tue 22/10/2019

Frankenstein: A Modern Myth, Channel 4 | reviews, news & interviews

Frankenstein: A Modern Myth, Channel 4

Frankenstein: A Modern Myth, Channel 4

Confused doc gets all worked up about the classic gothic fable

Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller (being throttled) in Danny Boyle's 'Frankenstein'

I think Frankenstein should always be pronounced Fronkenshteen, the way Gene Wilder says it in Young Frankenstein. But that would have been far too frivolous for this intermittently interesting but often irritating film about the legacy of Mary Shelley's feverish teenage novel.

The fact that the film's objectives seemed ambiguous didn't help, and its graveyard slot didn't bode well. It looked as if it must have started off as a behind-the-scenes account of how Danny Boyle created his wildly acclaimed stage production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre last year, since extracts from this had been included along with interviews with Boyle, his writer Nick Dear, and his twin leads, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. The National Theatre even got a production credit at the end. (Pictured below, Gene Wilder and Teri Garr in Young Frankenstein)

At the same time, Adam Low's film was leading a parallel life as a general survey of the creation and legacy of Shelley's book, and how its clairvoyant brilliance has enabled it to remain a spine-tingingly contemporary warning of the perils of scientific hubris and overarching ambition unchecked by moral principle. There was more along these lines, but it all became a bit of a stretch, and the contributors had to work increasingly hard to stop it collapsing around their ears. Writer Philip Hoare, whose appearances throughout the programme grew steadily more hysterical, looked as if he'd been winched up into the roof of Frankenstein's castle and struck by lightning as he ranted away about the book's searing energy and raw power. It was, he urged, "a punk book in a way," which prompted absurdly literal clips of the Sex Pistols and extracts from "Anarchy in the UK" on the soundtrack.

Likewise, the account of how Miss Godwin (she didn't marry till later in the year) had written her story during the satanically dark and rain-drenched winter of 1816 (the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the previous year had triggered a kind of volcanic winter), when she holidayed with her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron by Lake Geneva, laboriously compared these young Romantic revolutionaries with Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull, seen pouting in their flamboyant Sixties finery. "Honky Tonk Women" and "Jumpin' Jack Flash", 1789 and the Napoleonic Wars... the link is so laughably obvious you must be wondering why you hadn't already thought of it.

Later, amid learned perorations about Frankenstein's home-made creature and the way it was cruelly reviled and mistreated, we were granted glimpses of other monsters including Dr Harold Shipman and the Soham child killer Ian Huntley. Surely we weren't supposed to think they were "misunderstood" too? (Pictured left, Fred Gwynne as TV's Herman Munster)

The best of the contributors was film-maker John Waters, creator of the "Trash Trilogy" and Polyester, who basically saw Frankenstein as an endless franchise of cheap thrills and gimmicky horror, and loved it for that reason. "Divine was my Frankenstein," he drawled camptastically, in reference to the grotesque supersized drag queen who starred in his early flicks. Not for Waters the endless prairies of polysyllabic grandstanding about philosophy, blasphemy and theology. Still, I must admit the film left me kicking myself that I didn't see Boyle's stage production. 

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Film-maker John Waters saw Frankenstein as an endless franchise of cheap thrills and gimmicky horror

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You are right to kick yourself for missing what was the outstanding production of the year but in truth it is the National Theatre we should all be kicking - for failing to release the recording of this on DVD! Performances with both the alternate casts were filmed and shown on cinema screens but despite references to a possible DVD release they have failed to deliver. The same goes for the superb Nicholas Hytner/Rory Kinnear Hamlet. Obviously one must applaud the increasing movement into cinema showings but, having filmed a production, it surely should be available on disk for future generations. The same incidentally goes for the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet - their excellent showings also seem to be at the cost of DVD releases and, in their case by an apparent break in the traditional link with the BBC.

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