How did this start again? Was it when I read Brian Aldiss' novel? Or did I read that because I read about the movie? To be sure, a strong impetus behind my decision to view it (and debatably behind reading the book it is based on) is the presence of INXS' late vocalist Michael Hutchence. Many people who know me know I love INXS like nobody's business, so this shouldn't come as a big surprise. A starring role for John Hurt and a villainous role for Raul Julia doesn't hurt anything either, naturally, but it was definitely the presence of Hutchence in one of two film roles that drew me to it. And, of course, we can't completely discount the name of Roger Corman.
In the future, Doctor Joe Buchanan (Hurt) is attempting to develop a weapon so powerful that it ends wars by simple threat of its existence. Unfortunately, operation of the weapon leads to erratic weather and "time storms," rifts in the time-space continuum that occasionally displace people and things. Caught in the middle of a severe one, Buchanan is sent back to Switzerland in the early 19th century, where he rapidly discovers not only the real Doctor Victor Frankenstein (Julia), but eventually the author who made him famous--Mary Wollstonecraft (Bridget Fonda). Frankenstein's younger brother was recently killed, and witchcraft is suspected. Horrified, Buchanan attempts to gain the help of Frankenstein in clearing the nanny being held responsible, both of them knowing his creation, The Monster (Nick Brimble) is the true culprit. When Frankenstein refuses, he goes to Wollstonecraft, who has an interest in the proceedings herself. Buchanan finds himself caught in the scientific debate of morality, and of "playing God," as he attempts to convince Frankenstein to come forward, or at least to destroy his creation before it kills more. Unable to do so, he must resort to attempting to use the side effects of his own weapon to stop them.
Roger Corman's films have a reputation as pure schlock, cheaply and quickly produced, generally entertaining but showing their budget like people who are utterly unaware of their body types show skin when they make poor fashion decisions.* It's not a flattering description for anyone's approach to film, but Corman himself has never seemed bothered by it. Still, I have my own approach to film, having no interest in watching a film to laugh at its limitations (the ones where I will not grant the creators grace, ie, there is a budget and appropriate technology at hand for them, I just get annoyed by). Frankenstein Unbound I seem to recall reading reviews of as a book (after I read it myself, I think, or perhaps while I was reading it) and hearing it labelled the author's smutty fantasy of sleeping with Mary Shelley. This isn't an unfair description of that subplot (which seems unnecessary, and is only briefly touched on in the film, anyway), but it's hardly a characterization of the entire story. Corman's film, I think, suffers similarly. There's laughter (amongst the boring, as far as I'm concerned) to be derived from a moment here or there, but it's hardly a knock against the movie as a whole, really.
The film is actually quite well shot, with a very smart eye for cinematography and solidly paced action from Corman himself, in his last time in the director's chair to date. Julia and Hurt are unsurprisingly excellent in their roles, with Brimble giving a nice sort of confused but lethal gravitas to the Monster. Hutchence (who plays Percy Shelley) and similarly-briefly-appearing Jason Patric (who plays Lord Byron) flit in and out of scenes they are in without thoroughly establishing themselves, giving it that moment of "Neat!" without dragging things to a halt by getting hung up on their limitations. Hurt and Julia carry most of the film, not only in terms of skill, but, appropriately in light of that, in terms of screen time. Julia is viperously dangerous and manipulative, with momentary glimpses of sanity or humanity, while Hurt is sufficiently both a scientist and a solid protagonist.
One of the most surprising things about the film is that the settings are quite believable. I'm sure if I knew much about 19th century Switzerland I'd have issues, but to the untrained eye it looks believably 19th century, and the future is not embarrassingly dated. The budget certainly shows in the design of the future objects, but it isn't as cheesily obvious as it often is. There's a stream-lined efficiency to it, a relative disinterest in gimmick-ing up any of the objects from the future that serves the film very well. The most obvious piece of the "future" present is Buchanan's computer-enhanced talking car, which sounds like a dreadful Knight Rider-style horror, but actually works pretty well. It does look rather 1980s, but not familiar, which is really probably the best approach to creating the future: not trying to guess at future approaches to design, but instead building from current ones to arrive at something unusual. The gore, too, is unusually good for what people say about Corman's films, though I should know by now that such mentalities are derivative of a genuine love that has been misappropriated by the cynical and postmodern into an attempt to prove oneself "better" than some films by mocking them (I mean nothing against Mystery Science Theater 3000 if that is crossing any minds--I'm quite a fan).
There's a solid bit of weight behind the film's concept and themes that betrays this whole schlocky mentality that people have about Corman's films, and there's an absolutely fantastic set of title credits to back the whole thing up. What Corman is known for is efficiency and industry in his work, and he makes a miniscule budget work for this film--he can't hide everything (because there's not enough money, of course!) but he makes a fantastic use of what he has, and puts very strong actors in to sell what doesn't work. Really, this film should be given a much better chance--but it's typically, it seems, swallowed up by those of us who are curious about Hutchence as an actor and those who want a "stupid" movie to laugh at. A shame, really, as it does well with its subject matter.
*I'm not sure where this peculiar simile came from, but it makes sense in my head.