The Frankenstein Studies: Frankenstein (2016)

OK, Nathaniel, it’s time to talk about this Frankenstein 2016 redo that’s just come out on Blu-ray. I really should’ve sent this movie over to Rob and Sabrina with the probably foolish hopes that their contributions to the discussion could keep us from devolving into Josh Hutcherson fan fiction and analysis of the comic strip Luann, but we’ll do our best. This is such a new version of Frankenstein that it hasn’t even been added to the Wikipedia page of Frankenstein In Popular Culture (if you’re the one who updates this, please do), and it’s pretty stripped down. I’m sure some of that has to do with its direct-to-video origins, but I did see some value — perhaps more theoretical than actual — in doing up a “modern-day Frankenstein story” on pedestrian-looking city streets and sets that look a bit like redressed high school basements. Did the low-budget angle work for you, the Frankenstein enthusiast?

Yeah, I’m often skeptical of that kind of low-budget (and modern day) approach for stories like this. But here, in restricting the adaptation and point of view primarily to the portions of the story where the creature is off on his own learning the ways of the world, they found a way in to the story that actually feels fresh for a while, and kind of appropriate spending tons of time in vacant lots and empty irrigation canals or whatever generic concrete-and-chainlink environs they shot in. It’s definitely an immersive approach, dropping you right in with a POV camera and little in the way of exposition. And I dug the way that, since this version of the creature remains pretty inarticulate, they incorporated some of the text of the novel as voiceover (or at least voice over clearly meant to invoke the novel, since some seemed tailored specifically to what we see onscreen and I didn’t have a copy on hand to compare it). But placing us so fully in the creature’s perspective, and extending his “cast out & beset upon by the cruelty of the world” period to make up the entirety of the film, ended up making it feel punishing to me. The grubby grisliness of it all (and how about the gore in this movie?) makes for some pretty memorable imagery, but it also ends up a little monotonous. And it felt a little weird rubbing up against the numerous homages to the Karloff films. Xavier Samuel really goes for it (perhaps because we watched this shortly before the Academy Awards, it brought to mind DiCaprio playing another revenant, at least in terms of drooling, screaming, and dirt eating), but he’s no Karloff. So the winky stuff made me miss the pathos of Karloff’s performances as the last half hour of the film heaped even more misery on the monster. Did that bother you at all? Or did that stuff even read as specific homage anymore?

I did find the quasi-literary stuff somewhat at odds with the Karloff riffing (Karloffing?) — the latter is certainly more recognizable and readable onscreen if you’re trying to tip people off that this is a modern-day Frankenstein, but then again, the title Frankenstein, and the character of a doctor named Frankenstein, probably do a lot of that work, eh? And hey, Doctor Frankenstein was… kind of a lady? I mean, Carrie-Anne Moss is definitely a lady, and she was definitely named Frankenstein, but I wasn’t sure if that was her married name, because her husband (Danny Huston) is there, too. But even if the role is more doubled up than split in two, Moss definitely gets the more personal side of it, as the “mother” to the creature who refuses to accept her creation. It’s cool to see Moss in a genre movie, and the choice to stick with the Creature’s POV is intriguing, but ultimately, if you have Carrie-Anne Moss and a guy who was in a Twilight (and Samuels totally does give it his all, but at the same time, I just instinctively sensed, without recognizing him at all, that he must have been in a Twilight movie at some point, and he was), maybe it would be a good idea to recognize a key strength you have, which is to say: Carrie-Anne Moss is cool! Why wasn’t she in the movie more?

So yeah, that mixture of inspiration from the book and the movies was sort of neither-here-nor-there for me. It turns an interesting idea into a pastiche. I get that the Karloff stuff is super famous, but there’s something perverse about the way producers will take a public-domain story, and then gravitate to whatever version was actually copyrighted. A low-budget take on a public-domain novel ought to embolden filmmakers, not inspire them to figure out how to pay homage to a couple of classic movies without getting in any legal trouble.

And that borderline-DIY element was, in the end, something that I enjoyed more about this movie than some of the other, higher-budgeted Frankenstein movies we’ve seen since starting Specifically, I am always happy to see a famous, iconic character reimagined as some manner of hobo. That was my favorite part of Man of Steel, and it was probably my favorite aspect of this movie, even if this particularly itinerant character had less of a jaunty traveling hobo vibe and more of a genuine modern homeless-person vibe. Again, a neat idea, but as you point out, it gets grimly monotonous long before the movie can make any kind of salient point that has to do with how we live in 2016 (besides that we are surrounded by people who did bit parts in Twilight). So what do you think: how does this fall on the I, Frankenstein/Victor Frankenstein scale? Is that even a scale that we have? And can someone make a Hobo Dracula movie ASAP?

Yeah, as part of the burgeoning Hoodie Frankenstein sub-genre, I’d say this one falls…somewhere in the middle? Frankenstein 2016 is definitely a more interesting (and coherent) take than I, Frankenstein, but Victor Frankenstein benefits from an empathetic Daniel Radcliffe and a sparky James McAvoy. Still, this one gets points from me for being the one that actually commits to the story’s horror roots. I’m sympathetic to your request for a jauntier tone and genre experimentation (I’d be all for a Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure riff with the Creature from the Black Lagoon), but Frankenstein’s monster has been repurposed for a variety of tones and genres recently (in addition to the the nutjob warehouse fantasy of I, Frank or the comic adventure of Victor Frankenstein, the story got a Tim Burton stop motion tribute in Frankenweenie and the Fox TV procedural treatment in Second Chance). So, even despite the touches winking toward Karloff/Whale, it was kind of refreshing to see a take on the material that really just took a serious and fairly unadorned approach (though my preferred current serious take is Penny Dreadful).

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Hoodie Frankenstein is a thing.

On the other hand, in paring the story down and limiting the point of view so strictly to the monster, the film doesn’t leave us with as much to chew on thematically. It touches on the creator’s abandonment of their creation (infused, in this case, with some pretty strong oedipal vibes), but since Moss and Huston are kept off screen for most of the film, their relationship with him is defined almost entirely by their absence. And, as you mention, there’s something to the way that the film links Moss’s abandonment of the monster to his subsequent life on the streets. But while I was intrigued by the notion of using the story of Frankenstein to comment on our responsibility toward the homeless, the dour single-mindedness of the storytelling didn’t do much to develop the theme. Still, his time among the homeless at least gives us Tony Todd with the film’s only real glimpse of warmth or humanity (in the movie’s riff on O.P. Heggie’s hermit from Bride of Frankenstein). Todd is one of those genre stalwarts that elevates this kind of thing a bit just by his presence (and his scenes are a hint of the kind of movie that it sounds like you wanted; just imagine the blind homeless man and the monster pulling grifts and hustles). I don’t think that Xavier Samuels was in the Twilight movies that I saw, but I’m impressed that you identified him. That does make me wonder if those guys are going to parlay those sorta-genre-affiliated roles into their own version of Todd’s genre career. It also made me wonder what the movie would have been like with a slightly higher profile YA adaptation actor. The obvious casting for Frankenstein would be Robert Pattinson, but I think Ansel Elgort could look good in some monster makeup. And of course we shouldn’t rule out the notion of Josh Hutcherson doing it (probably best if he plays the role on Jackson Rathbone’s shoulders, hidden in a trench coat).

Hutcherson or no Hutcherson, even though I didn’t find this take on the story as compelling as I hoped when it became clear how they were approaching the story, there are definitely parts of it that have stuck with me. Indeed, maybe the low budget vibe has something to do with it, but I’ve found myself thinking about specific images from this Frankenstein in a way I didn’t in the weeks following my screenings of I, Frankenstein or Victor Frankenstein. That feels like a win to me when dealing with material that was previously mined as deeply as this has been. How about you? Did any of this movie stick with you?

Well, some of the gnarlier brain-gore certainly lodged itself in my own, as-yet-un-smushed brain. And I suppose the simplicity of the production makes it a bit more striking and memorable than I-Frank, which I can only really picture as a gigantic smear of CG haze. Mainly I’m just left wondering how (or if) Universal gets into the Frankenstein thing when they roll out their big Monster Universe series of would-be blockbusters in a year or two. I know it’s a big reboot, but now I kind of want to see an All-Star Frankensteins [Monsters] To the Rescue movie with all of the failed Creatures — De Niro, Eckhart, Samuels — teaming up to fight whoever these monsters are going to fight in these Universal movies. Anyway, at least Frankenstein 2016 is an actual horror movie, of sorts. I doubt the same will be true of Universal’s bigger-budget attempt, if they make it there.

Yeah, this movie’s modern day setting was all well and good, but even with the homages to the Universal films, it really just confirmed how hard it is for me to picture the big-budget modern day series Universal is planning. In the abstract, I’m psyched that they’re doing it with movie stars and budgets, and are really treating the characters as valuable assets. But movies like this, even when they are effective at times, illustrate the way that it’s hard to generate the atmosphere that is so essential to those original films in a 21st century setting.