Color, 1994, 123 mins. 13 secs.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro, Helena Bonham Carter, John Cleese, Tom Hulce, Aidan Quinn, Ian Holm, Robert Hardy
Arrow Video (UHD & Blu-ray) (US/UK RA/RB 4K/HD), Sony (Blu-ray & DVD) (Worldwide HD/NTSC/PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Columbia Pictures briefly struck monster movie gold in 1992 with its risky, flamboyant passion project from Francis Ford Coppola, Bram Stoker's Dracula, which took massive liberties with its source material but made for an entertaining, lavish pop culture touchstone that's still referenced today. Not surprisingly, two more monster movies inspired by the classics were quickly put into motion by Columbia, both opening in 1994: Mike Nichols' Wolf and Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the latter from TriStar and American Zoetrope carrying a lot of prestigious expectations given the Shakespearean golden boy's recent success with the studio's Much Ado About Nothing. Packed with a hefty budget and some truly wild stunt casting, this Frankenstein earned some less-than-kind public comments from producer Coppola and screenwriter Frank Darabont, with viewers sharply divided by its bombastic approach and peculiar depiction of its monster's creation. Seen today, it's still one that splits opinions down the middle but is an undeniably impressive-looking production that offers its own unique spin on one of literature's most oft-told tales.
Though it still departs radically from Shelley's groundbreaking novel in some respects (especially the fate of Elizabeth), Branagh's film mostly sticks to the essentials here and incorporates several frequently omitted elements like the Antarctic expedition framing device (here related to explorer Aidan Quinn) and the tragic subplot of Justine Moritz. Traumatized by the death of his mother during childbirth, Victor Frankenstein (Branagh) enlists fellow medical student Henry Clerval (Hulce) to help him create life from dead bodies using the notes of their professor, Waldman (Cleese). Though in love with his adopted sister, Elizabeth (Carter), Victor becomes obsessed with his work and ultimately manages to bring life to his creation (De Niro), which leads to extensive bloodshed and tragedy for everyone involved.
With its restless, swirling camerawork and pounding score by regular Branagh composer Patrick Doyle, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is rarely subtle and often feels like a particularly feverish theater production. Of course, Shelley's novel has been interpreted many times over the years on both the screen and stage (the latter including a major reinterpretation by Danny Boyle), and many viewers at the time were unavoidably influenced by decades of watching versions from Universal and Hammer. This one departs sharply from those with its creation scenes involving anminotic fluid and electric eels (along with Branagh's much-noted showcasing of his recently buff physique), a twisty climax that incorporates elements familiar to James Whale fans, and some interesting scientific wrinkles like nods to other pioneering breakthroughs like vaccinations. De Niro's interpretation makes for an interesting figure with his sharp-collared silhouette used effectively throughout, while Ian Holm gives some welcome gravitas as the Frankenstein patriarch and John Cleese breaks radically from his usual comedy arena here with a terrific performance (aided by some dramatic fake teeth).
Available on every major video format over the years from Columbia (later Sony) including VHS, laserdisc (featuring the same irritating strong yellow tint that wrecked Wolf), and DVD, Branagh's film hit Blu-ray worldwide in 2009 with a nice HD scan but zero bonus features apart from some unrelated trailers. For the record, the English-friendly edition features English, French, and Portuguese DTS-HD MA 5.1 tracks with English, English SDH, French, Portuguese, Chinese, Indonesian, Korean, Spanish, or Thai subtitles.
In 2022, Arrow Video finally revisited the film with a wealth of much-needed special features that finally give it some context for the uninitiated. Available in separate 4K UHD and Blu-ray editions, this edition features a significantly improved transfer from the original camera negatives by Sony that boasts much richer colors, finer detail, and more refined film grain, retaining the original look of the film in theaters but, with the welcome addition of HDR10-compatible Dolby Vision on the UHD, featuring a wider gamut of hues on display than ever before. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 and 2.0 English options both sound excellent and as aggressive as you'd expect, with the latter reflecting the Dolby Surround heard in 35mm engagements. Optional English SDH subtitles are also provided. Either format includes all of the bonus features starting with a fine, thorough audio commentary by Michael Brooke and Johnny Mains that notes the differences from the novel, the stronger emphasis on women in this interpretation, the influence of Bernie Wrightson, the evolution of real-life science reflected in the novel and film, and tons more. The new "Mary Shelley and The Creation of a Monster" (29m37s) covers the genesis and impact of the original novel and its placement within the Gothic tradition as explored by David Pirie, Jonathan Rigby and Stephen Volk, including the notable iconography employed and the moral themes that have since been picked up by many other writers. The trio also appear in "Dissecting Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein" (15m33s) for a specific look at how this film compares to the novel, noting their favorite scenes and evaluating it as a cinematic translation. Thought lost for decades but eventually found and given a restoration by the Library of Congress in 2018, the famous first 1910 version of Frankenstein produced by Thomas Edison (12m55s) is here in that form featuring a score by Donald Sosin and the original color tints. Surprisingly creepy in spots, this "liberal adaptation" condenses the novel into a lengthy vignette about the doctor's experiment gone awry including a pretty impressive creation sequence and a memorable clawed monster played by Charles Ogle. In "Stitching Frankenstein" (14m53s), costumer designer James Acheson covers the synchronicity required with the make-up design, the concept behind the monster's memorable coat, and the process of getting hired to work on the film. In "We'll Go No More a Roving" (12m40s), Patrick Doyle covers the changes in his process required by each project with Branagh and the gorgeous choice of harpsichord theme played by Elizabeth that wove into his score, complete with a wonderful performance at his piano. Finally in "Making It All Up" (14m22s), make-up designer Daniel Parker chats about the training he received (or lack thereof) carried down from his father, the level of input he received from Branagh on the creature design, and feeling like he was working as his own one-man unit at times on the film. The disc also sports two trailers and a 2m41s image gallery, while the first pressing also comes with a booklet featuring essays by Jon Towlson and Amy C. Chambers.
Arrow Video Blu-ray
Reviewed on March 20, 2022