Thursday, April 24, 2014

Time Travel Time #4: Frankenstein Unbound

Roger Corman's last directorial venture is one of his finest, and it should have led to a new string of Corman "in the driver's seat" endeavors, if only the movie had been better distributed and marketed. With this said, "Frankenstein Unbound" (1990), based on the acclaimed Brian Aldiss novel and adapted by Corman and F.X. Feeney, is a superb treat: not merely a "Frankenstein" retelling, but a fate-laced, time-travel escapade.

John Hurt plays Dr. Joe Buchanan, a scientist from the year 2031, who has built the ultimate laser-beam weapon, which he believes, due to its threatening force, will actually persuade adversaries from engaging in war. Alas, the prototype causes dimensional "slips" and as such, tosses the scientist and his high-tech car, which houses the deadly device, into 1817 and no less than Mary Shelley's classic tale, which Buchanan quickly learns is based on real events.

Though Buchanan is initially drawn to Victor Frankenstein (Raul Julia) after a seemingly chance encounter with the secretive scientist at an inn, he eventually grows cynical of the moody genius, particularly the next day when he happens upon the trial of Justine, the nanny blamed for Frankenstein's younger brother, William's death. It's also at the trial that Buchanan spots the lovely Shelley (Bridget Fonda), shrewdly absorbing the details, and boldly converses with her, learning that she believes the girl is innocent.

Though Buchanan begs Frankenstein to come clean, to admit that his neglected Monster (Nick Brimble) did, in fact, murder his brother, Frankenstein pompously refuses, only then to mislead Buchanan with an pretentious pledge to comply, thus leading to Justine's hanging. Soon thereafter, Buchanan's relationship with Shelley widens, leading the time-traveler to reveal his origin, thus enchanting the blooming author, which in turn, leads the two to copulate in an impulsive "free love" moment.

Knowing how events will basically unfold from Shelley's yet-to-be-completed novel, Buchanan consistently but fruitlessly tries to intervene. The Monster inevitably murders Frankenstein's fiance, Elizabeth (Catherine Rabett), which then results in a unique genesis for the Monster's would-be "bride" (an idea actually reused four years later in Kenneth Branagh's "Frankenstein" adaptation). Ultimately, Buchanan, Frankenstein, the Monster and Bride are absorbed by another time slip, transporting them to a strange, snow-bound realm and still another series of harrowing circumstances.

It should be noted that, what distinguishes the tale isn't merely its time-travel component, but rather Buchanan's desperation to set things right, even though he realizes his own creation is as sadly misguided as Frankenstein's. Even after Buchanan channels the device's power to halt the Monster, he realizes the man-made creation can never truly perish (any more than the prevailing effects of his lethal laser can): in essence, Buchanan's intent to bestow something good onto the world has proven, alas, all in ironic vain. In this regard, Buchanan is clearly being taught a lesson by some unseen, celestial force, if not in the dangers of playing God, then certainly in the dangers of emulating Shelley's mythic character.

"Frankenstein Unbound" is tightly directed (coming in at a swift 83 minutes), while deftly presenting a gamut of thought-provoking ideas, intrigue, tension and impressive performances (including cameos by Jason Patric as Lord Byron and Michael Hutchence as Percy Shelley). That it was filmed in Italy enhances its lush, overall ambiance, defying its modest budget. Corman's signature, surreal interludes also bolster the progression of events, further confirming his creative flair.

It's too bad the movie never received the fanfare it so rightly deserved (though it's safe to say that Corman fans eagerly embraced it from the start), but for those who let this one pass by, it's by all means worth a view. It masterfully combines aspects of the familiar with a brave, newfangled angle, making it, for all intents and purposes, a promising classic in developing discovery.

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