Plot: brillant scientist is thrown in time and meets Dr. Victor Frankenstein…
Frankenstein Unbound was part of a brief gothic horror revival with the likes of big budget features as Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) as well as The Haunting (1999) and House on Haunted Hill (1999). That none have really stood the test of time speaks volumes in and of itself. No matter how you spin it, Hollywood’s attempt to resuscitate the old school gothic horror was met by audience distinterest. The most notorious of said revival was probably Frankenstein Unbound. Frankenstein Unbound, true to its nature as a down-market kitschy 1960s gothic throwback, is far closer to something as The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) and Kiss of the Vampire (1963) than to the more serious (and pretentious, if we’re being the least bit honest) Francis Ford Coppola and Kenneth Branagh gothics of the day. Twenty years after his failed World War I epic Von Richthofen and Brown (1971), at the ripe age of 64, Corman was lured back to directing and paid a handsome $1 million for his trouble. History would record Frankenstein Unbound as Corman’s final directorial effort. The Haunting Of Morella (1990) and Huntress: Spirit Of the Night (1995) had the decency to plaster everything with acres of skin whenever the plot stalled. Frankenstein Unbound has no such exploitative inclinations – and is much the worse for it.
There’s no real historical precedent to explain the sudden and brief resurgence of the gothic in the nineties other than that amidst the slasher, cannibal and zombie craze of the 80s an old school ghost flick seemed more than a bit redundant. By the dawning of the new decade the slasher, cannibal and zombie subgenres themselves were on the verge of extinction – and, within context of no other subgenre having risen to the occassion of replacing them, it’s almost logical that directors would look to the past for inspiration. Considering that science fiction was having something of a revival Brian Wilson Aldiss’ Monster trilogy was a gift from the gods. Frankenstein Unbound was the first of the trilogy that also included Moreau’s Other Island (1980) and Dracula Unbound (1991). The title of Aldiss’ novel being a portmanteau of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. Producer Thom Mount from The Mount Company had set his sights on adapting Frankenstein Unbound. Who better than the man who produced all those Edgar Allan Poe gothics? Thus he approached Roger Corman with a budget of $11.5 million ($1 million entirely for Corman), some of the hottest stars of the day and a leisurely seven weeks which to shoot it in. Frankenstein Unbound was produced in alliance with Trimark Pictures and to be distributed domestically and abroad by 20th Century Fox. Part science-fiction, part gothic horror, and all camp Frankenstein Unbound fared poor at the box office making a meager $335,000. 20th Century Fox, in their infinite wisdom, canned all sequels.
The year is 2031. In New Los Angeles brilliant scientist Dr. Joseph Buchanan (John Hurt) is demonstrating the prototype of a state-of-the-art particle beam weapon at the Hawkings Institute in California that he’s currently developing for the military. He assures observer General Reade (Mickey Knox) that his laser weapon will make enemy troops disappear. Buchanan’s own motives are more humanitarian in nature as he seeks to devise a weapon that will rid the world of all wars. The only side-effect is that the weapon causes massive atmospheric disturbances and time-slips. Driving home one day Buchanan becomes engulfed in one such disturbance and is whisked back to 19th century Geneva, Switzerland shortly after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars. In the village tavern he barters with the innkeeper (Geoffrey Copleston) for a meal and gleans from a newspaper that he’s in the year 1817. The man reading said newspaper is local nobleman Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Raúl Juliá) and shortly thereafter Buchanan makes his acquaintance with budding novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (soon-to-be Shelley) (Bridget Fonda). Godwin is attending a trial where Frankenstein’s maidservant Justine Moritz (Catherine Corman) is found guilty of murdering the Baron’s younger brother. Orbiting around Godwin at Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva are fellow writers Lord Byron (Jason Patric) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (Michael Hutchence), the latter with whom Mary is romantically involved.
Unable to save Justine from the gallows Buchanan wows Mary with his computer-equipped sentient 1988 ItalDesign Aztec Roadster and shows her a copy of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus – the very manuscript she has just begun writing. Mary is backs away frightened by Joe’s vast knowledge of the future. One night Joe makes his acquaintance with Frankenstein’s wife Elizabeth Lavenza (Catherine Rabett) and that same night happens upon Victor in the middle of a heated argument with his monster (Nick Brimble). The creature threatens to kill the entire village if its demands for a mate aren’t met. In retaliation the creature kills Catherine to force Victor into making her into a potential mate. Instead Frankenstein claims the reanimated Catherine as his own, sending the creature into a fit of rage. During its rampage Buchanan is able to blast it into the far future. After an arduous journey through a frozen wasteland Joe happens upon his abandoned laboratory where it dawns upon him that he is a Frankenstein of his own and that the very monster that he warned Victor against is one of his own making. His monster has become unbound and has turned the world he knew, or remembered, into a desolate frozen hellscape.
How Corman was able to rope in this many respectable A-list performers is anybody’s guess. The biggest names in the cast are John Hurt, Raúl Juliá, and Bridget Fonda. Hurt was in Alien (1979), The Elephant Man (1980), Night Crossing (1982), Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) and Scandal (1989) and at the turn of the century he could be seen in, among many others, Lost Souls (2000), Captain Corelli's Mandolin (2001), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001), V for Vendetta (2005) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011). Juliá would break into the mainstream with The Addams Family (1991), Addams Family Values (1993) and the lamentable Street Fighter (1994). Fonda on her part was on the verge of making it big with Francis Ford Coppola‘s The Godfather Part III (1990), the hit comedy Doc Hollywood (1991) (with Michael J. Fox), the thriller Single White Female (1992) (opposite of Jennifer Jason Leigh), the Sam Raimi horror comedy Army of Darkness (1992), It Could Happen to You (1994) (with Nicholas Cage) and the Quentin Tarantino blaxploitation homage Jackie Brown (1997).
In supporting roles there are Jason Patric from The Lost Boys (1987), Sleepers (1996) and Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997); Catherine Rabett from The Living Daylights (1987), Michael Hutchence from Australian new wave/pop rock band INXS (he would be found dead from an apparent suicide in a Sydney Ritz-Carlton hotel room some seven years later), Geoffrey Copleston from Lucio Fulci’s One on Top of the Other (1969), Tinto Brass’ Salon Kitty (1976), the poliziottesco A Man Called Magnum (1977), Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977) and Francis Ford Coppola’s ill-advised The Godfather: Part III (1990); as well as John Karlsen from Werewolf in a Girls' Dormitory (1961), Terror in the Crypt (1964), the Barbara Steele gothic The She Beast (1966), The Insatiables (1969), The Beast Kills in Cold Blood (1971), Daughters of Darkness (1971) and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989).
No matter how much Frankenstein Unbound might pretend to be a throwback to the Edgar Allan Poe gothics of old that Corman made a name in, it’s very much a product of its time. What that means in practice is that it for long stretches at a time focuses more on the science fiction than the gothic horror that arguably was its strong suit. Instead of a bodice-ripping, blood-drenched gothic full of ancient family curses and decaying castles for some inexplicable reason it’s more interested in fancy cars, computers and green lasers. For all bad things that can be said about Kenneth Branagh’s pretentious Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994) at least it had the guts to actually spill some actual guts (even if it were Helena Bonham Carter’s) when and where it mattered. It’s a sad day indeed when Jim Wynorski made the better gothic horror that year with his Corman produced The Haunting Of Morella (1990). Corman’s offering had the respectable A-listers but, more importantly, Wynorski had Lana Clarkson and Nicole Eggert and neither were shy about baring their boobs at every possible turn. Special effects man Nick Dudman and his crew were wise in keeping the grotesque monster design faithful to the book no matter how ridiculous it looked. The dialogue is campy, the visual effects have dated badly and the monster is defeated by handclap activated laser beams. You can’t get any cheesier than that. Frankenstein Unbound might have been pulp of the highest order but clearly everybody was having fun.
Frankenstein Unbound is both an anomaly and a curio for and in the decade it was produced in. It wasn’t as over-the-top, comedic nor gory as any of the slashers, zombie and cannibal flicks of the preceding decade; neither was it for that matter self-aware and meta enough to deconstruct the old Frankenstein story or how blatantly ridiculous Brian Wilson Aldiss’ upon which it based was. In a post-Hardware (1990) world Frankenstein Unbound is just a wee bit silly and for a modest budget Hollywood feature this could have been a whole lot worse. Corman’s direction is purely functional and doesn’t possess a whole lot of flair or individual style, but Corman as always more of a “behind the scenes” kind of guy. And who wouldn’t jump on the chance of getting a decent paycheck for something that he had perfected decades earlier? If Frankenstein Unbound is remembered for anything, it’s for Roger Corman directing for the last time. And maybe for the better too. Corman excelled at producing and recognizing young talent early on. As a director he isn’t bad, he just isn’t very special either. For once you’re better off checking out Jim Wynorski’s The Haunting Of Morella (1990). It might be equally as silly as a free-for-all gothic horror pastiche, but at least it’s not burdened by a completely unnecessary science fiction wrap-around story. Sometimes less is more.