchise’s mid-decade high points. What it didn’t shirk on was the contemporary politics, tying directly into the backbone of metaphor in the X-universe and crucially; using the past to find new ways of looking at the future. “We are the children of the atom” is Sebastian Shaw’s repeated mantra. And when the threat of nuclear war was never stronger, those children of atom form the first class of the Xavier school.

Polaris

Cultural landmarks that familiar characters can grow against

1960s politics is woven into the plot to a satisfyingly surprising degree – feeding on the era’s paranoia while building on the period otherworldliness. It makes the idea of another film like X-Men Origins: Wolverine hitting the franchise impossible. This is different to the futurism that X-Men presented, but so much more effective. It was a shrewd move to copy X-Men’s opening, creating n almost divergent timeline and setting a serious agenda that fuelled into Lehnsherr’s Boys from Brazil hunting, even if Shaw is a little too conveniently tied into that plot point.

First Class presents a far more varied palette than its predecessors. At the heart of Shaw’s emphatic reasoning, the Cold War is most striking. Rather perfectly, it’s central but disassociated from the plot. The proto-X-men are formed by the CIA, but they soon learn to live without them. And the plot survives Shaw’s disinterest in politics; the Nazis and later the Russians merely feed his agenda – a precursor if vastly different slant to Magneto and, if it can be put that way, Apocalypse. These are well known cultural landmarks that the familiar characters can grow against. While the Russians give Shaw the classic Magneto helmet, America gives Lehnsherr and Xavier the Lincoln statue as a background to mull over freedoms, liberty and implications that will come to hit the franchise in the future past – one’s that were present from the very first scene of this and X-Men.

First Class uses its politics as well as its pop culture references. Xavier and Lehnsherr’s first meeting comes on the back of a pure Bond set-piece. Very Thunderball at a time when the Bond franchise had only just arrived at the cinema. Of course, it needs a great soundtrack to match  – and serves up the best in the franchise. The ‘60s themed titles/credits are a wonderfully thought out touch.  Well, until it closes with Take That (one British contribution it could do without). And alongside these bits and bobs, First Class packs some fine action, avoiding the pitfalls of X-Men. Shaw’s CIA breakdown manages to compete with the sublime Whitehouse incursion that kicked off X2.

Beast

Absolute power corrupts absolutely

As that set-piece shows the casting is generally superb, particularly Kevin Bacon’s wicked turn. It helps that no one else in the franchise has rivalled Magneto (and no, Dark Phoenix doesn’t count). But aside from the contrived origin, his character journey is a little too sketchy. His seemingly convincing “We don’t hurt our own“ adage doesn’t stay true for long, as he nears the end of a road unbridled by any kind of moral purpose. Perhaps he works simply as that broad prototype of Magneto; a crucial part of the main villain’s genesis but also part of a time where he had to take on a succession of real human names before being replaced by mutants who take on real mutant names. Perhaps he’s just the truism inside the larger metaphor – that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Elsewhere, aside from another range of forgettable evil mutants (a series trademark), seeds are set surprisingly well for the trilogy we’ve already seen .  And that’s down to the strength of the mutants who are yet to fall. There’s the older Mystique in-joke of course, while Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence capture the menace and echoes of the future. That Magneto’s path is the most compelling is not surprising (yet another film that makes a sorry example of The Phantom Menace). What is impressive is that Xavier’s isn’t far off, mainly thanks to his dynamic with Mystique.

This is all about sewing those seeds, but as an actual origin story four films after ‘the origin’ film, it has the wise approach – and all credit to Vaughan for retaining his fresh Kick Ass sensibilities – to have fun with it and not pay too much lip service to the rules of an established franchise. Thank goodness for that rounder, new comic book era style storylines are brought in such as Mystique’s strong ties to Xavier.  The sequel would build on this even more impressively.

Dazzler

Previously Wolverine had carried the humour, here the others can let loose

Something else that would be built on is perhaps First Class’ greatest contribution: humour. There are the in-jokes, particularly about hair, but also a general wryness greatly missing from its earnest forbears. The Wolverine cameo, with the certificate sparing use of “Go fuck yourself” is the major crowd pleaser – taking its leads out of character for comic effect. When X-Men Days of Future Past comes to reference it, it’s not as effective. That film would need to raise the stakes to ensure the Canadian hairy one’s involvement but here it’s clear he would have a significant destabilizing impact. Previously Wolverine had carried the humour while here the others can let loose. That he had his own solo mission to undertake, poor as that was, probably saved the franchise.

For quite some time afterwards, First Class was talked about as the start of a trilogy to rival the original. Fortunately the rising phoenix of Marvel and some behind the scenes jiggery-pokery made sure it was so much more. And so, a plan was hatched that would draw on the original comics more than ever, the sterling work of X-Men’s main Brit/American: Chris Claremont.

Next up on X-Men through the Decades: Flares and New Romantics… 

“There’s little worse than a dull X-Man. Except Solemno there, sitting quietly in the corner waiting for Apocalypse… “

Glastonbury: Memory of a Wet Festival

 Glastonbury Festival Cow 2005

Nine Years since I was last at Glastonbury… It was so darned good I’ve never really felt the need to go back…

Yes back, back to 2005…

SUNDAY 29TH JUNE, AND THE DUST OF WORTHY FARM HAS BEEN WELL AND TRULY SATURATED AND CHURNED BY THE SHUFFLE OF A MILLION WELLINGTON BOOTS.

Strangely, many people seemed to head down yesterday, the Saturday.  By that time the moat of cars would be at peak, blissfully ignoring the threat of long exit queues mashed with mud trenches that will hit them tomorrow. I wonder how many not at all remotely incongruous Bentleys will be stationed on a slope, asking of everyone who passes how long their handbrake tension actually is (consensus: less than three days).

It’s nine years since I was last at Glastonbury and I’m fairly confidently that was my last (in a never say never type way)…

Road Trip

The festival had slumped under regulation and reality

It was an inauspicious start nine years ago.  We had a Thursday arrival as usual, but people were already surrendering to the Glasto week, filling up the site by Wednesday.  By the time we arrived after some rather marvellous Bowie and Beatles harmonies on the road, most pitches had been laid.  The half-hearted attempt to camp near The Glade or somewhere close to that enchanted inner land was blocked.  Turned away several times, and rather burdened by my insistence we only make one trip, we were already behind.

Tired and mottled, it was to our piebald cousins, the cows. The gravel path leading up to farm gave refuge, although it wasn’t ideal.  A lovely, somehow lonely view of the Pyramid Stage, but otherwise just a little less magical and a little more corporate. Cash points beeped not too far away.  Same as it ever was.  The festival had slumped under regulation and reality at the turn of the century.  In 2002 the super fence was unveiled, bringing horrid connotations and two undeniable facts: One that the free festival was over or if it wasn’t , Glastonbury definitely was. The other, that it would never really be the same again.

The Wall Change

I was near an ice cream van

The year that followed the wall was noticeably empty, probably to the tune of hundreds of thousands.  Worse, the crowd, whether uncovered by new found space or simply reflecting a new paradigm, was heavily corporate. City boys taking notes for their next Hedgestock.  It was inevitable that the photo cards would follow, then the hour sell out.  In 2005, was already difficult. I managed to secure tickets with the help of a 56k dial up modem. It was painful. I was lucky…

As usual, Glastonbury isn’t sold on acts. They are almost entirely announced after the tickets have sold out and of course it’s possible, if not encouraged, that you spend the whole festival without seeing a single slice of live music. There’s more than enough going on to hide that away.

I’d been many times before. From the odd state of affairs when Skunk Anansie headlined the 20th century to someone catching Keanu Reeves bass with an apple (and hitting the perfect E). From Roger Water’s huge quadraphonic blackmail and apparently the greatest gig I’ve ever been to, Faithless (that was according to NME – I was near an ice cream van).  Of headliners, from REM to Air, Rod Stewart’s mandolin and football mash up and of course, Bowie’s peerless return in 2000 (Now, that was the greatest gig I’ve ever been to).

Calm Before…

I fell asleep to slight growls of thunder

A first evening at Glastonbury should always involve a trip to the Sacred Space.  Pre-2002, this was a classic place for all sorts of course – punctuated by daring and generally successful attempts to break over the minor wall before The Wall. Obese and neon security bumbling after wiry gatecrashers.  This time, aside from the odd panda car struggling to climb the mud perimeter, there was little of the old.  And perhaps it was the change of atmosphere or earlier camping disappointments but the evening ended in disharmony.

I sat at the Sacred Space for a while, kept company by some cigarettes.  As I left, the night had stolen the purple skies and it was impossible to see the heavy clouds it hid.  I took the long return to the Big Ground and as I walked, large rain drops hit my shoulder. I fell asleep to slight growls of thunder, fully certain that this Glastonbury wouldn’t be a classic.

That it rained overnight was undeniable.  But I woke, late to fairly clear skies.  The day before’s recriminations had gone of course, today was festival day. But the problem was it was already late and we’d missed. It was the year following John Peel’s passing and the Buzzcocks were to kick off the Pyramid Stage. We couldn’t hear them, but we were already well into that.  There was little to comment on the weather, from people or announcements. Phones were limited, Facebook still not massively adopted. It was a fair walk to get The Glastonbury Free Press, which this year has every adjective available for download.

What was strange was the path running down to near the Pyramid area which was now a stream.  Looking out from our rocky outcrop there wasn’t much to see, but in fact we were missing everything and absolutely nothing.

Muddy Ragnarok

Heimdall had sounded the advent…

That thunderstorm had wreaked merry japes overnight, with direct lightning hits knocking out several stages. Radio 1 was down, flash floods had soaked my original camping choice with four feet of water and the first three bands on the main stage had been cancelled. Our camping solution was suddenly wise, our lateness forgotten.

Suddenly, the year defined by Kylie headlining then not headlining had something a little more traditional to worry about. Heimdall had sounded the advent of a muddy ragnarok.

That’s the thing with Glastonbury. In the indent of the valley, too much sunlight creates a dust bowl which is quickly stirred into mud by just the merest dash of lightest rain. Perfect for the English summer in other words. Fetch some strawberries.

Mud skating is easy to gain proficiency in – and by far the best way to get around. For once, the reduced numbers were a bonus.  Many were conducting salvage operations in newly found lakes and there was no temptation to sunbathe and relax at the Jazz Stage arena.  But most of all, when Glastonbury, with cynically overpriced rain attire packing out its markets, heads for the mud, solidarity is the only way forward. If you get stuck, it’s likely there’s a stranger opposite you who’s also stuck. Force and equal force, equal and opposite attraction. That’s what it’s all about.

Endgame

An inebriant with the lightening flexibility of a thousand Neos

I stayed pristine for two days, with expertly attached surfing bin liners on each foot.  That is until Saturday night, when sneaking past New Order I fell into a crater. To great cheers.  From then it was all bets off, an unrecognisable long-haired golem in a Kleenex tee-shirt.  Still, after that plunge there was still an epic journey to undertake – to the freshly minted John Peel Stage – through an obstacle course of mud and hay bales.  And so fuelled by that same solidarity and six litres of hallucinogenic pear cider I set off.

It was perilous. And by my return, after heckling The Magic Numbers (inadvertently and constantly) the mud stretch back was almost unbreachable.  And to my eternal credit, I missed Coldplay headline a festival once again.  At one point, amid fits of uncontrollable laughter, I reached for support on a railing of clothes, all bundled up for the night. The result was an inevitable reconstruction of The Matrix Reloaded burly ball scene, as thousands of green screened monster merchants filed out to save their merchandise, trying to lamp an inebriant with the lightening flexibility of a thousand Neos.  At least that’s how I remember it. There are absolutely dazzling photos of that Saturday that I am officially barred from showing anyone but most involved parties.

And then, on the Sunday the sun came out to burn the zombiefied gathering.  Hair still caked with mud, the sun beating down I headed to the Pyramid Stage just as a festive Brian Wilson, decked in a typical Hawaiian shirt, introduced Little Saint Nick. All the people reminded him of Christmas he said. Strange days indeed,

Yes, 2005, that was a good year. Although I expect this year to be hailed the best, as is customary, Glastonbury now fits so well as a separate BBC blanket brand it’s difficult to see the appeal of heading back.

Nah, I think I’m done with that.

Frankenstein: “We Will Need New Material” – AD 2014 (Part Two)

Frank II

The concluding look at how the legacy of Frankenstein is faring 196 years on from his creation…And his creation’s creation.  Read the first part for tales of Angelic I Frankensteins, Missing Munsters and Intriguing Igors… Part Two is dedicated to Penny Dreadful, and full of spoilers

AS THE FIRST PART OF AD 2014 ESTABLISHED, THERE’S NO SHORTAGE OF CREATORS WILLING TO TAKE ON MARY SHELLEY’S GOTHIC CREATION AND WARP HIM TO THEIR OWN AGENDA.  

That’s nothing new, and the current cultural canvas stretching from demon bashing comic books to misfiring Munsters, proves that it’s still a powerful metaphor ripe for appropriation.  And this isn’t an exhaustive list, barely touching on the Frankenstein who’s been testing DC Comics since the late 1940s up to the current Young Frankenstein toying with the Teen Titans.  Then there’s the continual references propping up Doctor Who, doctorish twists on the thriving zombie genre …

As a statement of intent however, the strongest contender must be the darkly ambitious Showtime series Penny Dreadful. Immaculately cast, inspirationally created, veins pumping with horror, at the mid-point of the series UK broadcast it’s clear that this is the Frankenstein to beat…

Penny Dreadful (2014 – )

“Who is the child, Frankenstein? Thee or me?” – Caliban

For a chance to expand the myth and give a little more screen time to the eponymous doctors, where better to look than the brave new world of television. Into the breach stepped the fascinating Penny Dreadful with a gloomy, rancid and often brilliant blend of 19th century literary and gothic icons. In the first episodes, it was striking how this new iteration of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen had crept up on prime time. By the end of the second it’s clear that it’s attempting  something different to Alan Moore’s sublime opus.  It doesn’t take much more than a consumptive Billy Piper spitting blood mid-coitus over Dorian Gray of Eve Green’s foul mouth bending Simon Russell-Beale’s frazzled tache to make the truth of the Penny Dreadful moniker clear.

There’s lots at play in this series; necessary when it turns its full focus to mystery and the dark underground of 19th century London.  With origins and explanations destined to appear later, surely, it’s the key enjoyment is watching significant talent take on these characters and win.  Masterminded by the brilliant John Logan and Sam Mendes, fresh from their revitalization of British 20th century icon James Bond, the input of consultants of the pedigree of Dr Matthew Sweet and ambitious casting makes for something special.

Amid a mix, or clash and blur of creations, familiar storylines vie for attention.  What must be  Dracula provides the main motivation while arguably Frankenstein makes for the most engrossing plotline.  In the first episode, there’s a point that divides those prime storylines neatly.

Point of No Return

It’s the meeting of the as yet un-named Frankenstein with Timothy Dalton’s obsessed Sir Malcolm Murray, African explorer, Alan Quatermain comparator and nemesis of Dracula.  They meet in what may as well be the Diogenes Club, the gentleman’s sanctuary and necessary catalyst.  The two great explorers, one of land and human experience, the other of science and human endeavour, meet and pique each other’s interest – although it’s Murray who takes the lead in summoning the younger Doctor to his cause.  We learn his insights on to his rag tag band of acolytes later (“not for the weak or the kind”), but after that meeting the great explorer returns to ramp up the vampire storyline while Frankenstein returns to his hidden laboratory, previously only seen as a secret door.

As is befitting, the end of episode one is brilliantly played down. The accidental awakening as Frankenstein’s return to a plain but classical laboratory sees him first strip away the clothing of society and – perhaps buoyed by an income boost or drunk on his passionate quest –tinkers to trigger an electric surge.  He’s walked past a finely realised copper bench, a prone form giving the director ample scope for misdirection.  There’s no hint of lightening in London, here electricity is man wrought.  That’s a crucial theme in this meshing of gothic icons, even the Alan Quatermain styled Sir Malcolm Murray; how their world is being encroached by the fast-developing world of Victorian rationalism and mechanics.

Quiet and tender, the meeting of this father and son is far more successful than the traditional one.  It forms the episode climax as Frankenstein teaches his creation his name.  Some reviews decried that, suggesting that it played down to a sophisticated audience.  In the climax however, I thought it neat.  This is an intensely intimate moment, one where the audience is clearly eavesdropping.  It’s awkward and chilling I thought… With these two, it’s not so much acquiescing to the common denominator, but an imprinting of a name that would become the focus for total vengeance.

This creature, allowed to name himself after the Shakespearean Proteus, is the product of Frankenstein’s devout romanticism and thirst to rationalise it with his science and deep felt experience of death, against that same industrial expansion.  Although it takes a while to explore that fully…

Out on the Town

“Death is not serene” – Frankenstein

Episode Two plays a little fast and loose with the fun of this new, scared but joyous father and his curious son.  When naming him, there’s the wry dismissal of the theological connotations of ‘Adam’ and then the vibrant scenes of the monster discovering the world, intercut with Frankenstein’s involvement in the Murray plot.  That provides a chance for Ives and Frankenstein to bond over Wordsworth, leaving the psychic to inform the main players correctly; this doctor has secrets.

And after a day of magical discovery, father and son return to their house of secrets and Penny Dreadful plays one of its mean tricks, expertly dishing and manipulating literary roots to spin and twist chronologically earlier plot points.  After exploring the unnatural creation going well, through emotion, aspiration, recollection…  Frankenstein’s world is literally torn apart.

“Your first born has returned father” – Caliban

The creature’s appearance is so good, the next episode near steals it with Fenton and his master…

However, that Episode Three is so far the highlight of the series for revealing an authentic Frankenstein and the first born son he abandoned.  It’s a surprise that shouldn’t be.  That savage twist should have been obvious, but this creature is more the tortured, long-haired creation of the book than vicious killer.  The roots of these characters immense hatred of each other is well laid, yet through few words on the Doctor’s part and many from his creation.  This episode starts with the brutal lessons of life and death that the young Frankenstein was forced to learn.  We see him walking through daffodils and quoting not only Wordsworth, but the poet’s Intimations on Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.  A neat if not subtle reference to the character’s literary origins, this retelling promises so much more alongside broad slabs of fidelity.

Alongside the weak doctor, this ‘normal’ sized creature is not horrifically violent, though it can evidently spring to action with resolve when required.  It’s a fine line to the ham fisted mechanic of I Frankenstein. No matter if the creature is as abnormally tall as Shelley’s, was awakened with enough volts to power its indestructibility… The real fuel for the creature must come from those first few minutes of imprinted rejection.  This creature is as articulate and learned as his source.  The recap of his birth, in “terrified agony” is gripping and faithful, and the script plays with it well, even name-checking in opposition PB Shelley’s  Lyrical Adonais.

Hippocracy

“Do not test me Frankenstein. You do not know horror until I have shown it to you” – Caliban

Still, it’s the two that are rooted in turbulence.  “Death is not serene” observes the Doctor early on while his creation promises that he would have pursued him through the “blackest tempest of the darkest night”.

We also see the origins of the Doctor of course and how death set him on an inevitable route.  The creature narrates what we’ve seen so far, the Doctor who favoured Wordsworth and the Romantics’ view of the world who creates something that is “modernity personified” in the age of the industrial.  It’s no wonder that Frankenstein fundamentally cannot stand his creation, and is incapable of making any effort to make up for his abandonment.  It shouldn’t fit quite so well with the other son we’ve seen, not quite, but it does.  That’s perhaps due to the quality of the creature’s argument.  Tellingly, Frankenstein doesn’t speak for minutes as his firstborn addresses him.  When told by his son that they are the Janus mask, “inseparable” his first words, “how could you do that?’  The response that it is a mercy for the tragic Proteus – “you put me through nothing but pain”.

As the creature continues its insightful psychoanalysis, it sums up what may as well be Penny Dreadful’s main remit.  Following the father who could only be “surgeon and the butcher”, he comes to London.  Rightfully not the creature’s birth place, but the perfect hub for these stories.  A rather pretentious ‘Hellmouth’.

That reference to the Janus mask is a neat plant.  The ever reliable Alun Armstrong soon appears as Brand in the creature’s story, dragging him to his natural home: the theatre, the Grand Guignol no less.  Big puppet indeed, this may not bring universal acceptance but does bring him a name, again Shakespearean: Caliban.  It’s a neat trick, blending the creature into the shadows as the Phantom of the Opera of the hunchback in the real-life and enduring legacy of a theatre infamous for naturalistic horror shows. It’s unlikely such a literally concerned show will bring in a variant of wolf men beyond that stage, and perhaps that’s another reason for it.  The Grand Guignol stage allows the freedom to include fictional cameos, while behind the scenes the creature pulls the strings (literally, the grand guignol that’s not the buffoon, but the marionnettiste) and front of house, Penny Dreadful’s other players gather to watch events unfold.

There’s time for a quick bit of literary fun of course.  “It’s all Ibsen nowadays” laments Brand at one point, crew sniggering behind the camera I’m sure.  But the show’s main tool is this self-aware creature.  He knocks on the real fourth wall as he draws the comparison between these actors and the undying – creatures of perpetual resurrection.  And there on a stage we first see before it hosts the old ‘Penny Dreadful’ Sweeney Todd, the pale skin and red eyes make him appear more like a traditional vampire than ever.  He lacks the taught translucent, taught skin and adds sutures to Shelley’s creation, but some hair growth later and some things are inevitable.  When he tells his father “I’ll show you what I want’ ‘a collective sigh rises: what could that be..?

Frank II cu

The Monster’s Shadow

“If you seek to threaten me, threaten me with life” – Caliban

With Frankenstein in the pre-eminence, the other plot lines can only pale. It’s made clear that Mina is indeed the Mina, attached to one Jonathan Harker and falling under the spell of this other creature, never named.    Again it’s twisted, with a doomed Fenton a little more horrid than the fly obsessive in Stoker’s original and the marvellous setting of the London Zoo showing how Twilight could have done far better.

While these rattle on, the Frankenstein story settles into the classic amateur Faustian pact, playing out on the streets while the vampires occupy the night, interiors and underground.  “What do you want from me demon?’ asks Frankenstein of his firstborn, his cool arrogance brought more steel by the arrival.  He still feels fairly justified or perhaps is finding good reason to reach for it.

The streets of London were also the backdrop where his younger ‘brother’ found discovery.  While that relationship was about teaching and learning, here it’s one of constant misunderstanding.  It’s amusing when Frankenstein admits he does not love his son, but not for the creature; of course, it’s the love of one like him he craves.

Frankenstein is as much about loss as love of course, it’s a relationship built on the negation that intertwine the two until death is the only option. That’s negation of parenting, knowledge, hope.   The creature is brutalized by that loss, Frankenstein strengthened.

Love, Love, Love…

“Do not temporize demon, be at it” – Caliban

Love as is only right, is at the heart of much of Penny Dreadful, and never as simple as that of a father for his missing daughter or another father lacking it for his unwanted son…

We see Frankenstein enlisted into a super-gang of course, and that necessarily weights the other end of the relationship spectrum.   By the middle of the series, Murray’s similarities become more relevant as the search for the source of the Nile adds mystery on mystery and Frankenstein is cast as his son.  A neat balance to Frankenstein’s own son just returning.  Although, who on Earth would trust Murray…

Gray is the last major figure to give up his secrets… But seems a neat foil as an immortal and cat amongst other mortals.  Each character has their own implication on Frankenstein’s.  By episode Four, and the intensity of the creature’s quest for a bride, the short, shocking creation talks of mortals and touches on some of the more delicate pangs of 19th century politics.  “Future belongs to the strong, the immortal races” he says, “To me and my kind”.  In an echo, Gray later extols Wagner as he seduces Chandler with Tristan & Isolde‘s ‘Love Death’.

It’s Josh Hartnett’s Chandler who seems the real oddity.   Particularly with the neat addition of haematologist Abraham Van Helsing working alongside Frankenstein in the fourth episode.  Surely Quincey Morris is Chandler’s template, and one with a pre-built destiny to finish off Dracula.  That he isn’t Morris can only promise something else, that deep secret he’s running from.

And at the centre. Elsewhere, it’s clear that Vanessa Ives, with her mysterious arachnophobia is the key or indeed as Dorian Gray put it “The most mysterious thing in London”.  Her spin on Frankenstein? As her master first observed, Vanessa Ives has to name something to make it live before he seduces her with Keats….. And it’s surely no coincidence that the example we see twice is Shakespeare’s Ariel.   The stunning Ives-centric episode establishes that the tremor of something lay in the Murray family well before Penny Dreadful picks up the reigns, and also that this team is very, very finite.

With the Dracula storyline advanced, Penny Dreadful leaves Frankenstein as the main vehicle to bring the theme of love to the gothic horror.  And perhaps the horror of gothic love.

2014 AD

Despite losing and stalling adaptations on each side of the Atlantic, it’s clear that The Modern Prometheus is in fine form.  Quality and quantity will always vary, but that’s something the good Doctor himself is only too aware of.  Madman, explorer and scientist.  As DNA and medicine reality continues to keep Frankenstein relevant, the various facets of Frankenstein have no reason to be too stitched back together any time soon.  3,000 volts or not, immortality is assured.

To paraphrase a victim of Hammer’s Baron “I fancy that we are the spider and you are the fly, Frankenstein”.

Frankenstein: “We Will Need New Material” – AD 2014 (Part One)

Frankenstein AD 2014 Fresh Material

A decade on from the Van Helsing misfire and 20 years on from Kenneth Branagh’s earnestly romantic take, the legacy of Frankenstein is in better health than ever, even if it‘s a little more comfortable in its patchwork…

The Modern Prometheus.  Scientific progress will always play its part in keeping Frankenstein relevant, or rather the human response to it.  While Mary Shelley’s novel may have been a romantic answer to industrialization and even temporary climate change, the raw power of electricity in the early 19th century was revolutionary enough to question how far man could progress if he was able to harness such power.  And when that question’s asked, there’s a short list of comparators.

Frankenstein was published three years prior to Faraday unveiling the electric motor.  196 years on, that Modern Prometheus won’t go away, constantly fuelled by scientific progress.  In the 21st century, whether genetically modifying a crop, cloning stem cells or creating life from three donors, “playing Frankenstein” is a line easily brought to bear. Playing Frankenstein. A great phrase, keeping its fictional and manipulative connotations while posing its own challenge and sanity check.  Frankenstein has been presented in multiple ways over the past two centuries of course, from visionary saviour to arrogant savant, mad man to psychopathic Baron (who’s single-minded determination gifted the above title).  And by constantly maintaining this diversity, it looks as though the Doctor and his creations are faring better than ever in 2014…

In this first check-up, a look at January’s I Frankenstein, two aborted television shows that should have rocked the laboratory and the promise of a big screen revolution in 2015…

I Frankenstein (2014)

…Without Abbot and Costello…

“You go talk to the Gargoyle Queen; I’ll meet you back here in an hour”

So says Dr Frankenstein’s blonde spiritual successor to his original creation just before things kick off.  The creature of I Frankenstein is named Adam by Leonore, that same Queen of the Gargoyles and that’s pretty much all you need to know.

It’s no surprise that I Frankenstein is a graphic novel adaptation, nor that it comes from the same creator as the Underworld series.  Here however, a little disappointingly, the creature is thrust into the eternal and Christian-centric war between demons and gargoyles (the slightly stony Angelic lineage of St Michael).  Vampires and werewolves would have been a step far too much without Abbot and Costello…

As with Underworld, CGI and odd character design is the order of the day in a plot of simply decimated good, morally conflicted scientists, an impossibly empty international city and a broadly realised McGuffin which spells peril for the human race.  Of course, it manages to magic up some Romeo and Juliet moments, haphazard threat and a few digs into Frankenstein’s literary past as well.  Although, amid its cluttered, character-led plot bashing, there’s little reason to care or develop the creature’s relationship with his creator as he follows his strict path of redemption.

Father and Son

The journal changes hand more times than magic cups on Westminster Bridge

The creature is pure antihero.  From the beginning the monster’s journey is defined and justified– apart from a few outbursts – by the unnature of his creation.  The Frankenstein story is broadly present and correct, though covered within the first three minutes of the film.  That the creature is christened Adam suggests at best an oversimplification of the text, at worst a misreading.  This Victor Frankenstein is a “Mad man, terrified by what he created”.   His death may come in the tundra of the north, but the irony of this creature returning his father’s corpse to be buried in the family graveyard is a little lost: “It was more than he deserved”. And as soon as that story’s buried, his creation is immediately thrust into the film’s sub-theological plot.  No wonder he looks so surprised when having just seen his father off…  He’s attacked by descending demons then saved by ascending gargoyles.

No, as might be expected, all subtlety has been deanimated.  The MacGuffin in question is the mythical Diary of Frankenstein – hidden away in a vault while the creature conveniently mans up to a sort-of modern day – the key to the forces of evil discovering immortality. Or perhaps that’s not quite right; to reanimate demons who are surely mildly immortal anyway? They certainly don’t decompose.  In one of the few bits of profound scripting, the Gargoyle Queen prefaces Adam’s sabbatical by labelling him “Written proof that God is no longer the sole creator of man”.  Fortunately, it’s not to his jagged little face.  Sadly, some time away doesn’t improve this monster’s knowledge or ability.  In fact, having the majority of his life spent in the surety that God, angels and demons exist above the world of man can only belittle Frankenstein’s core essence.

But core essence and subtlety isn’t what I Frankenstein’s all about, nor the creature mad old Frankenstein’s only genius.  He can also write the secret of immortal reanimation neatly into a small journal that lasts 200 years.  His creation cannot age, can’t easily be destroyed and possesses supernatural strength.  This is all put down to the 3,000 volts that the diary states brought the creature to life (Volta’s first battery appeared in 1800 electro-fact fans).  All details are laid out in neat writing and sketches for the crème of modern British scientific research to purloin.  Well two of them at least, in much the same way as they might have written down Blue Peter building materials when they popped up briefly onscreen pre-internet.

The journal changes hand more times than magic cups on Westminster Bridge and there’s not even a single mention of a photocopier.  Perhaps, coincidentally, electro-magnetism hasn’t been developed in this time stream.

Body Parts

…This monster could have tried harder in those nightclubs.

Character-wise, we’re a supernaturally long throw from Shelley.  The modern successor to Frankenstein takes the form of blonde and sceptical Dr Wade – effectively Rosamund Pike in Doom – here working for big bad Bill Nighy.  The monster though, for all its lack of authentic physiognomy is rather well done. Aaron Eckhart is fine casting but given little to play with. He’s been hacked up for sure, but typically it’s difficult to portray that he’s “A dozen used parts from eight different corpses”. Perhaps truest in intent, his main scars come from the psychological battle with himself and his creator. Perhaps the weakest part is he didn’t gain any insight into his father before his death.  “He hunted me. I would have killed him too but he froze to death” Adam growls at one point, inadvertently making it sound wonderfully like “haunted”.  This Creature, possessing the long hair of his literary forbear, although not nearly as articulate, is constantly told why he’s so screwed up.  That’s a little mean, especially considering how the fact of his origin proves far more important that the why or hows.  Cue the Bill Nighy master plan: “Niberius has been planning this for centuries, Frankenstein just made it possible”.

When a Faustian pack is suggested at one point, the bride’s promised, adding an interesting tie between the scientist and creation – but really, this monster could have tried harder in those nightclubs. It’s unlikely that a sequel will happen let alone examine those missed opportunities.

Still, by the end he’s come to terms with his lot and continues along the selfless path that has earned him a demon-shocking soul.  Yes, by the end he is Batman. Sorry, no, He Frankenstein.

On a side note, the title – among its many other references to I Claudius, I Robot, er, Disney’s I-Man etc – was almost shared with the second Hammer Frankenstein film in 1958. That film, ultimately titled The Revenge of Frankenstein and featuring the late Francis Matthews who sadly passed away this week, proved to be a chilling and excellently produced addition to the franchise. It was always unlikely that its almost-namesake would be so lucky.

Frank I cu

Stitches in time (2012 – 2014)

…Frankenstein lives on in a far more thematically just way…

It’s worth noting the almost-Frankensteins; those Doctors whom, in a parallel universe, are furthering the scientific mastermind’s agenda on television.  Here they fell quickly with little chance of resurrection.  First was the quickly dismissed Gothica on ABC.  Albeit modern day, it saw a mashing of horror icons including Tom Ellis as a Victor Frankenstein, a hospital lead desperate to bring his dead daughter Anna back to life… Possibly with the help of ex Grace van Helsing.  Also dragging Dorian Gray and Dr Jekyll into the mix, it was dashed at pilot stage.

As forming gothic leagues seems to be the done thing, it’s no surprise that networks looked to their back catalogue.  Bryan Fuller’s Mockingbird Lane an update of 1960s classic The Munsters and its spin-offs did see its pilot air in Halloween 2012, but proved too complex an entity for the NBC network to commission.

A natural extension of Bryan Fuller’s excellent Pushing Daisies, the pilot was also directed and produced by Bryan Singer. That’s a great deal of talented Bryans for your buck.

Fuller’s dialogue is typically witty, picking out the heritage and black humour of suburbia as reverentially as you might expect.  NBC seems to have struggled with the simplistic dark sitcom leanings amid the peak of True Blood, and it’s true that the pilot doesn’t quite project the weight of story-wealth that it should. What it does have is some wise casting and scintillating banter, especially thanks to Eddie Izzard’s Grandpa. A far more malicious and less scatter-brained scientific trickster than the originals, he’s properly the Frankenstein here, pragmatically rejuvenating his son-in-law, not through any means necessary as much as the Munster way.  Jerry O’Connell’s rather unorthodox Herman Munster is similarly changed.  The sly, familiar silhouette joke at his introduction makes way for the creature who just “loves too hard”.  In comparison to the fellas, the female characters Lily and Marilyn seem hardly changed.

If picked up, Frankenstein would certainly be more prevalent this year in suggestion alone, but its sad and quick demise has undoubtedly allowed Frankenstein to live on in a far more thematically just way.  Bryan Fuller moved on to develop the former surgeon, psychiatrist and psychopath just intrigued by what will happen… Hannibal Lecter.  Pumped full of the Frankenstein themes, it’s certainly one of the best things on television at the moment.

Elsewhere, there’s always the resurgent Hammer studios.  With winning new material and fresh adaptations it looks as though Steven Thompson’s Quatermass reboot will be the first jewel plundered from their back catalogue.  As befits Hammer, the production house is always on a lookout for a way to present a fresh return for the Baron though…   While waiting for that spark of inspiration it’s over to another British outfit for the next big screen outing…

Frankenstein (2015)

“Let’s just say I’m Frankenstein’s Monster. And I’m looking for my creator” – Magneto, X-Men: First Class

No, X-Men aside, Frankenstein will next return in a more direct, but not necessarily faithful way.  The upcoming film adaptation from Paul McGuigan is perhaps the most interesting Frankenstein property around. Fresh from his startling and stylish hand in bringing Sherlock back to the masses, he’s a gifted powerhouse director who promises something quite different.  Details are scarce so far, but during its recent and current filming some images have come to light.

James McAvoy takes the role of Frankenstein and it’s well documented that classic film assistant Igor will be not only present, but intriguingly a key focus of the film.  Portrayed by Daniel Radcliffe, early images show a dapper, long-haired version who’s not at first glance the Igor of popular culture.  As what appears to be the third prong of a moral piece, Moriarty Andrew Scott takes the role of the film’s  ‘religious head’.  It’s clear there are many dynamics at play here, just as there should be in a Frankenstein adaptation worth its copper.  The recent delay from January to October 2015 can only bode well considering I Frankenstein’s fate this past January.

With over a year until Frankenstein soars on the big screen again, it’s down to the Idiot’s Lantern to carry it on…

And on that note, time to dim the electric lanterns and blow out the candles on tonight’s experiments.  Coming soon, the concluding part of Frankenstein 2014 AD will herald a trip to possibly Frankenstein’s finest hour this year…  Penny Dreadful

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