CLASSIC TALE LACKS SOUL
DOZENS of Frankenstein films have been churned out by Hollywood studios through the years, and we all have our favourite titles. Mine include Bride of Frankenstein, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Even when the films took themselves seriously the titles were usually the scariest thing about them.
They were, of course, B-pictures, shot on the cheap in black and white, often with Boris Karloff in the monster role. But horror films have come a long way since. Stuart Beattie’s I, Frankenstein is very much a product of the digital age, a lavishly mounted 3-D special effects extravaganza with a touch of romance and some big names in the cast. I haven’t laughed so much in years.
It was always impressed on me at school that Frankenstein wasn’t the monster of the story — at least, not in the original Mary Shelley novel. Frankenstein was a conscientious scientist who happened to like robbing graves and succeeded in creating a monster from bits of old body parts.
He called his monster Adam — the name used for the monster in Beattie’s film. So why isn’t the film called I, Adam? Audience research would no doubt have shown that a film called I, Frankenstein would pull in bigger crowds. For better or worse, Frankenstein’s name survives, but if I call him Adam you’ll know who I mean.
Adam’s problem is that he has no soul, which makes him less than human, even though he bears a remarkable resemblance to Aaron Eckhart. This makes him easily the best-looking monster in the history of Frankenstein movies. A pity about the soul.
But a bigger mystery for me is whether he has a bellybutton. The first Adam, being not of woman born, wouldn’t have had one (despite suggestions to the contrary in many classical paintings). The result is that I spent much of I, Frankenstein watching out for Eckhart’s bellybutton but couldn’t catch a glimpse of it, not even in the scene when he gets his gear off to reveal a hunky torso.
I can only conclude that the filmmakers, with all those artful, shadowy shots, were deliberately misleading us. Would Adam have a navel in the right place if he has been patched together from bits of old bodies? Who can say?
This isn’t the Shelley version of Frankenstein, as you’ll have gathered. Its source is a graphic novel by Kevin Grevioux, who wrote the screenplay with Beattie.
The film was shot in that most gothic of Australian cities, Melbourne, with Australians prominent in cast and crew.
We begin with the revelation that Adam has been roaming the earth for 200 years after taking a cruel revenge on his creator. Two hundred years from the book’s publication would take us to 2018, when humanity is threatened by a war to the death between evil demons and an unlikely band of gargoyles. Yes, those hideous faces we see carved on old buildings are the good guys, and gargoyle HQ looks like a huge cathedral, bigger than anything I remember in Melbourne. It could be Notre Dame without the hunchback.
The leader of the gargoyles is the beautiful Queen Leonore, played by Miranda Otto, who has a special sympathy for Adam. The guy may lack a soul (and possibly a bellybutton), but all life must now be considered sacred, since we know from Frankenstein’s research that God is no longer the sole creator of man.
Adam soon finds himself in the thick of a deadly struggle, which yields a large quota of the film’s special effects (all those rings of fire and flying bodies). I liked Otto’s regal bearing, which seems to come naturally to her. And she has form in big, showy pictures, having appeared in Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and a couple of instalments of The Lord of the Rings. On the strength of this performance, she’d have been quite at home doubling for Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I or Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II.
And Eckhart as the monster? He’s OK, I suppose, though too good-looking to pass for a living corpse. Those facial scars give him a rugged macho look, as if the worst suffering he’d endured in 200 years was to go a couple of rounds with Robert De Niro in Raging Bull.
The other actor slumming it in a leading role is Bill Nighy, playing Prince Naberius, master of the demon hordes.
Nighy’s natural air of polished urbanity takes on a wonderfully sinister quality. It’s unusual in a Frankenstein film — some would say it’s a fatal flaw — when a secondary character looks spookier than monster.
But Nighy pulls it off. He must like this sort of thing. He had a big part in the Underworld films, in which a war to death was waged between vampires and werewolves. And if you thought that was scary, wait until you see the demons and gargoyles slugging it out in I, Frankenstein.
The odds would seem to favour the demons. They like nothing more than to occupy the bodies of dead humans, and Naberius has assembled a vast army of corpses for this purpose, all wired up to a central control room and awaiting the great electrical charge that bring them to life.
Working for Naberius in a well-equipped laboratory is Dr Terra Wade (played by the Australian-born Yvonne Strahovski), who has been trying to replicate the success of Frankenstein’s original experiment. But the best she can do is reanimate a mouse.
Any number of old Frankenstein films would have shown her what to do: hook up the bodies to a lightning conductor and wait for a mighty thunderstorm. Dr Wade is described as an electro-physiologist, which sounds as if she experiments with cattle prods and electric chairs. Nice work if you can get it.
Beattie directed Tomorrow, When the War Began, that likable Australian film based on John Marsden’s books for young readers, and wrote the screenplays of the original Pirates of the Caribbean and two of its sequels. He can handle a good action scene and has a sharp ear for an inventive turn of phrase.
When the demons in I, Frankenstein are referred to as “descended” it means they have been killed — or at least sent back to the infernal regions from whence they came. To use “descend” as a synonym for kill could be a handy euphemism in military parlance. My complaint with I, Frankenstein is that the special effects have descended the suspense, and the emphasis on spectacle has descended any sense of mystery or dread. The original story was one of the great moral fables in Western literature. I, Frankenstein, with its monster reinvented as a superhero, is a fairly predictable action movie. Shelley would not have approved.
Aaron Eckhart and Yvonne Strahovski in I, Frankenstein; Eckhart as the muscular monster