Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Spooktacular Savings #6: Roger Corman's FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND

"You think that you have killed me. But I will be with you forever. I am unbound."

Some of you reading that line above may think that I am spoiling something about the film.  In a way I may be, but I wouldn't dare tell you who says it.  I post it because it's rather fitting in a way that for Roger Corman's final film as director - he made it after a near 20-year hiatus, and since then has produced but hasn't gone back to be an official 'Action!' man - as if this was like a final mission statement.  You may think Corman's style of cheese and, sometimes, actually, good horror and science fiction in the B-movie mold is done away with as the next century comes along, but in reality, he's with us, whether we like it or not (hell, even though he didn't produce Sharknado, he might as well have - take a look at his IMDb and you'll see he still exists with his 'Shark'-combo movies - he never dies, folks, NEVER!)

Ok, that was a probably pretentious note to put there, as if Corman meant anything by it except to deliver one last whopper for his audience (indeed, he thought there'd be room for a sequel - I have no proof of this, I just assume so).  Adapted by him and FX Feeney from a novel by Brian Aldiss (author of what would become A.I. Artificial Intelligence), what he delivered with his 1990 entry Frankenstein Unbound is an actual, serious horror/science-fiction/time travel movie.  For the most part.  It wouldn't be a good slice of Corman without the cheese and the over-the-top moments.  Right?

See, the future!  Eh, eh!  Those doors totally don't make it look like another (albeit better) Delorean!

This is a strange story if one takes it too literally, though it could have worked as a kid's movie (maybe it still does, minus the violence and strong sexual connotation, which I'll get to momentarily).  It starts off in 2031 with Dr. Buchanan (John Hurt), who has created some kind of special laser that makes things implode, though his chances of getting it into wide circulation or whatever it might be are slim.  Why is this?  Eh, why explain too much - the point is that whatever crazy contraption he's made has made a rift in the space-time continuum, and what appears to be a thunderstorm in the sky is really just a big cloud which opens up and a... guy on a horse pops out(?!)  Buchanan gets knocked on the head - luckily he still has his future-talking-car with him - and winds up in the early 19th century.  Specifically, in the land of Byron and Shelly and Dr. Victor Frankenstein.

This is a combination of a lot of things, and it should all fall apart - that is, in lessor B-movie hands.  This is a time-travel piece with potential paradoxes (though they don't come realized, I think, until maybe near the end, still not clear); it's a costume picture set in rural Austria; it's a horror movie with the Monster created by Frankenstein going around the countryside killing people, and others get blamed/hung for it; and it's one of those sad love stories where people like Frankenstein have to raise their loved ones from the dead (poor Elizabeth).  A lot happens in less than 90 minutes, and a lot of it is driven in such a way that kind of feels like a lost Doctor Who episode (come to think of it, Hurt was involved with that show once, but I digress). 

It's missing that show's sense of bizarre play in its main character - Buchanan is all business really - and yet this is fine, for the most part.  Corman actually creates a credible past world.  Sure, it's nothing we haven't seen, better, in movies with larger budgets; it wouldn't be Corman if he didn't make it look as good as he can get it, and 'Unbound' has a fine period flavor.  So how about the svript then?  As mentioned, Buchanan may not be a man with big eyes or eccentric flights of fancy like the Doctor of the BBC show.  No, this is more about him coming in and trying to a) simply stop the Monster from killing others, as soon as he ascertains this is a bigger problem that no one else sees, and b) have some interactions with the likes of Lord Byron (oh hey, Jason Patric reciting poetry about time-travel clouds!) and Mary Not-quite-yet Shelly (Bridget Fonda).

There were times in the middle and sort of early on I was checking my watch.  What could they really do with this premise, I wondered?  I assumed it would stay in the 1820's or 1830's or whenever it was, but that's not really the case at all.  Corman and Feeney are out to have some fun with their premise, though it comes on slowly.  What I liked though is that Corman's direction, perhaps after all these decades, didn't make things *feel* rushed like some of his early pictures, or cheap in the ways that would really hurt it.  Is all of the dialog strong?  Maybe not - it's a script meant to push the story forward, with only some character development; Buchanan himself is a Man of Science (in capital letters), and gets really, barely, one scene to converse about his Agnosticism to Mary.  The most interesting one dips in and out of the picture: Dr. Frankenstein himself. 

Luckily, Raul Julia is as good in the role as Hurt is in his; indeed Hurt has the more difficult role to play since his is kind of underwritten.  I was worried at first Julia would deliver a sort of precursor to his final role as M. Bison in Street Fighter, something that would be wild and manic and reach up to some Mad Doctor level (in capital letters again).  Not really the case, as Julia plays it subtle and controlled for most of it, and then in the final third, when it's time to really become the character we've been waiting for, that he makes it big and dramatic and his Doctor becomes a little more crazed.  But not outside the realm of believability.  For the script they're given, with dialog that could be delivered really badly, Hurt and Julia bump the movie up a good notch or so.

It's really left to Nick Bramble to bring the old-school, schlocky Corman side of things.  His performance isn't all stupid either, though he's not at the caliber of his co-stars.  What I mean is when things do get violence and (not really, only just minimally near the end) scary, when he sort of Monster-Hulks out in his ridiculous make-up that stretches his face like he's been hit by a frying pan, and cuts off people's heads and body parts like tearing off tree limbs.  And not to worry if he loses a limb at any point - he'll just look at it a moment, scream a little, and move on with the suspense sequence.  It's laughable stuff, but I think Corman knew it, and while it's not AS funny as if it were totally unintentional, it helps lighten up the mood of what is a pretty serious monster/mad scientist story.

I wish the movie were a little longer, in a way.  The story just ends at a point where it could get really interesting, as Hurt's characters is in another point in a "Time-Slip" as it's called in the film, and we're left on a... is it even a cliffhanger?  I'm not sure if it means to be a definite end or the beginning of something else.  And other detail about Buchanan's life, probably in the Aldiss book, is left off to make him a straightforward 'good' Doctor, far as it goes.  And the sets are impressive too, might as well mention that... except that, near the end, it feels like they're almost pandering, like 'Hey, we have these Mad Scientist labs - why leave them staying in their place for long?!  These are only LASERS here, right?'

It can sometimes get tiring seeing the "Bad-Ass" image of a guy holding a gun, but... this is pretty bad-ass.

But with all this anyway, Corman's FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND gets better- simply more enjoyable, I should say - as it goes along, and I was weirdly riveted through the final 20 minutes.  It's in general a weird movie, at times giving that shitty conventional stuff one usually fears in a time-travel movie with famous icons (i.e. here's the copy of Frankenstein you WILL write, Mary Shelley!)  Other times, Corman plants his feet firmly as someone who knows what he's doing, wants to do a *good* job, and mostly pulls it off. 

If he can't help but make some of it wild and dumb and a little crazy... well, that's what we come back to Corman for, isn't it?

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