“The Frankenstein Murders” – Frankenstein on TV and Film AD 2016

Victor Frankenstein 2016 AD

A special romantic catch-up with Jokerside’s favourite morality tale this Valentine’s Day! Love has a crucial place in Mary Shelley’s tale and Jokerside takes a look at 2015’s Victor Frankenstein on film and The Frankenstein Chronicles on TV through many glasses of pink sparkling wine. They’re needed. ❤ ❤ Spoilers abound ❤ ❤

WHEN JOKERSIDE LAST TOOK A LOOK AT CURRENT FRANKENSTEIN ADAPTATIONS TWO YEARS’ AGO, IT WAS A SUITABLY MIXED BAG. THE LONG-GESTATING AND HORRIFICALLY CONCEIVED I FRANKENSTEIN HAD DISAPPOINTED CINEMAS TO THE TUNE OF $70 MILLION. While on the small screen, scribe John Logan had sculpted one of the greatest Frankenstein adaptations in the first season of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful.

Frankenstein’s creature is of course, never something that could or should be kept down. At the time, work was underway on Victor Frankenstein, a new big budget take on the legend, pulling together the great and good of BBC’s Sherlock, box office Brit and a script from Chronicle scribe, and son of a horror directing legend, Max Landis. It promised the biggest big screen splash since Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 gothic prize, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Hopes were very high. And on the idiot lantern, more promise lay in the rejuvenated ITV zeroing in on classic gothic horror. Alongside a dedicated stab at Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a mysterious six part series called The Frankenstein Chronicles. The potential of these properties at the close of 2015 was huge, but as both took a barely faithful root to the story, could it be seized in a huge, stitched and unstoppable hand?

Victor Frankenstein (2015)

It can’t be understated: the chance for Victor Frankenstein to astonish and amaze were immense. Max Landis’ script promised a new take, taking the slant of Igor, a part of the myth that might be film’s greatest addition. Cast as Igor was Daniel Radcliffe, he of extraordinary and erratic acting choices since his Harry Potter days, and James McAvoy, an actor fully capable of recapturing the arrogant vigour of Peter Cushing’s great Baron Frankenstein of the Hammer series. And best of all, Victor Frankenstein sucked up the great and good of Sherlock, the BBC’s astonishingly successful modernisation of the great consulting detective. Memorable Moriarty Andrew Scott took the role of devout adversary to the mad scientist, while Paul McGuigan took up the directing reigns. McGuigan’s work on Sherlock almost defied belief, you only need to compare his episodes to the original pilot to see the skill and talent he brought to one of genre TV’s biggest properties. All in all, there couldn’t be a better choice. The stars were aligning, and Promethean man did they take a long time to do so. It was announced in 2011…

Fall of man

Meet your makers

And once again, it can’t be understated: Victor Frankenstein, languishing as a flop that couldn’t achieve half of I Frankenstein’s box office managed to miss by a mile. It’s a classic morality tale of its own where in spite of the great talent involved hardly any of the individual pieces connected. The blame for its poor box office, $6 million under its budget, can partially fall to theatres, particularly independent British chains, that failed to support its release, as much Victor Frankenstein is yet another low flying warning shot at the British film industry that scripts need to be worked and worked and reworked again. Some of the dialogue and all of the opposition is toe-curlingly horrendous. And it’s a damn shame. Before we get onto the ‘Luuuurve’ that defines this peace, it’s impossible to ignore those problems.

In an adaptation that updates the action to full on Victoriana and roots it in London away from the early 19th century central European setting, Victor Frankenstein never promised fidelity. Least of all because it chooses to follow the story of Igor, forming the moral heart of a story where he’s saved by Victor and has the chance to save his friend in return. But if you’re going to transport Frankenstein, it needs a reason. It must come down to more than the grimy, evocating vistas of Imperial London. That said, McGuigan’s usual supreme eye for the visual is a bit off. Amid the hectic editing, the flourish isn’t there in what should be joyous romp of Grand Guignol. In the opening sequence, Frankenstein helping Igor escape his circus prison for the thrill as much as opportunity, there’s much leaping, fire and explosion, most of it with very little cause. At one point a strong man even tears a book, just because he can. This is a tale of grotesques and the chance to widen that circus metaphor is lost almost immediately as both Igor and his obsession Lorelei are sucked into society. The swagger of a multi-layered update managed by Guy Ritchie’s successful and stylish Sherlock Holmes adaptations isn’t given a chance to develop.

Flattened characters

Out in society, the quality of the dialogue plummets into light character definition and awkward plot propulsion. Unsurprisingly, the only character who can almost rise above it is McAvoy’s Frankenstein, greedily grabbing all the great with disconnected, moustache twirling arrogance.

However, this Frankenstein is neither the earnest and misguided delusional that Branagh portrayed, nor the brewing callous Baron of Cushing. A hedonist, his drunken blasphemy and questioning of morality in front of shocked Victorian ladies tire very quickly. The attempt to flesh his motivation out is flat, particularly given the by the numbers appearance of Charles Dance as his terror of a father. Is any horror safe from Dance these days? The later reveal that his dedication comes from the loss of his brother not only feels bolted on, but in opposition to the amoral character we’ve seen earlier.

But his motivation is the least of the film’s worries. Andrew Scott, such a charismatic actor is once again hamstrung by English malevolence that seems to leave him unable to move his neck as Inspector Turpin. His character journey, defined by blunt grasps at Christianity and endlessly repeating a mantra while his psyche slides doesn’t provide the strong moral argument the film needs. His short and ill-built raid on Frankenstein’s premises, almost out of nowhere, may bring all plot strands to a sudden head but creates false drama. Turpin’s loss of his hand and inexplicable loss of his eye as his career and mind fall away, usurped by his hitherto unambitious deputy doesn’t add up. Most bizarre of all is how he’s confident enough to scratch his face with his fake hand just days after the incident. That’s bound to send him back to hospital. Read more…

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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