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‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 04, 1994

There are things to enjoy in “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” Kenneth Branagh’s energetic adaptation of the 19th-century classic. But there are just as many things to dislike. As this movie switches, unevenly, from swashbuckling adventure to classic horror to frilly-shirted romance to campiness to graphic gorefest, there’s no telling what you’re watching. There’s something over-anxious (even boring) about the project, as if the British director thinks he might get points for frenetic editing, restless camera movement, over-squalid sets, bloodiness and genre hopping. Directing the picture and casting himself as Frankenstein—the quasi-mad, dashing genius at the center of it all—Branagh comes across as a rather bad Orson Welles.

Branagh did have that Welles quality in “Henry V,” his best film—which he also directed and starred in. But in “Frankenstein,” the grandeur is gone. As Victor Frankenstein, a Swiss scientist who miraculously brings a human creature to life, he’s just a bearded terrier in tights, a narcissist with designer-tousled locks and all-too-visible chest hair. If you’re planning to watch “Frankenstein,” you’ll spend a lot of time beholding that fuzzy belly. Get used to the idea. And speaking of chests, you’d better be into direct heart removal to enjoy this movie.

Raised in Geneva, affluent, young Branagh-stein grows up with adopted sister Helena Bonham Carter, with whom he falls in love. When his mother (Cheri Lughi) dies in childbirth, the rattled Branagh vows to find the solution to death by creating life. A few years later, he goes to university to study medical science, with a minor in necromancy.

Meeting up with a sinister professor (the delightful John Cleese in a quasi-serious role) who has conducted experiments in man-making, Branagh begs him for his notebooks. When seedy villager Robert De Niro is hanged for murdering the professor, Branagh takes over Cleese’s research and uses De Niro’s body (as well as bits of other dead, evil criminals) to build up his own kinda guy. While Carter—waiting to marry him—begs Branagh to leave his experimentation, the shirtless scientist pursues his vision to the bitter end. It is only too late that he realizes he has created a soulless, haunted monster—and we’re not just talking the movie.

“Frankenstein” has some familiar episodes—the Creature encountering an innocent child; the business with the flower; the Creature’s meeting with a friendly blind man (Richard Briers), and so on. But its Creature is a departure from the traditional Boris Karloff model. De Niro has no flat head or neck bolts. In fact, he talks and reads better than many people I went to college with. But after introducing us to this sown-up tender being (with an interesting American accent), Branagh reduces the dramatic impact. De Niro, despite a valiant performance, becomes increasingly silly and ineffectual.

There are good parts dotted about. But they stand out in isolation. Without intending to, Cleese delivers some quintessentially Monty Python moments. “Excellent!” he says with sudden volume, as a student of his slices a cadaver’s cranium. And in the best, possibly ickiest, scene of all, Branagh pulls his new creation out of an electricity-injected birthing contraption that could have been called the Womb Tomb. Newborn De Niro, naked, semi-decayed and gruesomely sewn together, spills out in a burst of slimy, amniotic-fluidish water. There they are, parent and child, slithering and slipping on the slimy, wet floor.

Unfortunately, Branagh and screenwriters Steph Lady and Frank Darabont (who also adapted “The Shawshank Redemption”) have created a story as badly patched together as De Niro’s Creature. Although there are intriguing intellectual moments when Frankenstein bickers with the known scientists of the day and talks about omniscient creativity, the central stories—Branagh’s relationship with De Niro and Carter—are emotionally unengaging. Its bloody finale seems to be an apology—a grisly consolation—for the preceding boredom: “If we can’t thrill you,” the filmmakers seem to be saying, “at least we can gross you out.”

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