Frankenstein Unbound (1990)

John Hurt is blasted back through time in Roger Corman's gory and nonsensical Frankenstein film. Fox US R1 DVD.

The Film

Roger Corman, often refered to as the Master of B-movies has been responsible for over 300 movies as a producer, introducing the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese to the cinema business. He also took the directors chair occasionally, most notably in the 1960s when his House of Usher (1960) cued the start of the classic AIP Gothic cycle. After shooting his WWI movie The Red Baron (1971), Corman had retired from directing until he was tempted back with the offer of a big budget to shoot a Roger Corman's Frankenstein. Trying to avoid simply shooting another take on the well known story, he loosely based the screenplay on the novel Frankenstein Unbound by Brian Aldiss.

2035 - Dr. Joe Buchanan (John Hurt) is the scientist behind a new super weapon program, using high powered energy to blast objects out of time and space, but it has had side effects, and has caused time shifts and rips in space across the world. While at home, Buchanan is attacked by a mounted horseman who comes through a time shift, and he and his car are pulled back through. He finds himself in 1817 Switzerland, and encounters a Dr. Frankenstein who is mourning the apparent murder of his young brother by the maid Justine. Baffled by the encounter with this "fictional" character, Buchanan follows him to a meeting he has with a hideous creature who is demanding something of the doctor. Later, Buchanan encounters the young Mary Godwin (Bridget Fonda) and realises that she is basing her book, by chance on what is really going on. Aware of the conclusion of the book, Buchanan desperately tries to save Justine, and Frankenstein's fiancée Elizabeth, but finds himself stuck in a time he does not understand, until he realises he might be able to cause another time-space rift...

Like many similar stories, the film includes an introduction that needs to set-up the characters and plot, but yet is irrelevant to the main story, and has to balance between cutting it too short and leaving characters undeveloped, or running too long and not allowing the real story to be told - in this case the initial sequence set in the future is noticeably too brief (running to just six minutes) giving us no real information about Buchanan and what sort of person he is. On arrival in 1817 (although Mary Godwin actually stayed in Switzerland in 1816), we find ourselves thrown right into the middle of the Frankenstein story (it is helpful to have read the book to know what is going on), and the the story would certainly be interesting enough with Buchanan (forearmed with a knowledge of what is going on) trying to interfere in history and save the innocent Justine, however Corman confuses matters by introducing Mary Shelley (under her proper maiden name of Mary Godwin) to the mix. Aldiss used this idea in his book, having Shelley's writing actually coming true as she penned it, but the screenplay here seems to suggest that it is mere co-incidence that what she writes is actually going on, raising all sorts of questions, and leaving almost all of them unanswered, as do the film's random nightmare sequences that seem to be building to a point, but never being completed. Despite the rather short run-time, the film wastes a considerable amount of time with Buchanan encountering Percy Shelly and Lord Byron at their lakeside house near Geneva and then seducing Mary herself. The rather overblown finalé equally makes little sense (quite why Buchanan thinks that blasting the doctor and his creation through time would help anything is never explained) and it seems overlong.

The links to Mary Shelley's book are relatively limited, although of course both the 
Aldiss novel and this subsequent film have essentially created an alternate timeline which can excuse the alterations. Most interesting and noticable is the change made to Victor Frankenstein himself - no longer the almost whimpish and helpless character that Shelley devised, he becomes cold hearted and scheming, repeatedly trying to kill his creation, and eventually conspiring with it. This is most noticable in regards to the fate of the maid Justine (accused of the murder of young William Frankenstein, which was actually comitted by the creature) where it is clear that Victor is aware of what has happened, and is keeping quiet to save himself (whereas Mary Shelley's Victor is stunned into silence, and aware that his "evidence" would seem like the ravings of a madman and do nothing to help). The creature itself is well written, at one point it stands completely still as Victor loads a gun to shoot him, obviously unaware of what is going on. However, the writer obviously overestimates how clever his dialogue is, and the creature's frequent requests about who "made" other people is in contrast to the knowledge of his origins that made him so angry and lead him to track down Frankenstein in the first place (as per the Shelley story at least).

Corman's direction is decent, and tells the story well - production values are very good (Corman always could make the most of a low budget, and had a lot more than usual to play with here) with well realised 19th Century settings, some realistic looking gore, and some very nice futuristic sets, particularly towards the film's climax, as well as Buchanan's classic sci-fi style futuristic super-car, with its own Artificial Intelligence. Composer Carl Davis (who is best known for his silent movie scores) provides a good orchestral soundtrack).

John Hurt takes the lead role and gives a strong performance as Dr. Buchanan, although he does seem rather old to be seducing Mary Godwin. Nick Brimble is heavily made-up as the Creature and gives a rather unimpressive, overstated performance, although Raul Julia has an effective, calm attitude as Frankenstein - hardly the Shelley character, but seems to suit the film. The very attractive Bridget Fonda plays Shelley/Godwin herself but hardly gets much to do, and much to the chagrin of male viewers, keeps covered up during the sex scene. The rest of the cast are decent, although the presence of some middle-American accents in the extras does rather destroy the film's European settings.

Mary Shelley would be shocked, and Brian Aldiss fans are unlikely to be satisfied by this rather liberal adaptation. Some good ideas are present, but shoehorned into a brief run-time, much of which is wasted. Well produced and decently acted, Frankenstein Unbound is less a bad film than a disappointing one, certainly not living up to its "Thinking Person's Monster Movie" credit, and comes only partly recommended to Frankenstein and Roger Corman fans - not recommended to anyone else.

In Brief

Anyone famous in it? John Hurt - a British actor, best known as the star of Alien (1979).
Directed by anyone interesting? Roger Corman - the legendary American director and producer, returning to the director's chair here after an absence of 20 years.
Is it scary?Not really.
Any violence/gore? A few very graphically gory shots
Any sex? A brief scene, no nudity.
Who is it for?
Of interest to Frankenstein and Roger Corman fans only.


Visuals Original Aspect Ratio - 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Colour
The print is good with strong colours, minimal print damage and only mild grain.
Audio Original English audio - sound fine.
Spanish dub track.
Subtitles English HOH, French, Spanish
Extras The disc is barebones, although the DVD case includes a 4 page booklet, including some notes on the film (although containing a few noticable errors).
Region Region 1 (USA, North America) - NTSC
Other regions? Not available on DVD elsewhere.
Cuts? The film is presented in its R rated cut, 23 seconds are missing compared to the Japanese Laserdisc release, including some additional gory shots, and dialogue (detailed at DVD Maniacs forum). The print used is English language.



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All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 3rd January 2007.
Thanks to Mattias Karlsson for the DVD/Laser disc comparison post.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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