A quick, undiscriminating count I maderesulted in the discovery that many more than 65 feature films with “Frankenstein” in the title. And that’s not including the many movies like 1985’s The Bride (with Sting as the doctor and Clancy Brown as the creature), which strove for some originality, at least with the name.
This busy work on my part was prompted by the near-simultaneous appearance on video of the last two Frankenstein films, both of which made their big-screen debut in 2015: Bernard Rose’s Frankenstein (with Danny Huston and Carrie-Anne Moss) and Victor Frankenstein (with James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe as Victor and Igor, respectively).
My expectations of these films being somewhat dulled by earlier experiences (like 2014’s I, Frankenstein), I decided to prep by re-watching two older films (made two years apart), not about Frankenstein himself (or itself), but rather about the curious historical and biographical events which led up to the publication of the original novel in 1818.
The basic facts are these: During the summer of 1816 at a villa near Lake Geneva (Switzerland, not Wisconsin), two of England’s greatest poets — Percy Bysshe Shelley and George Gordon, Lord Byron — together with their respective women and one hanger-on (Byron’s physician John Polidori) — whiled away their time in one another’s company, at one point conducting on a contest to see who could produce the best ghost story. Thus was Frankenstein engendered, written by Shelley’s mistress (later wife) Mary. Byron produced an illegitimate daughter by Claire Claremont, Mary’s half-sister. Polidori wrote a story called The Vampyre, the predecessor of Dracula, before later killing himself.
It was one helluva wild summer.
In 1986, the equally wild, sometimes brilliant English director Ken Russell (Women in Love, Tommy) helmed Gothic, capsulizing that legendary summer into one night of drugs, sex, delirium, and nightmare. Byron (Gabriel Byrne) is properly Byronic, Shelley (Julian Sands) is high-strung and hysterical, Mary (Natasha Richardson) is confused and fearful, and Claire (Myriam Cyr) is sexy and frenzied. Polidori (Timothy Spall) is a guilt-ridden homosexual.
While the movie is over-the-top, Russell gets a lot of specific details right — like Percy’s nightmarish dream about a woman’s breast with eyeballs instead of nipples, the experimentation with laudanum and opium, and Claire’s fits, to mention only a few of the more sensational elements. The cast is good, complemented by Russell’s kinetic energy and in-your-face imagery. In short, the movie lives up to its title — “gothic,” as in horror or ghost tale, the kind of literature the protagonists were actually reading that notorious summer.
A less boisterous approach was the goal of Czech director Ivan Passer two years later in Haunted Summer. The film’s title sequence, featuring several shimmering landscapes by J.M.W. Turner, underscores its more cerebral approach to the intellectuals’ extended time together. (The opening credits of Gothic, by contrast, feature the steadily growing presence of a human skull against a black background.)
There is far more dialogue in the second film, much of it involving Byron’s and Shelley’s political/social/religious views. Like the characters’ tones of voice, everything else in Haunted Summer is equally subdued, whereas Gothic is frequently punctuated by screams and gasps.
The Gothic cast is certainly competent if colorless. As Byron, Philip Anglim is more intense but less violent. Eric Stoltz plays Shelley like a flower child, literally blowing bubbles and shooting spitballs at old ladies, while poor Alex Winter Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is woefully miscast as Polidori.
The women fare better, particularly Alice Krige (Ghost Story) as Mary Shelley, transforming her into a feminist icon years ahead of her time. Laura Dern goes through emotional hoops as Claire Claremont, more shrill and less sexual than in Gothic.
In neither film is Frankenstein even mentioned until the epilogue, Gothic again scoring more effectively as far as technique and imagery. Both films afford the interested viewer insights into the real story behind the men, the women, and the monster.