Faithfully retelling a 19th century gothic novel means daring to be boring in places, but the peaks far outweigh those flat and arid stretches in this beautifully assembled Hallmark production: It should become the official home-study alternative for kids too lazy to read the book. Using the Halmi formula of small-name leads with more promotable titles and big-name cameos — usually against a lavish period backdrop — this “Frankenstein” represents a literal and literate addition to the lengthy annals of monster lore.
Choosing to go where few producers have before, Hallmark returns to the source material, mirroring the book by relating the story of Victor Frankenstein and his murderous but tragic creature in flashback. Found near death in the desolate frozen wilds, Frankenstein (Alec Newman) recounts his story to the ship’s captain (Donald Sutherland) who finds him, beginning with a boyhood fascination with death that leads him to see if he can reanimate frogs, dogs and eventually his sewn-together creature (Luke Goss).
Unlike most previous renderings, the true-to-the-book monster is both sage and brutal, a superhuman force soured by the hatred with which he’s met. Abandoned by Frankenstein, he flees to the countryside, where observing a simple family makes him long for companionship.
Returning to his creator (or “father,” as he calls him), the creature asks for a mate, pledging to disappear once that wish is granted. Yet after he begins to fulfill his promise, Frankenstein reneges, prompting the embittered monster to exact brutal vengeance.
With his stringy mop of hair and gangly physique, rocker-turned-actor Goss more than anything resembles Ric Ocasek of the Cars, but it’s an effective performance, full of anger and pathos. Newman is solid as the obsessed Victor, who, having lost so many close to him, seeks to turn the tables from hunted to hunter. “Death pursues you like the devil,” his father tells him.
No doubt having Julie Delpy, William Hurt and Sutherland in extended cameos will help boost foreign sales, but the narrative focus fixates on the creature; Frankenstein; and the latter’s ill-fated betrothed, Elizabeth (Nicole Lewis). Moreover, the first half plods along too slowly for modern audiences waiting for the creature to behave like a monster — say, growl at fire and snap a few peasant necks.
Those raised on flashier images of Frankenstein may have a hard time acclimating to this more stately and romantic approach, which even feels a bit understated compared to the disappointing 1994 film starring Kenneth Branagh and Robert De Niro that went so far as to give Shelley title billing.
Yet this latest “Frankenstein” stands on its own, as does an updated USA Network version that premieres Sunday. As for the odds of two disparate productions leveraging such a well-known title both being worth the time investment: Sometimes, apparently, lightning really can strike twice.