Creature/Sharp Featured Kenneth Branagh has indeed created a monster, but not the kind he originally envisioned. A major disappointment creatively, the film still has the makings of a box office brute for TriStar, based on alluring marquee elements and the success of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” However, it doesn’t look to be the money-making hulk a more electrifying telling might have produced.
Far from the definitive version of the tale, this lavish but overwrought melodrama is in many ways less compelling than even a recent made-for-cable movie and a 1973 miniseries starring Michael Sarrazin that was less faithful to the source material.
Tackling a Gothic epic as director/co-producer/star, Branagh seems to overreach himself, playing every aspect at an almost operatic level that’s too feverish for its own good.
In addition, the director and writers Steph Lady and Frank Darabont seem to get carried away in playing up the story’s romance, at the expense of the horror-action elements that a large segment of the audience doubtless anticipates. Yet more grisly aspects of the film could be off-putting to some of those the filmmakers are courting with the Branagh-Helena Bonham Carter pairing.
Perhaps including the author’s name in a classic horror story invites pretentiousness, but “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” hews close enough to the original to only demonstrate where it misses the mark.
The beginning proves effective and true to the novel, as a sea captain (Aidan Quinn) exploring the arctic stumbles upon the crazed Victor Frankenstein (Branagh), who recounts his cautionary tale about scientific obsession in detailed flashback.
Seeking to get inside Frankenstein’s head, as it were, the account begins with the death of his mother in childbirth, and Victor’s own longings for his adopted sister (Carter). Moving on to a university, Victor encounters an elder doctor (an almost unrecognizable John Cleese) and seizes on his work to try to thwart death, using parts of corpses to create his monster.
It’s nearly an hour into the film before the creature emerges from the tank, and despite the over-amplified tone, there’s still hope for the movie at that juncture.
Assuming the monster has died, Frankenstein returns to Geneva, while the Creature — after demonstrating his prodigious strength in escaping the townsfolk — befriends a simple country family, learning (or as he puts it, remembering) how to speak and read before ultimately going after his creator to seek vengeance.
At this point, however, the movie begins to spin wildly out of control, unable to strike the delicate balance needed between pathos, romance and horror. When a key sequence involving the doctor, his bride and the monster is greeted with more than a few unintentional laughs, it’s clear “Frankenstein” has strayed into dangerous territory.
Curiosity about Robert De Niro’s performance will almost certainly fuel box office, yet the prospect of one of the screen’s greatest actors in such a notorious role doesn’t live up to expectations. Despite the hoopla, De Niro’s creature doesn’t even approach the terror factor of his role in “Cape Fear,” while failing to inspire the empathy that even Boris Karloff — bolts and all — engendered.
De Niro’s makeup doesn’t help matters, appearing grotesque but not particularly jarring. One can see too much of De Niro behind those scars, never really letting the actor lose himself within the character.
Branagh’s own performance is appropriately crazed, while Carter as always proves radiant and engaging. Among the capable supporting cast, Thomas Hulce provides the only humor in what’s otherwise a rather grim, severe exercise.
Opulent sets and costumes abound, but the curiously designed lab scenes don’t establish the standard one might have anticipated, and Patrick Doyle’s relentlessly bombastic score is simply overbearing.
Other tech credits are generally impressive but not a complete success by any means, and certainly not as breathtakingly florid as the most recent “Dracula,” which also counted producers Francis Ford Coppola and James V. Hart as part of its team.
As with that film, based on the anticipation here, there’s a strong yearning to send “Frankenstein” back to the drawing board.