I, Frankenstein and the New Gothic
by Sean Bottai
THIS MONTH WE’LL BE THINKING THROUGH SOME OF 2014’S BEST AND/OR MOST SUCCESSFUL HORROR FILMS. WE’LL TRY TO SPOT CONNECTIONS, TENSIONS AND LARGER THEMES, AS WELL AS FIGURE OUT WHY SOME FILMS SUCCEED AND SOME FAIL AT ACHIEVING THEIR GOALS. MOVIES WILL BE DISCUSSED IN TOTAL, SO BEWARE OF SPOILERS.
What’s the meaning of Frankenstein’s Monster?
We know that, in the hands of James Whale, he’s the poetic subhuman, an inarticulate queer shadow cast across a Gothic landscape. He’s an emerging consciousness in the process of discovering selfhood, sexual desire and the melodrama of the human condition. For Hammer Films, he’s the aggressive bloke, pissed off by his own displacement and lumbering about menacing everybody. Whale’s monster might clutch a woman’s nightgown to his chest, as if he’s considering wearing it; Hammer’s version is in the business of ripping nightgowns off or apart, trampling them in the dirt.
Warhol’s version is even more about raging id. His Frankenstein’s Monster leaves sprays of Technicolor blood on the walls, the outline of a massive hard-on visible in his pants. In the ’90s, Hollywood employed Kenneth Branagh to do a ‘literary’ version in response to Coppola’s lurid Dracula. Mostly this meant reinstating the monster’s intelligence from Mary Shelley’s novel. Branagh’s monster is a frustrated Romantic who gradually disintegrates into a High Gothic spin on the aggressors from 1990s erotic thrillers. He’s the Fatal Attraction/Basic Instinct version of Frankenstein’s monster.
This year we got a big-screen adaptation of I, Frankenstein, the graphic novel by Kevin Grevioux, the actor/writer responsible for conceiving of and co-authoring the screenplay for the first Underworld film. In the imaginations of Grevioux and director Stuart Beattie, Frankenstein’s Monster has leapt off the cover of Men’s Fitness. His scarred body is also gym-toned and oiled, signaling that the character has gone from being a subsumed erotic problem to a nakedly overt one. He’s also humorless. Brought to life by Aaron Eckhart’s furious scowls, he sulks across a generic urban landscape. Gothic cathedrals give way to 21st-century corporate laboratories who borrow the slick, reflective whiteness of the Apple Store. This is the cinematic language of a post-Nine Inch Nails America, that started in the ’90s with films like The Crow, Blade and Dark City. Brooding + vinyl/leather + weaponry + hair product + purple/blue matte nighttime skies = a new pop dialect. But Frankenstein done without the arch twist of camp is a sad thing.
So why this Frankenstein’s Monster now? When Universal announced that they are going to be rebooting their classic monster movies as “action/adventure” films, not horror properties, it was immediately clear that they are copying the Marvel’s Cinematic Universe approach: an ambitious roll-out of stand-alone movies that fit into a complex mythology and culminate in “event” pictures featuring all of the franchise characters. Universal Monsters are now going to compete with the MCU, Spider-Man, X-Men, DC Comics and Star Wars franchises, rolling out ambitious five-, ten-, and fifteen-year film schedules. I, Frankenstein is not directly connected to Universal’s plan (it’s a Lionsgate release), but Dracula Untold, this year’s other classic-monster-as-action-hero movie, is. Or at least, it sort of is. If nothing else, I, Frankenstein and Dracula Untold are testing the waters for a superhero-themed monster universe. Darkman sort of went there in the ’90s. Maybe it could work.
But Universal’s plans do seem to reveal a basic misunderstanding of the thrill of seeing Captain Marvel or Suicide Squad on the big screen for the first time, or the fondest-dreams-fulfilled mania of reading this. What kind of reaction are we supposed have to the Invisible Man getting a stand-alone movie in 2017? To a version of the Wolf Man newer than Joe Johnston’s 2010 The Wolfman? To Dracula Untold‘s hunky Vlad making a Faustian bargain with Charles Dance’s swishy vampire queen?
I, Frankenstein twists the words of the Monster in Shelley’s novel, who gives a speech to Victor Frankenstein about how he could have been Adam [i.e. the first in a new race of beings; the first posthuman, really] but is instead a”fallen angel.” Grevioux’s concept spins that out into a complicated mythology involving gargoyle/angels and demons battling it out, doing God’s work protecting humanity from the forces of Satan. Like Constantine, Priest, Legion and other Christian-themed blockbusters from the past ten years, I, Frankenstein positions Christian theology in the comic book universes of pop cinema. Maybe that’s what this new Gothic intends, the subliminal idea inside of the idea of reviving Universal’s Victorian monsters from the past: they just might bring God back with them.