½*/**** Image A Sound B Extras B
starring Parker Posey, Vincent Perez, Thomas Kretschmann, Adam Goldberg
screenplay by John Shiban
directed by Marcus Nispel
by Walter Chaw Marcus Nispel's Frankenstein, conceived by schlock-meister general Dean Koontz as the pilot for a stillborn USA Network series, is the very model of style over substance. Would that the style even belonged to Nispel: all of muted greens and bleached yellows, memories of Se7en swim, bidden, to the mind of the genre enthusiast. It's one thing to frame the American backcountry in shades of monumentalized sepia (as Nispel did in his Texas Chain Saw Massacre redux), another altogether to throw a haze of music-video mute over the Big Easy. If the cinematography weren't enough, the title sequence and faux-Nine Inch Nails score take it the rest of the way, establishing the picture as a police procedural of a certain kind while the (misleading) title announces a supernatural bent. The real bogeys haunting the piece, though, are the careers of Parker Posey and Michael Madsen, together rattling chains disinterestedly as the former slides into her third decade as someone who's not very good but has managed to continue working based on some misconception of early indie-queen dividends, the latter too comfortable being both cast the crooked cop and mistaken for Tom Sizemore.
Since this is one of those "re-imaginings" that updates the source material without actually remaking the source material, we find ourselves dipped in pre-deluge New Orleans with bantering detectives O'Connor (Posey) and Sloane (Adam Goldberg), the pair hot on the trail of a serial killer they've dubbed "The Surgeon" for obvious reasons. It seems mysterious mad scientist Victor Helios (Thomas Kretschmann) and his bride Erika (Ivana Milicevic), the one immortal and the other his homemade sexbot, are the deathless fact behind Mary Shelley's fiction. Yep, they're doing the ol' Anne Rice thing in Anne Rice's former Cajun haunts by splicing mismatched, rotting bits of genre (bodice-ripper, horror, romanticized Victoriana, erotica, revisionist literary history, and so on) in the hopes that a stray bolt of inspiration will spark the proverbial plugs. Helping things along, one of Helios's immortal monsters, Deucalion (Vincent Perez), appears in a robe, is nice to Chinese sailors, and gives our erstwhile detectives a few oblique clues as to the identity of The Surgeon for no other reason than this was supposed to be a television series and every "X-Files" rip-off needs a Deep Throat. Airing on basic cable doesn't preclude the possibility for grue (see "Nip/Tuck", for instance), but Frankenstein appears to be handcuffed by its genre and so features almost no gore, nudity, suspense, or, as follows, tension. It doesn't help that it's painfully stupid, either, I guess.
As I've never actually held a shotgun for the purposes of shooting it at someone, what do I know?--but I'm bothered to no end that Posey holds a shotgun like a cartoon barman holds a cartoon drunk (that is, by the scruff of the neck and the belt) as he's ready to heave him into the street. (She also pumps it like she's playing the accordion.) It's a failure of "look" that points to many a failure as the piece lurches drunkenly from visual malapropism to narrative redundancy and back again. One scene after another comes off as alien and awkward, laced with streams of dialogue and plot that clot at the apertures and constipate the whole exercise slicker'n apple peels and red meat. Long before Madsen's Harker (a character from the wrong Universal monster flick) gives birth to something (the umbilical cord nixed by the censors--not so, an open chest cavity and a human heart), this unavoidable necessity of starting the ravelling out of long threads of potential storylines that were never meant to be addressed until episode five, or ten, or twenty (or, if you're "Lost", ever) hobbles Frankenstein. Oh, and there's an autistic kid/seer or something--always a bad sign.
Nispel earns a tremendous amount of points for a feature-length commentary in which he allows his cast and crew breathing space by saying, in essence, that it seemed like a good idea at the time. His accent here is much less pronounced than it was in his DVD yakker for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and his confession that he took a lot of energy and strength from his collaborators comes off as eloquent and genuine. The limits of television are explored and I was gratified to hear confirmation that just the name of the thing made network execs pee a little. Nispel's candour in regards to the general untrustworthiness of producers (not his, of course) is welcome (as is his confession that the whole thing is a cliché and that the attempts at breaking out of those clichés were only marginally successful). Overall, a great track as these things go: lots of admitting that he was a little out of control with his images and that as the launching pad for a proposed series, it had the handicap of incomplete character arcs. As a bonus, "old soul" observations regarding child actors are in short supply--I'd actually recommend you play the flick with this audio instead.
Nispel also devotes a lot of time to discussion of his colour palette, hoping to evoke New York in the Ninth Ward and doing a decent job of it, though to what end is never clear. The Lions Gate DVD's 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer reproduces Nispel's cataract-flat vision (all of sick greens and livid blues) with an appropriate level of murk. It's a faithful, artifact-free presentation matched by a DD 5.1 soundmix that demonstrates surprising body throughout. An unbelievably distended "Making Of" ("Monsters and Mayhem: Inside the Making of Frankenstein" (31 mins.)) is the other major supplement, and it regurgitates a lot of Nispel's commentary, interspersing his interviews with cast & crew soundbites--the best of which are supplied by location manager Elston Howard and production designer Greg Blair. (Posey and Goldberg, meanwhile, only say as much as actors ever say in this stuff.) Trailers for Hercules (which sort of answers what happened to Elizabeth Perkins, Leelee Sobieski, and Timothy Dalton), High Tension, USA Network's "The Dead Zone" series, Earthsea, and Waiting round out the special features. Originally published: November 10, 2005.