I originally wrote this article (now with pictures!) for Nathanael Hood's Roger Corman blogathon June 17-19 2011. Now that I have my own blog I wanted to post it here. Nate will be hosting another blogathon in late July/early August about 50s monster movies. For that blogathon I will be reviewing one of my favorite films, Forbidden Planet! Thanks again Nate for originally hosting this article and for all your advice and encouragement. Without it this blog would never have been possible! Also thanks to all who came here from Nate's blog, I appreciate the support!
Tomorrow I will be posting brief reviews of the first half of movies I have seen so far this summer. On Saturday I will post my first weekly film topic which will be my thoughts on remakes. This Sunday short reviews on the other half of films I have watched this summer will be posted. Then next week I'll jump into one film at a time as I see them. Next Sunday will be my first weekly round-up of the movies I have seen and reviewed in the past week. Without further ado, here is my article on Frankenstein Unbound!
Although Frankenstein Unbound was the final film directed by Roger Corman, it just so happened to be the first Corman movie I had ever seen. The first time I had seen it was two summers ago and I had no expectations. I saw that a time travel movie involving Frankenstein and starring John Hurt and Raul Julia was coming on cable soon and with that information alone I knew that I had to watch it! I had heard of Roger Corman before, but at the time I did not really know how influential he was to the film industry, just that he made some B-movies.
Unlike other many other Corman movies, this one did not launch any careers. John Hurt had already been nominated for two Oscars and Raul Julia was known for his performances in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985) and Romero (1989). That said, this is an early film of Bridget Fonda, although she will most likely always be best known not such much for her acting career, but simply for being the daughter of Henry Fonda and niece of Jane Fonda.
The aforementioned John Hurt plays Dr. Joe Buchanan. Dr. Buchanan is a scientist of the near future whose experiments have pushed past the limits of nature with unintended but dangerous consequences. While performing experiments to create a powerful weapon with the intention to end war while also not harming the environment, Buchanan and his team of researchers discover that the weapon also has the side effect of creating random rifts in the space time continuum. At first Buchanan is confident that he can find a way around this. One day while driving home from work he encounters some children burying a bike that has “died” because its owner has bought a newer more advanced bicycle. As Dr. Buchanan is musing (“Progresss!”) over this bizarre scene, an unusual storm is brewing. Buchanan is able to get the children to safety even though a warrior on a horse emerges from the storm and almost hits him with a spear! Unfortunately, Buchanan is sucked into the storm and sent across time and space. Eventually he figures out that he is in 1816 Switzerland. Buchanan meets up with some historical figures: the poet Percy and his wife, author Mary Shelley (Bridget Fonda) while he tries to find a way to reverse the time slip and return home. However, Buchanan discovers that a certain Victor Frankenstein (Raul Julia) is living in the nearby Swiss village. Like us, Buchanan always thought that Frankenstein was a work of fiction, but it turns out Mary Shelley’s novel was actually based on true events! As a fellow scientist who has had to deal with his own experiments going horribly wrong despite having the best of intentions, Buchanan tries to help Frankenstein. However, he fails to get Frankenstein to admit that his monster (which is legitimately creepy with a good make-up job) killed a child which leads to the nanny being accused of the murder and later being executed. Buchanan tries to stop Frankenstein and his monster from ending up like the novel, while also attempting to get home and stop the time slips. Despite the title Frankenstein Unbound, the story is always about Buchanan and his struggle to deal with his metaphorical monster (the time slips) which make Frankenstein’s monster powerless in comparison, but an intriguing parallel.
Buchanan’s interactions with the Swiss in 1816 as a man from 2031 are not only amusing but also interesting as he can do whatever he wants. Unlike the main characters in most other time travel movies, Buchanan does not really need to worry about keeping the timeline intact since the randomness of the time slips has already done significant damage. Therefore the story can follow the character more freely as he explores 1816 while stranded in the past.
If the time slips depicted in this movie were real perhaps Roger Corman would have cast Vincent Price as Dr. Buchanan since, intentionally or not, Hurt seems to be channeling Price in his role. Hurt hams it up, but the end result is pure fun. The best examples of this are the priceless scenes between Dr. Buchanan and his talking car. The car has a sexy female voice and although there is no human avatar for the car, its personality is fully developed with witty dialogue, showing that technology may one day come back to haunt us with snide remarks! When Buchanan is still trying to figure out where and when the time slip has taken him, he exclaims “Jesus H. Christ, where am I?!” to which the car responds “No record of a middle initial for a Jesus Christ, Dr. Buchanan” which Hurt’s character does not find very amusing. The car’s lines such as “Something tells me we are not in New Los Angeles anymore” and “Scientifically speaking, we are out in the sticks” could have been classic Spock phrases on Star Trek. Buchanan humorously treats the car like a real person. When he must leave it to go back to the Swiss village he has been staying at, Buchanan hides the car and tells her to “be a good girl” to which the car responds, “My options are limited!” While one might simply write off the car as comic relief in the vein of C-3PO and R2-D2, or in this case more appropriately KITT from Knight Rider, I argue that its role may be a bit deeper. The car itself is like Frankenstein’s monster as it blurs the line between human and inhuman. The car appears to be sentient but is it alive? Likewise, is the monster simply animate or truly alive?
While Roger Corman co-wrote the screenplay for Frankenstein Unbound, it is important to keep in mind that this movie is actually based on a book by British science fiction author Brian Aldiss. Aldiss is a prolific writer, but for better or worse will be best known for writing the short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” which was the basis for the 2001 film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. A.I. was originally developed by Stanley Kubrick and finally directed after his death by Steven Spielberg. Corman was no stranger to adapting the works of others (most famously Edgar Allan Poe but also others such as H.P. Lovecraft). While I have not actually read Aldiss’ novel, from what I have read about the novel it appears that Corman has stuck to the original story much closer than his previous adaptations of other works.
There are two fun cameos in this movie that you will want to keep an eye out for. The now deceased Michael Hutchence, lead singer of INXS (“New Sensation,” “What you Need”) puts in a fine cameo as the famous Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley! Also look out for Catherine Corman, Roger Corman’s daughter, who played Justine Moritz, a woman tried and condemned as a witch.
Although Frankenstein Unbound has generally been considered to be mediocre at best, I contend that this is a fine B-movie with better acting and cinematography (filming on location in Italy certainly helped) than most of its ilk. The plot is pretty unique, and the only movie I can think of which comes close is the wonderful Nicolas Meyer directed film Time After Time (1979). In this film, Jack the Ripper (David Warner) uses H.G. Wells’ time machine to escape to the future. H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) must stop him from murdering women in 1979 San Francisco! Time After Time is the better of the two movies, but if you liked one I imagine you would also enjoy the other.
While I will always have a special place in my heart for Frankenstein Unbound, it is by no means a perfect movie. For example, Buchanan can magically understand everyone in the Swiss village, not just the English-speaking Percy and Mary Shelley. This is not uncommon in science fiction but at least Star Trek mentions the use of universal translators. I feel that some sort of explanation should have been given, or maybe the car could have been somehow used to translate for Buchanan! Perhaps the bigger issue is Buchanan’s persistence in following Dr. Frankenstein. His frequent meetings often feel forced and one wonders why he isn’t spending more time getting it on with the beautiful Mary Shelley instead of getting involved with Victor Frankenstein who he has no real stake in. I know that Buchanan sees some parallels between Frankenstein and himself but I’m not sure if that is enough motivation as to why his character is risking his life to stop Victor. Yes, a few people are being killed by the monster but the damage from the time slip makes these deaths seem miniscule in comparison. Plus since Buchanan discovers that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is actually non-fiction, he knows the murders will end soon with or without his involvement. The movie runs a sleek 82 minutes so perhaps this was answered in the book, an earlier version of the screenplay, or deleted scenes and was cut later.
Very few, if any, movies are perfect, but it is easy to overlook these flaws since the story is immersive and allows for easy suspension of disbelief. Frankenstein Unbound keeps us entertained as we want to know what Buchanan will do next as well as if Victor Frankenstein and his monster will meet different fates than in the original Frankenstein. It is fitting that Frankenstein Unbound was Corman’s last at the director’s chair. Frankenstein, Buchanan, and Corman all created new things. While Frankenstein’s monster and Buchanan’s time rifts ended poorly, Corman’s monsters continue to entertain and have a lasting positive effect on the film industry.
I gave Frankenstein Unbound a 6/10 on IMDB. I'll explain my scoring system in detail with tomorrow's post. See you then!