Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Roger Corman puts a smart, strange spin on the Frankenstein mythos

Illustration for article titled Roger Corman puts a smart, strange spin on the Frankenstein mythos

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Stoked for that probable genre masterpiece, I, Frankenstein? To tide you over, we’ve lined up a week of similarly… unconventional Frankenstein movies.


Frankenstein Unbound (1990)

In hindsight, it seems unlikely that 1990’s Frankenstein Unbound—which marked Roger Corman’s first directing credit in nearly two decades—could have provided the commercial comeback its director and producers envisioned. The film—a stew of science fiction, metafiction, and metaphysics—was too overtly literary to appeal to mainstream horror audiences, and yet too much of a show-the-gore genre movie to be taken seriously. It was destined to flop, commercially and critically.

Oddities tend to age better than blockbusters, because whatever made a hit a hit often ends up going out of fashion, while its strangeness becomes more potent with time. As unusual as Frankenstein Unbound might have seemed in 1990, it seems even more unusual in 2014—a true Frankenstein’s monster of a movie, stitching together highbrow and lowbrow subject matter in a way that’s always surprising, if not always successful.

That Frankenstein Unbound isn’t very scary seems beside the point, as the movie is less concerned with retelling the Frankenstein story than with refracting it through framing devices, which eventually overwhelm the film. It opens in the deep future and then abruptly jumps back into the near future, the “New Los Angeles” of 2031, where Dr. Buchanan (John Hurt) is working on a prototype weapon that creates tears in space and time. One such tear manages to suck Buchanan and his car (which acts as a sort of proto-smartphone) into 1817 Switzerland. Introducing himself as an American traveler in order to explain away his clothing and ignorance of period customs, Buchanan shares a table with Dr. Frankenstein (Raul Julia) at an inn, and later spots Mary Godwin (Bridget Fonda)—soon to be known as Mary Shelley—at a trial where Frankenstein’s maid is found guilty of murdering his younger brother.

Having elided both the creation of Frankenstein’s monster and the beginning of his rampage, the movie instead focuses on the question of why Frankenstein rejected his creation and why he (and Buchanan) feel the need to destroy it. The monster himself—who is portrayed, in keeping with Shelley’s original description, as longhaired and talkative—poses most of these questions and they grow more abstract and philosophical as the story (or meta-story) unfolds. What emerges is an uncommonly dialectical take on Frankenstein, which combines questions about scientific and artistic responsibility with a variety of sci-fi tropes (time travel, artificial intelligence, a post-apocalyptic future), all the while sticking firmly to the story’s capital-R Romantic roots.

Availability: Frankenstein Unbound is available on DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix.