Filmmakers have been obsessed with Frankenstein since James Whale brought Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel to life and instantly gave birth to an iconic monster franchise that remains a major priority for Universal. It’s one of the most important public domain properties in fiction, but reanimating the Green Guy into a worthy anti-hero isn’t easy. Everyone from Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro and Aaron Eckhart have discovered you need more than neck bolts to spark a good movie. The futility hasn’t stopped Candyman and Immortal Beloved director Bernard Rose, who’s returning to horror filmmaking with his own modern take on the Frankenstein legend. He shot his in downtown Los Angeles, with Xavier Samuel, Carrie-Anne Moss, Danny Huston, and Tony Todd starring in a Frankenfilm set against the backdrop of the contemporary 3D bio-printing revolution. “They’re already 3D-printing organs, so to actually print an entire human being isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility,” he told me. “All the spiritual and metaphysical concepts in Mary Shelley’s book make more sense in that context.”
Shelley’s monster has been brought to the screen in over 60 films beginning with the first known adaptation, a 1910 short from Edison Studios that interpreted the monster as a psychosexual manifestation of a young and ambitious Victor Frankenstein. Universal’s iconic 1931 film sealed Boris Karloff as the quintessential Frankenstein’s monster, but it also established the dominant interpretation of the Shelley tome as a story about a scientist creating a patchwork monster out of spare body parts. Over the years, there’ve been good ones and bad ones. Why, there was even one called Frankenhooker. Perhaps the less said about that one, the better.
“That’s not what Mary Shelley wrote,” said Rose. “She wrote that Victor Frankenstein was digging up bodies to find out how they worked. She said he created life. There is this fundamental misunderstanding of what the book says as to who’s the hero in that story. When Ken Branagh did his version of the book, he so determinedly wanted to make Victor Frankenstein the hero. The problem is that Victor Frankenstein says, ‘I want to create life!’ then goes, ‘Whoa, what have I done?’”
Universal cornered the market on Frankenstein pics in the 1930s and ‘40s, churning out Frankenstein, and the all time classic Bride of Frankenstein. There was Son of Frankenstein, Ghost of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and even Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Hammer Films followed with its own run of Peter Cushing starrers, while Japan’s Toho got in on the monster mayhem by mashing Frankenstein into its kaiju battle pics. Taking a disruptive track into the story has worked better than recent faithful adaptations. A faithful Broadway version shuttered after one show, though a Danny Boyle 2011 stage effort with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, cleverly alternating roles, scored. Kenneth Branagh directed and cast himself alongside De Niro in a 1994 film that killed Frankenstein’s Hollywood prospects for the next decade and a half. As for vamping a classic, you know about the cult status of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Mel Brooks scared up a comedy classic in Young Frankenstein (Igor, asked which name was on the jar holding the brain he’d secured after things go awry, confidently tells the master, her name was Abbie, Abbie Normal); then Tim Burton reanimated his student film into Frankenweenie, with neck bolts on a dead pooch.
That doesn’t mean any outside the box Frankenfilm works. Lionsgate’s graphic novel adaptation I, Frankenstein starring Aaron Eckhart as the tortured monster battling demons on Earth was missing green: both in Eckhart’s pallor and also in the box office coffers. “It flopped because the audience has a bullshit meter and they rejected it out of hand,” said Rose. “People often confuse modernity with updating a concept and it’s not the same thing. Even Universal back in the day, after seven films they were making Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.” Universal is currently planning to bring Frankenstein back to life alongside Dracula, The Mummy, and other classic monsters from its vaults, with the help of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci.
The trick is to find a new twist on the familiar tale while staying true to Shelley’s original intentions, says Rose. “One of the problems with any horror villain is that once the audience is used to what the monster does, either he becomes a sort of stand-up comedian like Freddy Krueger became, or he becomes too cuddly and you can’t maintain the threat. You can only maintain the threat when he’s shadowy and unseen. That problem is compounded with the structure and the story of Frankenstein, which is that the real hero is the monster. The ones who are dangerous and frightening are the human beings.”
What’s coming? Besides Rose’s monster tale, Paul McGuigan is directing Victor Frankenstein for fall 2015 from a script by Max Landis that tells the Frankenstein story from the perspective of the hunchback Igor (Daniel Radcliffe) who witnesses Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy) bring the monster to life. On the small screen Harry Treadaway’s young Dr. Frankenstein is a linchpin of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, which was renewed for a second season.
Rose’s contemporary indie take on Frankenstein will likely rely on digital distribution and VOD. But he’s committed to a slate of elevated horror features that he hopes can find their audience. “There’s a fabulous movie in this book that no one’s approached because they’ve gone so far down the zombie route,” he told me. “That’s great but we’ve seen it already and there is an educated genre audience out there that I think is really hungry for good material.”
With backing from German equity producers Summerstorm Entertainment, Eclectic Pictures, and Millennium Entertainment, Frankenstein is the first of 5-10 “art horror” features Rose plans to produce annually through his Bad Badger banner. He’s talking with fellow established directors to come aboard on similarly-scaled low budget horror projects that are “disruptive, transgressive, and also 100% within the genre” with either a supernatural or science-fiction element. “Although 99% of horror films are unmitigated garbage, the one percent of horror films that aren’t unmitigated garbage are some of the best films ever made,” he said. “The Shining, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby – one of the reasons they’re masterpieces is that they’re so impactful. If you can terrify somebody or viscerally engage them, it’s much more powerful than a bunch of CGI heroes doing gymnastics.”