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FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND

This 1990 horror/sci fi extravaganza was something of an Event upon its initial release, even if it was ignored by its distributors (who gave it minimal support) and the general public (who didn’t bother turning out).  It was, after all, the first directorial effort in nearly twenty years by the legendary Roger Corman, and looks to be the last movie he’ll ever helm.  Among those few who’ve seen it FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND is generally regarded as a disaster, but I believe a reappraisal is in order.  It’s far from perfect, certainly, but is nonetheless one of the decade’s most thoughtful and ambitious genre efforts.    

The Package 
     FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND started life as a 1973 novel by the British “new wave” sci fi guru Brian Aldiss, about a future world in which a time slip transports a man into 19th Century Geneva where he meets Dr. Frankenstein, his monster and their creator, novelist Mary Godwin (before she became Mary Shelley).  The material made for a nice fit with B-movie legend Roger Corman, whose best films (ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS, A BUCKET OF BLOOD, THE TRIP) mixed schlock with intelligence.  FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND was Corman’s first attempt at directing a film since 1971’s GAS-S-S-S!, with the intervening years spent running New World and then Concorde Pictures (during which time he oversaw grade-Z classics like DEATH RACE 2000, HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD and BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS).
     Unfortunately, FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND was heavily recut and given an extremely limited release by Twentieth Century Fox.  Everyone involved seems to have washed their hands of it, even though the film ranks high in the retro B-movie arena (a subgenre admittedly not in favor then or now). 

The Story 
     Joseph Buchanan is a brilliant scientist living in “New Lost Angeles” in the year 2031, where he’s developing a “humanitarian” weapons system that implodes matter.  Unfortunately, his experiments succeed only in rupturing the fabric of time, and Buchanan somehow gets sucked into a vortex that deposits him--and his souped-up futuristic sports car--in 19th Century Geneva.  Here he meets up with a fellow scientist who turns out to be none other than Victor Frankenstein, whose monster is rampaging through the countryside.  Buchanan also meets Mary Godwin, whose novel FRANKENSTEIN, OR THE MODERN PROMETHEUS would go on to immortalize Victor’s exploits.  For now, however, she’s the meek mistress of the poet Percy Shelley and her book has yet to be written.  Buchanan starts up a relationship with Mary despite the fact that he’s easily twice her age, and also hangs out briefly with Percy Shelley and his buddy Lord Byron.
     But there’s still the business with Frankenstein and his monster to be dealt with: it seems the latter is killing off the Frankenstein family in order to convince Victor to create a female creature.  Eventually Victor agrees, and ropes Buchanan into using his scientific knowledge to help create the monstrous woman.  Things go wrong, however, and they all end up in a bizarre future world where a final showdown takes place. 

The Direction 
     This film has quite a few problems, but, in Roger Corman’s defense, it was reedited against his wishes, and a director’s cut, so far as I know, doesn’t exist (outside the Japanese laser disc version, which features a few seconds of extra gore footage).  So, this being the only available version of FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND, I’ve no choice but to criticize it as is.  Foremost among the film’s problems is the script by Corman and film critic F.X. Feeney, which clumsily mixes time travel fantasy with historical speculation (a problem shared by the Brian Aldiss novel).  The Mary Shelley character exists only to provide a love interest and abruptly disappears an hour into the film, leaving actress Bridget Fonda with little to do but stand around and look pretty (Fonda has dubbed her portrayal “lobotomized”).  For that matter, few of the actors get much of a chance to shine, although the cast is wildly eclectic: John Hurt in the lead role, Raul Julia as Victor Frankenstein, Jason Patrick as Lord Byron and ex-INXS headliner Michael Hutchence as Percy Shelley.
     B-movie fans will enjoy the endearingly tacky visuals and effects, which, in keeping with Corman’s pedigree, wouldn’t look out of place in a sixties drive-in flick.  Check out the protagonist’s futuristic laboratory, with its rows of blinking lights, that looks like a left-over set from THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE.  Other “futuristic” effects are achieved by wavering laser beams and Tesla coils, which only enhance the sixties B-movie vibe, as does the decidedly low rent makeup on Frankenstein’s Monster.  Thankfully, Corman’s instincts as an entertainer are fully in evidence: the proceedings are lively and fast paced (and spiced with much gratuitous gore).  Viewing FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND is a bit like experiencing an old AIP picture, but with a scope and ambition far beyond that of most genre flicks then or now.


Vital Statistics 

FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND
Mount Company/Twentieth Century Fox

Director: Roger Corman
Producers: Roger Corman, Thom Mount, Kobi Jaeger
Screenplay: Roger Corman, F.X. Feeney
(Based on a novel by Brian W. Aldiss)
Cinematography: Armando Nannuzzi, Michael Scott
Editing: Jay Cassidy
Cast: John Hurt, Raul Julia, Bridget Fonda, Jason Patrick, Michael Hutchence, Nick Brimble, Catherine Rabett, Catherine Corman, William Geiger, Mickey Knox, Myriam Cyr, Terri Treas, Cynthia Allison, Isabella Rocchietta, Matt Cassidy
 


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