Monday, November 02, 2015

Scary Movies 9: Frankenstein

In a world of human embryo cloning and Dolly the Sheep, Mary Shelley’s Modern Prometheus is no longer as outlandish as we would want it to be. Arguably, the time is ripe for contemporary take on the legend and Bernard Rose, the prolific modernizer of Tolstoy and director of Candyman, is a logical choice to do it. Transporting the monster from Geneva to Los Angeles, Rose takes intriguing liberties while remaining oddly faithful to the iconic tale in Frankenstein (trailer here), which screens as part of the closing night tribute to the British filmmaker at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Scary Movies 9.

This might shock you, but the wealthy Dr. Viktor Frankenstein and his wife Elizabeth have been trying to create a living human being (with the help of their senior staff scientist, Dr. Pretorius). Initially, they believe their latest attempt is the breakthrough they have hoped for, until cancerous lesions start appearing all over his formerly pristine body. Despite his bonding with Elizabeth Frankenstein like an infant with his mother, both Frankensteins agree to euthanize their creation for ostensive reasons of mercy. However, the increasingly disfigured creature just will not die.

Escaping from the compound, the wretched soul accepts the wider world’s name for him: “Monster.” He soon has a nasty run-in with LA’s Finest, but falls in with a homeless blind bluesman. The protective Eddie is the first person to truly treat him like a human being. Unfortunately, Eddie’s misunderstanding of the extent and nature of Monster’s blighted appearance will lead to compounded tragedy.

Rose riffs on Shelley and the original Universal films in clever ways, honoring the spirit of both. He follows the same general trajectory of his Frankenstein predecessors, but he does so within a distinctly gritty, naturalistic urban environment. The grey concrete labs and scuzzy welfare hotels are fitting backdrops for the ultimate genre morality tale, while also presumably accommodating his budget constraints.

Danny Huston (a regular Rose repertory player) is absolutely perfect as the arrogant Dr. Frankenstein and Carrie-Anne Moss plays off him well as the deceptively warm and supposedly empathetic Elizabeth Frankenstein. Despite his small stature, Xavier Samuel is still impressively expressive as the largely inarticulate Monster, especially considering the escalating layers of makeup that masks him for most of the film. However, it is Tony Todd, the Candyman himself, who really anchors the film with tragic gravitas as blind Eddie.

Rose somewhat misfires with a rogue cop subplot that seems calculated give the film further zeitgeisty urgency, but it comes across as a heavy-handed distraction. In fact, a film depicting the creation of life through, amongst other things, the use of 3D printing, without regard for the ethical implications, is already pretty timely. Regardless, Rose’s mise-en-scéne is austerely stylish and often quite visually striking. Altogether, the film is quite in keeping with cautionary essence of the original novel, while Randy Westgate’s ghoulish make-up design gives this Monster his own distinctive look. Recommended for Frankenstein fans, Rose’s Frankenstein screens this Thursday (11/5) at the Walter Reade, as part of Scary Movies 9.