out of ****
a way, Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound is the
most faithful adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic parable
ever made. It doesn’t follow the events in the Gothic novel
as closely as other versions; indeed, it even adds time travel,
nuclear war, Mary Shelley herself, and a climactic laser battle.
It does, however, understand the theme that Shelley created with
her work—the quest for knowledge going too far—and
expands on it in a way that takes her novel more seriously that
it has ever been taken before. Corman directs, bringing the same
type of visual flair and eye for horrific images that distinguished
his low-budget Poe adaptations. He still hasn’t quite figured
out how to direct human beings, but the power of the story prevails
despite this flaw.
film is narrated by Joe Buchanan (played by John Hurt), and like
Shelley’s novel, it opens and closes with its narrator trapped
in icy desolation. In the book, this snow-covered wasteland is
quickly established as the Arctic, but we only come to find out
in the film’s closing scenes where the narrator is trapped.
The viewer’s discovery of what this place is might be the
most crucial development in the film, so I will not give it away.
I will, however, disclose the single clue that Buchanan himself
reveals in the opening moments: “Einstein said that if he
had known exactly what the nuclear bomb could do, he never would
have become a watchmaker.” This doesn’t give away nearly as
much as you might think, and I shall leave it at that.
rest of the film is really a buildup for Buchanan’s final
journey to this desolate place. It begins in the not-so-distant
future. Buchanan is a scientist trying to develop a new type of
atomic weapon that will still take countless lives but spare the
environment from desolation. This weapon is finally invented in
the film’s first few moments, but its side effect is a temporal
tornado that blasts the scientist back to the early nineteenth
century, where he encounters not only Victor Frankenstein (Raul
Julia) and his hideous Creation (Nick Brimble), but Mary Shelley
herself (Bridget Fonda), along with the other members of her free-loving
party, Percy Shelley (Michael Hutchence) and Lord Byron (Jason
Patric). With both of these parties co-existing in the same story,
we are forced to conclude either A) The film speculates that Shelley
wrote her novel based on events that she witnessed, or B) Buchanan
has not been sent back through time, but rather, to a completely
alternate-universe. The film never says which it is, but no matter.
It makes for a genuinely intriguing idea either way, and since we know that the icy desolation at the beginning is caused in part by Buchanan, we understand the film's metaphor: Buchanan horrified at Frankenstein's achievement is kind of like Joseph Stalin shuddering at Jim Jones. We significantly realize this paradox before Buchanan.
of the film’s flaws come in the interaction between Buchanan
and these bizarre characters. Films like this require the viewer
to suspend their disbelief, but the actors have done so as well,
which makes for scenes between them that never quite add up. When
Buchanan meets Victor Frankenstein and states that he knows of
his work, Frankenstein replies with an aloof, “No one knows
my work.” Fair enough, but when Buchanan meets the Creature
and proceeds to tell Frankenstein exactly what his secret work
has been in vivid detail, the mad scientist still remains underwhelmed.
I fail to see why Frankenstein never sees Buchanan as a threat,
as the man realizes that innocent people have died because of
his own meddling with science—a fact that could destroy
Frankenstein if it went public. Nevertheless, Frankenstein remains
brooding and apathetic throughout the entire film, with little
concern for Buchanan. I’m not sure why Julia chose to portray
Frankenstein this way, but it was a poor acting choice. It is
as if his mind has wandered off into another movie.
odd is the interaction between Buchanan and Mary Shelley. Fonda emits a certain charm as Mary - wide-eyed,
intelligent, and certainly capable of writing the greatest piece
of Gothic fiction every written in the English language. But she
is equally underwhelmed by this strange man claiming that he is
from the future, who knows about her life and the novel that she
is working on. He even takes her for a ride in his futuristic
car, and she is more excited than shocked. Perhaps the film is
arguing that Shelley’s mind was open to such possibilities,
but I couldn’t help thinking that her reaction was a little
On the other hand, I suppose we could argue that because all of this could very well be an alternate reality or a dream, it doesn't matter how Frankenstein or Shelley react to Buchanan. All the matters is Buchanan's own revelations. Fair enough, but I defer to Roger Ebert (as I often do, and you should too), who wrote in his review for Labyrinth, "I have a problem with almost all nightmare movies: They aren't as suspenseful
as they should be because they don't have to follow any logic. Anything can
happen, nothing needs to happen, nothing is as it seems and the rules keep
changing." I agree; some sort of consistency should have been followed to make Buchanan's interactions more engaging. Many literary scholars have argued that in the original novel, Captain Robert Walton (who Buchanan replaces here) narrates a story that could very well be a hallucination as well, but his story (of Frankenstein and his Creature) is so grounded in horrific reality that we accept the premise without ever wondering whether or not it is all real until after we have finished the book and reflect upon Shelley's narrative strategy. This would have been a good example for Corman to follow.
the shortcomings among the characters, Frankenstein Unbound still works because of the understanding of Frankenstein’s
theme and its application to modern society’s scientific
developments. Buchanan, like Frankenstein, is not guilty of sin
because he wants to know the secrets of the universe. He is guilty
because he refuses to take responsibility for his actions, and
because his goals of scientific discovery reflect his own selfish
drive to leave a mark in history instead of a genuine desire to
bring value to his society. In addition, the entire cast, sans
Julia, is excellent; particularly Brimble as the Creature, who
never seems to comprehend that the world around him is anything
but, like himself, a creation of Frankenstein. Thus, he kills
relentlessly because he believes that Frankenstein can simply
bring his loved ones back from the dead, and he does not understand
why the scientist is constantly frustrated at all of the deaths.
Shelley’s novel, there were three rings of narrative: Ship
Captain Robert Walton on the outer ring, whose journey to the
Arctic was slowly driving him and his crew mad. In the center
ring, Victor Frankenstein himself had his tale of terror and the
unknown. In the inner ring stood the Creature, whose isolation
and rage moved the entire story along. In the novel, as Walton
interacted with both Frankenstein and the Creature, he was forced
to see his own face and voyage as on the same deadly path as Frankenstein’s.
The same story-telling frame is here in Frankenstein Unbound,
only it is Buchanan on the outer ring. As the Creature’s
revenge on Frankenstein destroys everything the scientist loves,
Buchanan is forced to draw parallels to his own monstrous creation,
and he comes to realize that Frankenstein is not the only person
who has created “an abomination in the eyes of God.”
a result of this revelation, the closing scenes pack a powerful
punch, as Buchanan understands that, like Frankenstein, he must
take responsibility for his actions, which have created a path
of destruction as “unbound” as the Creature himself.
The final shot in Frankenstein Unbound creates a brilliant
conclusion—subtle, reflective, truly horrific, and with
a message to today’s advances in weaponry that is just as
profound as Shelley’s warning towards the scientific advances
of her generation.
John Hurt: Joe Buchanan
Raul Julia: Victor Frankenstein
Nick Brimble: The Creature
Bridget Fonda: Mary Shelley
Michael Hutchence: Percy Shelley
Jason Patric: Lord Byron
Catherine Rabett: Elizabeth Levenza
20th Century Fox presents
a film by Mount Company. Directed by Roger Corman. Written by
Corman and F.X. Feeney. Based on the books by Mary Shelley and
Brian Aldiss. Rated R, for violence, brief language and sexuality.
Running time: 82 minutes. Original United States theatrical release:
November 2, 1990.