Thursday, October 31, 2013

Culture Shock 10.31.13: Corman's 'Frankenstein Unbound' gets bargain treatment

John Hurt, left, and Nick Brimble in "Frankenstein Unbound."
While he continues to churn out movies as a producer — "Dinocroc vs. Supergator," anyone? — B-movie king Roger Corman hasn't directed a film in more than two decades.

His swan song behind the camera was 1990's "Frankenstein Unbound," based on the novel by Brian Aldiss, who also wrote the short story "Supertoys Last All Summer Long," which became Steven Spielberg's "A.I. Artificial Intelligence." And given how "A.I." falls apart at the end, it's arguable that Corman delivered the more successful Aldiss adaptation.

Now that Starz/Anchor Bay has reissued "Frankenstein Unbound" on DVD, we can revisit Corman's final (so far) directorial effort.

In the near future, scientist Joe Buchanan (John Hurt of "Alien" and "The Elephant Man") is developing a new kind of ultimate weapon, a death ray that disintegrates armies without causing the indiscriminate destruction of nuclear weapons. It's an improvement, as far as weapons of mass destruction go, but even that thin justification for Buchanan's experiments falls apart when the side effects start.

Buchanan's not-quite-doomsday device inadvertently causes "time slips" to appear and, just as suddenly, disappear. And as the time slips become more frequent, it might be doomsday after all.

That's when Buchanan falls victim to one of the time slips, and he and his computerized car (think KITT from "Knight Rider") travel back to 19th-century Switzerland, where Buchanan encounters the future Mary Shelley (Bridget Fonda), Lord Byron (Jason Patric) and their fellow British expats on the shore of Lake Geneva.

More unexpectedly, Buchanan meets Victor Frankenstein (Raul Julia of "The Addams Family"), who is very much flesh and blood, as is his creature (Nick Brimble).

Buchanan is lousy at traveling incognito, and Frankenstein quickly realizes Buchanan has scientific knowledge that could be useful to him. Meanwhile, Buchanan pursues Mary Shelley like a starstruck groupie, only to find she reciprocates. Byron preaches free love, she says, but she practices it.

Like all adaptations and semi-adaptations of Shelley's novel, "Frankenstein Unbound" spends a lot of time taking shots at the hubris of scientists and science, which is a shallow reading of Shelley's book. "Frankenstein" is more about the responsibility of creator to creation. If the creature is legitimately angry about his abandonment, then what about humanity and its seemingly absent creator?

These philosophical concerns never vanish entirely. When Brimble's anguished creature demands to know who made Buchanan, Buchanan replies, "I don't know. God, maybe."

"Who is ‘God Maybe?' " the creature then asks, his misunderstanding ironically getting to the heart of the theological question.

With its Gothic setting and psychedelic dream sequences, "Frankenstein Unbound" is almost a continuation of the Poe-inspired horror films Corman made with Vincent Price in the 1960s. But while Corman was able to hide some of his cost-cutting tricks back then, that is impossible here. When "futuristic" sets are decorated with plasma balls from Spencer's Gifts, it shows, and Buchanan's futuristic car is even less convincing.

Fortunately, Corman has Hurt and Julia, two great actors giving their all, and he has a creature whose appearance is both original and menacing.

The DVD isn't much to speak of. Bargain-priced at under $10, you get what you pay for. There are no extras, not even a chapter menu, which should be the bare minimum. The film itself, however, is more than presentable, with sharp, vivid colors that bring out Corman's trippy visual sensibilities.

"Frankenstein Unbound" is far from Corman's best film but even farther from his worst. It's one fans of classic B-movies shouldn't overlook.

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