As far as cinematic adaptations of Mary Shelley’s genre-birthing classic go, Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein remains one of the most infamous. It’s not because it contradicts the source material; it would be hard to be as unfaithful as Universal’s 1931 classic or its bevy of increasingly bad sequels, although this certainly tries. Nor is it necessarily the worst film based on the novel, as Lou Harry chronicled in his essay about the wide world of cinematic Frankensteins a few years ago for our No Sleep October series. No, this is simply the biggest, boldest and most outlandishly corny take on the character to grace the silver screen.
Unlike its sister film, Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Branagh doesn’t attempt to mine Shelley’s work for untapped thematic energy. Coppola at least managed to embrace vampire phantasmagoria. Here, the closest we get to any real passion is the deeply homoerotic birthing sequence where Dr. Frankenstein (Branagh) shirtlessly wrestles his new creation on a mat of placental goo. It’s a standout sequence that defines the high point of this take on the story. The term “operatic” is thrown around a lot to describe films with big emotions and attitudes, but that fits the bill here. A novel known for its cold, almost clinical approach to the mistakes and misfortunes of Victor Frankenstein on his quest to create life without women is turned into a big, brash, extraordinary odyssey of filmmaking hubris. Branagh has never known restraint as a director. In an odd way, it fits that he would create a Frankenstein so misshapen and wholly his.
This doesn’t mean Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is any good. It is not. Frankly, it’s borderline unwatchable at times on its own merits, without even taking the source material into account. The Monster (Robert De Niro) is given a more sympathetic portrayal here in line with the novel, but De Niro is also terrible. Helena Bonham Carter plays Victor’s doomed love, Elizabeth, and her expanded role is one of the movie’s most extreme deviations from the book. This is more the sort of movie an audience watches because they can’t otherwise look away. It’s filled with recognizable faces (John Cleese, Ian Holm, Aidan Quinn) doing their best under a director whose stylistic noise won’t let them focus and do their job. Outside of recommending it due to its utter uniqueness, there’s no world in which this is a must-see Frankenstein. Fan of Branagh? Knock yourself out. Fan of Frankenstein? Tread lightly.
Naturally, Arrow Video, a label that prides itself in releasing lost, forgotten or derided films, has released a new 4K edition of the film for anyone looking to dive in head-first. This new edition makes it easier than ever to own the film, which has not always been easy to find on Blu-ray. It features a new 4K restoration from an original camera negative, with a DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack. There’s a lot to look at in this film, and this is the best way to currently view it.
As with all of Arrow’s releases, the special features are pretty substantial. Film historians Michael Brooke and Johnny Mains deliver a commentary track so compelling I almost found myself liking the movie more for it. New interviews with composer Patrick Doyle, costume designer James Acheson and make-up designer Daniel Parker made me wish I wasn’t so hard on the film as a whole every time I give it another chance, which is probably too frequently. Two new featurettes dive into the source material and this film’s divergences from it. The first pressing includes a collectors booklet with essays by Jon Towlson and Amy C Chambers.
Packaging-wise, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein comes in a slightly thicker, standard-sized 4K case. There is no slipcover, and the booklet is not square-bound. The artwork sports a gorgeous reversible sleeve with Laz Marquez’s new artwork. Marquez has provided a lot of Arrow’s most iconic packaging and has delivered a Frankenstein piece that, frankly, is better than this specific movie probably deserved.
Film aside, though, the release is up to the A+ standards Arrow has set with all of its products.