YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

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Directed by: Mel Brooks

Written by: Mel Brooks & Gene Wilder

(based on the novel FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley)

Starring: Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Madeline Kahn & Kenneth Mars

Over four decades after its release, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN still cracks people up in ways that few modern comedies (and even fewer spoofs) do. I can attest to that, having recently seen it on the big screen in a practically sold-out theater that was filled with laughter the whole way through. Those laughs come from a barrage of rapid-fire jokes that never quit and target all types of humor, all while the movie stays true to the atmosphere of the films it’s lampooning and maintains an impossible-to-resist charm. YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is a classic comedy that will never grow old and tired.

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The story picks up decades after the events of Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) is a medical professor who does all he can to distance himself from his notorious grandfather Victor Frankenstein, including pronouncing his last name as “Fronkensteen.” When he inherits his family’s estate, Frederick takes a train to Transylvania. Once there, he befriends hunchback servant Igor (Marty Feldman), falls head over heels for attractive lab assistant Inga (Teri Garr), and meets strange housekeeper Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman). Though he has no intention of becoming a mad scientist like his grandfather, Frederick gives into temptation when he finds a secret underground library and lab. After Frederick gives life to a stitched-together monster (Peter Boyle), things don’t quite go according to plan and hijinks ensue.

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Apparently, the making of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN was a hugely positive experience for pretty much everybody involved. That sense of fun translates across the screen as the performances are enthusiastic and everyone brings a different wacky personality to the table. Gene Wilder plays Frederick Frankenstein as a crazed mad scientist who frequently attempts to justify his (literally) monstrous actions. Wilder purposely goes over-the-top in many scenes and his loud line delivery provides equally loud laughs. Marty Feldman practically steals the show as bug-eyed Igor, constantly using his odd appearance as the butt of many jokes and using sheer facial expressions to get huge guffaws.

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Teri Garr plays love-interest Inga and has many puns/innuendos that still hold up today. Madeline Kahn has five funny scenes as Victor’s stuck-up fiancé. Cloris Leachman plays the memorable Frau Blucher and has the best running gag in the entire film. One small detail that I hadn’t noticed in past viewings is that Blucher looks progressively more annoyed each time this gag hits, making it even funnier as it goes along. Kenneth Mars plays the visually hilarious, thickly accented Inspector Kemp and though he doesn’t receive a ton of scenes, he still makes the most of his screen time. The great Peter Boyle (who I mainly know from his role in EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND) plays Frankenstein’s monster and pulls off a hell of a funny performance with very few spoken lines, though his “Putting on the Ritz” sequence never gets old.

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Besides being a highly entertaining romp from start to finish, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is also extremely well-made. The music hearkens back to the old Universal monster movies and the black-and-white cinematography is beautifully executed. To add even more atmosphere to this classic horror spoof, the sets (complete with background paintings) and costumes are spot on for the films being parodied. YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN’s best moments come in specific redone scenes from the FRANKENSTEIN movies with tweaks that come off as absolutely hysterical, two highlights being the Monster’s encounter with a little girl and unforgettable physical comedy with Gene Hackman as a blind hermit.

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Part of the reason that YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN works as well as it does is that the film has many types of comedy within its 105 minutes. There’s goofy slapstick, clever wordplay, lots of fourth wall breaking, running gags, silly visual jokes, a fair share of raunchiness, and much more. On a technical level, the filmmaking is fantastic and the atmosphere of old Universal monster movies is perfect. YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is an entertaining, charming and absolutely hilarious horror spoof that still feels timeless over four decades later! Besides being one of Mel Brooks’ best films, this is also one of the best spoof/parody movies ever made!

Grade: A+

VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Macabre Images, Violence and a sequence of Destruction.

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Directed by: Paul McGuigan

Written by: Max Landis

(based on the novel FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley)

Starring: James McAvoy, Daniel Radcliffe, Jessica Brown Findlay, Andrew Scott, Charles Dance, Freddie Fox & Mark Gatiss

For some reason, Hollywood seems very eager to put new spins on old monsters. Many recent efforts have flopped and specific titles have turned out downright embarrassing. I’ve seen Benicio Del Toro turn into a CGI werewolf and gallop along rooftops. I tried not to burst out laughing at the stupidity of Frankenstein’s monster fighting hordes of gargoyles and demons. I walked away disappointed as Dracula/Vlad the Impaler became a medieval superhero. The latest incarnation of a classic horror tale made new is VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN…and it’s not that bad. The film isn’t necessarily great either, but I enjoyed VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN as big dumb fun that left me reasonably entertained.

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One night at a rundown circus, brilliant student Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy) witnesses a nameless hunchback (Daniel Radcliffe) saving a dying acrobat’s life through improvised surgery and quick thinking. In an act of kindness, Victor frees the knowledgeable and socially awkward hunchback, names him “Igor,” and makes him a partner in his newfangled medical projects. Victor believes that man can create life through scientific means and his radical experiments evolve into horrific crimes against nature. Igor witnesses Victor’s transformation from man to calculating monster. All the while, a wealthy classmate (Freddie Fox) sees Victor’s life-giving potential as a possible means for power and a deeply religious police inspector (Andrew Scott) vows to put a violent stop to the gruesome experiments.

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VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN’s atmospheric visuals capture the creepy 18th century setting through detailed sets and seamless background effects. Frankenstein’s monstrous creations take a backseat to the origin story between Victor and Igor. This might sound like a misguided idea, but screenwriter Max Landis injects a bit of believable humanity into these two otherwise notorious horror characters. Igor is portrayed as a sympathetic guy who has never known kindness until he finds a friendship to hold onto with Victor. However, the film also makes the distinct choice to erase Igor’s hunchback through a disgusting sight gag that made me giggle, but ultimately appears to have been done purely out of the interest of making Daniel Radcliffe look more attractive…for the ladies. His upright look certainly appeals to on-screen love-interest Lorelei (Jessica Brown Friday), who serves as a convenient plot device during a couple of scenes and little else.

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James McAvoy delivers the film’s best performance as the titular mad scientist that we all know and love. An interesting backstory is added to this 2015 version of Frankenstein, but the reason for why Victor desperately wants to create life is given through ham-fisted exposition. McAvoy’s best scenes come in his confrontations with inspector Turpin and an argument with his high-society father (Charles Dance in a one-scene role). Concerning the film’s antagonists, Freddie Fox is underdeveloped as cocky classmate Finnegan and Andrew Scott is solid as deeply religious inspector Roderick Turpin. Turpin’s villainy is fun to watch as the character is arguably always trying to do the right thing, but goes overboard as his investigation becomes obsessive. I wish that Finnegan had been totally discarded and Turpin had instead taken the reigns as the script’s sole villain. That might have made for a more interesting film.

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As far as Victor’s mad science experiments go, we only receive a rabid undead monkey, the expected monster, and a bunch of severed body parts. These add some PG-13 level gore to the mix and are mostly executed in a light-hearted, fun tone that seems to be mimicking Guy Ritchie’s SHERLOCK HOLMES series. This comparison can be taken even further when you realize that both SHERLOCK and VICTOR employ a lot of slow motion and quirky stylistic touches (we see anatomy grids layered over the action during a few key scenes). VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN’s anticipated final creature is a letdown, because his presence basically boils down to being an excuse for explosions and a fistfight. Even at its worst though, this movie remains entertaining in a dumb fun sort of way.

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VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN is better than I, FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA UNTOLD, and VAN HELSING, which might sound like a back-handed compliment. The script has a handful of creative scenes. The gloomy atmosphere is fun. Most of the humor works. James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe build believable enough chemistry together, though the latter should have kept his misshapen hunchback appearance (I realize this might be seen as a nitpick). The writing is occasionally messy though as many cool ideas are frequently overshadowed by action clichés and uneven pacing. As a whole, I’d recommend VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN to those who just want to see a quirky original-ish spin on classic material. It’s fun while it lasts, but will almost certainly be wiped from my mind in a few days’ time.

Grade: C+

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 22 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

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Directed by: Terence Fisher

Written by: Jimmy Sangster

(based on the novel FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley)

Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court, Robert Urquhart & Melvyn Hayes

In the early decades of cinema, Universal had a monopoly on monster movies. With such hits as FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, and THE WOLF MAN (along with the many sequels that followed), any studio that dared to compete with the company would have their work cut out for them. Hammer studios went to great lengths in order to get a fresh, new take on Mary Shelley’s beloved horror classic onto the big screen. Since the rights of the film belonged to Universal (as well as the title), Hammer was forced to make a Frankenstein movie that wouldn’t simply be called FRANKENSTEIN. Instead, they made THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and weren’t allowed to simply duplicate elements from the 1931 film. What resulted would be a monster hit (pardon the pun), launch a new horror movement (Hammer horror), and introduce Christopher Lee (who was cast because of his height, though he had starred in over 30 films up to that point in time) to the mainstream. CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is a highly entertaining monster movie that is required viewing for fans of old-school horror.

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We open with a priest visiting the disheveled Victor Frankenstein in prison. Frankenstein is going to be executed in a matter of hours for murder. He rambles and raves that he didn’t commit the crime that he’s been accused of and instead, the death was the result of something else entirely. We flash back to see Frankenstein’s story unfold. The genius scientist, aided by his tutor, Paul, becomes obsessed with creating life. After bringing a dog back from the dead, Victor is convinced that he can create man, much to the horror of Paul. What follows is an insane quest to bring a man to life, but the undead creation turns out to be a monster. Whilst Victor pursues his experiments, Paul becomes increasingly unnerved by the mad scientist’s behavior. You can pretty much guess where this goes. It’s FRANKENSTEIN. You know this story.

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Thus far it seems that the only faithful adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel is 1994’s underrated retelling (though I’ve also heard that a certain miniseries is quite faithful). Universal’s 1931 take on the material kept the basic gist of the tale and then crafted it into a short, concise little horror flick (that worked wonders on the public upon release). Hammer’s 1957 version aims to tell the story with new twists in the plot and a thick atmosphere. The sets of this film are elegantly crafted and look beautiful. There’s a sense of classiness surrounding the whole film, even if this version is far more violent than the 1931 movie. I was surprised by how much this film actually showed, especially given the time period that it was made. We see blood (obvious red paint) and gory severed body parts. It’s not like the film is overly excessive in its violence, but I was slightly shocked by how much they got away with in 1957.

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Peter Cushing (primarily known for TV work at the time) plays Victor Frankenstein as a villainous character. It’s the most evil interpretation of the scientist that I’ve seen in any of the adaptations. While most versions of the story paint him as a crazy scientist paving a road to hell with good intentions, Cushing plays him as a cold, calculating and cruel son-of-a-bitch. He’s monstrous to those around him and only gives off friendliness when it best suits his needs. As far as Frankenstein’s monster is concerned, Christopher Lee does a great job of being menacing without ever saying a word. He occasionally grunts, but he’s more of a blood-thirsty creature than the misunderstood monster that so many other versions paint him as. Also, the make-up work is top-notch and fairly graphic (decaying pieces of skin and a glazed dead eye). The only redeemable protagonist comes in Robert Urquhart as Paul. He’s thoroughly enjoyable as Victor’s tutor and it’s a pity that he didn’t star in more Hammer films after this one.

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CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN isn’t simply a quick cash-in on a familiar horror classic. Instead, Hammer’s take on the material takes things in a darker, more violent direction, but still manages to maintain a certain classiness. The film can drag in a couple of spots, but each frame is beautiful to behold. There’s a spooky atmosphere hovering over every scene and the decidedly different versions of Victor Frankenstein and his creation are still refreshing to this day. CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is well worth checking out!

Grade: A-

FRANKENSTEIN (1994)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Horrific Images

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Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Written by: Steph Lady, Frank Darabont

(based on the novel FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley)

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro, Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Hulce, Ian Holm, John Cleese, Aidan Quinn, Richard Briers

Without a doubt one of the greatest and most influential horror stories of all-time, FRANKENSTEIN has been adapted in countless ways. Produced on 45 million by Francis Ford Coppola (who had directed DRACULA a mere two years before), this version of FRANKENSTEIN was considered by many to be overblown. It wasn’t nearly as financially or critically successful as DRACULA. However, as time has gone on, the film has been noted as one of the most faithful-to-the-novel versions of the story (the widely acclaimed 2004 miniseries went on to hold the number one title in that department). While some have said that it’s style over substance and is lacking in certain respects, I completely disagree. I have yet to see the 2004 miniseries, but this 1994 film is my favorite FRANKENSTEIN story thus far.

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For those who are completely out of the loop, Victor Frankenstein is a wealthy young aristocratic genius. His mother tragically dies in childbirth and it’s an experience that deeply affects Victor. So he vows that nobody will ever have to die again (overpopulation be damned) and so it’s off to a prestigious college in Germany. Victor finds himself constantly bickering with his hoity-toity professors and their so-called scientific ways. He wants to create life, which as they say “is not only impossible, but immoral.” With the help of fellow scientist, Victor slowly learns the possibilities of life and gives this gift to a creation of his own…with disastrous results.

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That’s about all you need to know about the plot, especially if you haven’t read the novel and don’t know how things play out. Rest assured, this is far different than the 1931 Boris Karloff classic. As great as that monster movie is, it’s essentially the dumbed down concept of the novel (much like the 1933 version of THE INVISIBLE MAN). FRANKENSTEIN is a far more complex story than just a creature feature. There’s philosophical questions that are raised. How far does science need to go before it’s considered morally wrong? What makes us human? These kind of concepts are covered in an intelligent way through a story of a scientist and his monstrous creation.

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This is classical horror and the production designs make it seem epic in scale. Every shot is carefully chosen. The set design is fantastic. As for the actors themselves, Kenneth Branagh doubles as both director and Victor Frankenstein. He knows exactly how the character should be portrayed. While he begins as a heartless man doing despicable things for the sake of the science, he regains his humanity later on, but it’s far too late when the creature seeks a calculated revenge.

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There have been many performers given the role of Frankenstein’s Monster. These range from Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee to Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch. Robert De Niro isn’t the first name one thinks of when Frankenstein’s monster is brought up. It cannot be denied that De Niro gives the creature a certain amount of pure emotion that was needed for the role. One moment is downright heartbreaking to watch and in others, his anger is fierce beyond compare.

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Like all the film adaptations, certain liberties were taken with the material. This isn’t detrimental to the film at all though. Beautifully shot and well-told, FRANKENSTEIN deserves to be right up there with Bram Stoker’s DRACULA. It’s a pity that the trend of reviving classic horror tales ended here. Sure we have Universal’s silly new WOLFMAN (which stripped all the elements of character that the original had) and a rumored upcoming CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON remake, but I want to see H.G. Well’s THE INVISIBLE MAN and Robert Lewis Stevenson’s DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE. Horror has roots in the classical period of storytelling and when a film like FRANKENSTEIN comes out, it must be celebrated. This is a mature and adult telling of a story that was serious to begin with. I consider this version of FRANKENSTEIN to be essential viewing for horror fans!

Grade: A+

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