Perhaps more than any classic horror tale, Frankenstein lends itself best to modern updates and reinterpretations. Mary Shelley’s novel about man’s folly when attempting to play God more easily translates to the present day as scientific advances grow by leaps and bounds. In the past year fans have been treated to no fewer than three retellings of the Frankenstein mythos. While the James McEvoy and and Daniel Radcliffe vehicle Victor Frankenstein was little more than an exercise in camp, Billy Senese’s independent drama Closer to God offered a chilling look at DNA manipulation gone haywire. Now Candyman director Bernard Rose offers his own take on the story with Frankenstein.
Rose offers up a more traditional retelling of the story though he updates the setting to modern day Los Angeles. Fitting for a location so obsessed with appearance, our husband and wife team of scientists (played by Danny Hutson and Carrie-Anne Moss) are not hellbent on unlocking the secrets of life and death but are plastic surgeons looking to perfect new techniques in achieving physical perfection. Their monster, played here by an inspired Xavier Samuel (best known for the Twilight series but horror fans will remember him as the male lead in The Loved Ones) isn’t created by alchemy as in the novel or by lightning as in James Whale’s classic 1931 film. Rather, for this time around the monster is the product of a 3-D printer.
Unlike the stitched together monstrosities of previous works Samuel’s creature-referred to as Adam just as in Shelley’s novel- is a creature of flawless physical beauty. He comes to life in the form of a beautiful young man, but has the intellectual and emotional capabilities of a newborn. In some of the lighter moments of the film, the creature learns simple tasks like eating-and spitting out-pureed food or drinking from a bottle. However these happier times give way to darkness as cancerous lesions break out over Adam’s body. While Moss’ motherly instincts to protect and comfort her “child” kick in, Hutson’s doctor only cares about the scientific and financial benefits of his creation, and the choice is made to destroy Adam and start anew.
However, before he can be destroyed and harvested for organs, Adam wakes up again, confused, hurt and scared. As a child trapped inside a body with the strength of a dozen men, he makes a frantic and grisly escape. Though Frankenstein is not a wall to walk shocker, Rose does use gore and extreme violence to demonstrate how unaware Adam is of his own physicality. The results are bloody and brutal.
From this point on Rose’s modern take does an admirable job of following the original source material while updating it for modern times. Though the creature possesses limited speech, Samuels provides voice over for his inner thoughts, and this dialogue comes straight from Shelley’s novel. Alone in the world Adam learns how to forage for himself, how to shelter himself from the cold and even gains a companion in the form of a stray dog. However, once again these temporary moments of happiness and discovery are swept aside as Adam learns how ugly and painful the world can be. After nearly drowning a young girl (in a scene no doubt inspired by Whales’ film) Adam is chased down by a vigilante mob, beaten, shackled and taken into custody by the police. A pair of crooked cops attempt to execute him as payback for one of their own, leaving the creature for dead once again.
Samuels plays the creature as an overgrown child, or an adult with intellectual disabilities. The makeup work for his creature is spectacular. As the film progresses, Samuel’s body becomes a canvas for festering sores along with purple-black bruises and wide open gashes that are the results of the physical abuse he suffers. Given the proper care Adam is capable of learning, as evidenced by the extended sequence between Samuels and veteran Tony Todd, who is seen here playing a blind homeless man that tries to show Adam how to survive. There’s a genuine affection between the two characters and Todd is at his charismatic best here, which makes the resolution of their friendship all the more tragic.
Despite updating the settings and circumstances, Rose has created one of the more faithful and compelling retellings of the Frankenstein story. It shifts the emphasis away from the doctor and places it squarely on the creature. This version may be the most sympathetic towards the monster since the 1931 film and it certainly pleas for the dignity and respect for individuals who suffer from developmental and physical disabilities. Horror fans will appreciate Tony Todd and Bernard Rose reuniting as well as the consideration that went into the special effects but the real appeal here is Samuels’ sympathetic and unique portrayal of the monster.