Archive for Mary Shelley

Nights at the Villa Deodati #4: Pull Every Remaining Lever

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 17, 2016 by dcairns


Whenever I have a favourite line in a movie, it always turns out not to be in the movie at all. The intertitle “Heat! Sudden, intense heat!” which I swear I read when PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (Lon Chaney version) showed at Edinburgh Film Fest, with accompaniment by Carl Davis, does not appear in any copy of the film I’ve seen since. This is disappointing. I’m afraid to see THE ASPHYX again in case Robert Stephens doesn’t actually utter the words “Was the smudge trying to warn Clive of danger?” which I have always regarded as the apogee of mankind’s poetic achievement. Mind you, it would be pretty good if it turned out I was responsible for it myself.

And so to Roger Corman’s FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND, in which John Hurt does not actually say, as my brain told me he did, “Pull all remaining levers!” Instead, Raul Julia says “Pull every remaining lever!” which I feel is not quite as good.


ROGER CORMAN’S F.U., as we must abbreviate it, is the mighty Roger Corman’s last directorial outing to date — it apparently came about when a studio did some audience testing and found that a lot of people would go and see something called ROGER CORMAN’S FRANKENSTEIN. So they approached the Great Man and asked him if he would care to make a film with that title. “As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t,” he replied, with his characteristic old-school graciousness. But then somehow Brian Aldiss’s novel came into his possession and he saw a way to make things interesting, and so the film got made because of a title that tested well, and ended up with a different title.

(I wonder what other titles they tested? ROGER CORMAN’S FRANKENSTEIN seems really specific. Did they also tally the scores for GEORGE ROMERO’S MADAME BOVARY, PETER WEIR’S MABINOGION, HANS JURGEN SYBERBERG’S JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH?)

Aldiss, who also wrote the story that became the Spielberg-Kubrick A.I., seems to have intended his novel as a philosophical essay wrapped inside a sci-fi yarn, following on from his influential study of the genre, The Billion-Year Spree, in which he put forward a compelling case for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the first true science fiction novel (as well as “the best book ever written by a teenager”). So, he folds Shelley’s life into the world of her creations, which perhaps made more sense on the page than it does in the movie — without a continual narration, John Hurt’s time-travelling scientist can’t share with us whether or not he’s puzzled by the fact that Frankenstein and his creature appear to be simultaneously characters in a novel and a real person (Raul Julia! Nick Brimble?). This makes Hurt a hard character to relate to — he has nobody really to talk to, although in fact his computerized car, who doesn’t have a name but whom I will call Lady Knight Rider, might have made a handy outlet for exposition.

It’s also kind of hard to relate to him as he’s building a super-weapon, although he seems to be aiming for sympathy when he says he wanted to invent a weapon that wouldn’t destroy the world. I’m not sure that proviso qualifies you for the Nobel Peace Prize, John.


Corman wrote the script with F.X. Feeney (should’ve hired a proper writer, not a critic — oh wait, that would rule me out) but seems curiously disengaged from the whole experience. His Damascene moment on VON RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN, nineteen years earlier, in which he realised with a shock that he would far rather go to the beach than go to the set and complete another day’s filming, doesn’t seem to have worn off. The actors seem left to their own devices (or maybe confused by unfocussed direction?) and the filming is perfectly competent but never shows any excitement. The score by Carl Davis — see how this piece is folding in on itself like a time vortex?) — flattens things out further. Davis is a great silent accompanist, but seems unable to capture the mood of a scene, or opts for the least dramatic possible mood. The score might sound quite powerful in isolation, but laid over the film it seems to nullify.


Nick Brimble is a really dreadful monster (on the wrong sense of the word “dreadful”), in a fairly dreadful makeup (those big extra thumbs! Did Frankenstein put his hands on the wrong wrists? The discs in his head!). His first line is “GIVE ME WHAT I WANT!”, a great piece of what I would call muffled exposition, in which a line sounds like it’s inserted for the audience’s benefit rather than something a character would say, but still doesn’t tell us anything helpful. The talented Nick Dudman did the makeup, but I’d say he’s tried to incorporate too many ideas. And half of them are very terrible ideas.

As for the Byron/Shelley menage, the movie doesn’t bother with Dr Polidori or Claire Clairmont (though GOTHIC’s C.C., Myriam Cyr, appears as a futuristic scientist), but gives us Jason Patric as Byron, Michael Hutchence as Shelley, and Bridget Fonda as Mary. Patric might have gotten away with his arch manner, but Hutchence has evidently decided that High Camp is the way forward for romantic poets, and assumes an unhelpful effete manner. These fops have nothing to do anyway, and neither in any real sense does Fonda, but she at least has a bit more screen time. She sounds rather American, as do half the bit players (the good ones — the Brits shipped in to the Italian locations are dreadful), but like the yanks in HAUNTED SUMMER she does have that zesty, unselfconscious quality that one admires in American acting.



At the one hour mark, a Bride is created, using technology borrowed from BACK TO THE FUTURE — Hurt hooks Lady Knight Rider, who has Delorean style slide-up doors, to a Special Apparatus and waits for lightning to strike a church tower. All it needs is a bit of Huey Lewis. Somehow Hurt blasts the whole building into the future using a laser (Lady Knight Rider turns out to have a built-in laser) and the characters start killing each other for no reason.


I would welcome a movie in which Raul Julia’s Disco Frankenstein meets Frank Langella’s Disco Dracula.

When I first saw this, there was a bit where Hurt expresses uncertainty about when this latest time warp has brought him, and I got very excited. Of course, I thought, they’ve been zapped into primordial times and the monster and his mate will become Adam and Eve, breeding and perhaps mating with neanderthals and thus father the human race! Frankenstein created us all! And himself! John Hurt: temporal ourobouros! FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND.


But no: it’s a wintry apocalyptic future. Hurt and the monster have a big fight in a bunker full of lasers, the monster rips his own arm off and hits Hurt with it, Hurt sticks a pipe in him, and then lasers him to death. Then he gets a Fu Manchu-style post-mortem monologue in which he mysteriously claims to be unbound. Hurt heads off for a frozen futuristic city, suggestive of LOGAN’S RUN or QUINTET or, come to think of it, A.I. No epic philosophical issues are implied at all. No learning. No hugging.

I would like Roger Corman to make something else, because I don’t really think his final F.U. is good enough. If he makes something else, I would like him to star in it himself, and just tell stories, in his wonderful purring voice, about his amazing career and the amazing people he’s known. It can be a very, very long film, if he likes.


Nights at the Villa Deodati #2: Phantasmagoria

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2016 by dcairns


I saw GOTHIC at the Cameo Cinema on its first release in 1986. I went alone. I watched alone — I don’t remember another soul being there, though I suppose there must have been somebody else in the audience. If Messrs. Golan & Globus had witnessed that matinée, they might have thought twice about bankrolling Ivan Passer’s HAUNTED SUMMER, which violated the law discovered by his fellow Czech filmmaker Milos Forman on VALMONT: “Never make a movie that somebody else has just made.”

In HAUNTED SUMMER, screenwriter Lewis John Carlino “solved” the problem of the fact that nothing much is known to have actually happened during the summer when Mary Shelley hatched the idea for Frankenstein by writing a historically faithful script in which nothing much happens. In GOTHIC, Stephen Volk, a writer who has shown an admirable devotion to the fantastique throughout his distinguished career, tackles the same problem in a number of ways —

  1. He folds into the story the characters’ backstories, so that dramatic events from their pasts can inform the action. Byron’s incestuous love for his sister and, crucially, the death of Mary’s first baby, are introduced via dialogue, some of it a bit awkwardly expository, and then can be played out in the ensuing psychodrama. Whatever the merits of the execution, the idea is a masterstroke, creating a human drama behind the authorial act which is our prime reason for being here — it’s unbelievable that the other movies on the subject neglect to do this.
  2. He also incorporates glimpses of the characters’ tragic futures, seen in psychedelic visions. This is also much more satisfying than HAUNTED SUMMER’s wrap-up, where a flurry of tragic deaths is dispensed with in a few titles at the end, leaving the odd impression that we’ve been watching the wrong scenes from the protagonists’ lives.
  3. By plunging the audience into the drug-induced paranoia of a frenzied laudanum party, Volk concocts a supernatural plotline in which a kind of séance seemingly unleashes all manner of hellspawn. I don’t think this is fully developed in narrative terms, perhaps because the barely-glimpsed monster is given short shrift compared to all the onscreen psychotronics, but it certainly gives rise to lots of good images.


Russell was returning to British cinema after an interesting American adventure which self-destructed with the barely-released CRIMES OF PASSION, from which the MPPAA cut around 40 mins (“They cut everything to do with art,” observed Ken.) I now look rather affectionately upon this penultimate phase of his career — I still can’t get on with the home video works that followed it, but I’ll speak up on behalf of LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM, SALOME’S LAST DANCE, and GOTHIC. Not so keen on THE RAINBOW, alas.

Russell was also giving interviews in which he extolled the virtues of the fast forward, saying he’d enjoyed RUMBLE FISH but that he’d watched it at double speed, which improved it. GOTHIC feels a bit like the script is on fast-forward, as if Russell couldn’t wait to get to the leaches and severed heads, and couldn’t be bothered allowing any of the characters to start breathing as human beings. A talented cast, plus Julian Sands, are left gasping for air with unformed lungs like poor Mary’s premature baby. They are ~

  1. The late, lamented Natasha Richardson. Her decision to give Mary a Scottish accent is surprising — Mary spent maybe a year and a half in Scotland, max. But alone among the cast she establishes a baseline of credibility — she doesn’t get space to develop it, but she’s always believable, even when required to disgorge implausible amounts of exposition.
  2. Julian Sands. Sands is good in some stuff. Not here. His Percy Bysshe Shelley alternates between acting as if he’s SHOUTING, while speaking at normal volume, and drawing the edges of his mouth as far back as possible, like a monkey in a wind tunnel, or a man attempting to eat a Wagon Wheel biscuit in one go. He’s supposed to become hysterical, but he’s already hysterical, and in the wrong sense of the word. Bysshe Bash Bosh.
  3. Gabriel Byrne. Naturally Byronic, but unimpressive stripped to the waist, incipient moobs aquiver. Suffers a bit from having Every Famous Thing Byron Ever Said as dialogue. Next to Sands he sounds like a genius though.
  4. Timothy Spall. Knows he’s in a Ken Russell film, so is playing it like Murray Melvin in THE DEVILS, but an MM who has been mysteriously inflated with methane.
  5. Myriam Cyr. The least-known one, and the most memorable, with her huge eyeballs. One of a harem of Russell lovelies who only made one indelible impression (Alita Naughton, Imogen Millais-Scott). Her sparse other credits include FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND and FRANKENSTEIN AND ME. The woman’s clearly obsessed.


Every version of this story seems to feature one surprise unknown. In HAUNTED SUMMER it was Philip Anglim, whom we’d never seen before. At his first closeup, Fiona cruelly and hilariously remarked “No.” She was already smitten with Stoltz as Shelley. Later she admitted Anglim was pretty damn good. The best of the Byronic batch, actually.

“You’re not allowed to criticise the score,” said Fiona, a Thomas Dolby fan from way back. After five minutes, she was criticising it, or at any rate saying “The score is a disaster.” When the movie is prematurely hysterical, the score is a particular problem. Russell has lost his patience as a filmmaker, and patience is a form of courage — believing you can make the audience wait for something. So the movie isn’t scary, despite throwing everything at us. It’s frequently freaky, though.


The last act is where it all kicks in and starts working. Since the visual stuff works better than the talking headcases, it would be easy to give Russell all the credit, but he was careful to praise Volk’s script for the fact that it served up delicious images, more valuable than words. So Russell’s hectic tempo is responsible for some of the apparent writing flaws, and Volk’s visceral writing deserves some of the credit for the film’s feast of imagery. Mary Shelley in a timewarp, glimpsing the future, encapsulates the premise of FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND in five minutes better than that movie manages in its whole runtime.

My favourite images —


Ken recreates his beloved Busby Berkeley’s Lullaby of Broadway sequence, only with a skull instead of Wini Shaw.

A bit of T & eye. Not frightening. But bizarre. (see top)

A simple closeup, utterly beautiful and more haunting than anything else we’ve seen.


To Russell, the cardinal sin was to bore, and on that basis, GOTHIC wins the Battle of the Byrons. But read on…

Nights at the Villa Deodati #1: Byron & Shelley’s Bogus Journey

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 12, 2016 by dcairns


Fiona was so entranced by the sight of Eric Stoltz, as Percy Shelley, emitting a flawless English accent while splashing about naked in a stream, that it may have taken her slightly longer than usual to notice that HAUNTED SUMMER is a very dull piece of work. Usually she gets bored before me.

I hated popped this one in the Panasonic after enjoying Ivan Passer’s SILVER BEARS (I also recommend his Czech debut, INTIMATE LIGHTING), but was dimly aware that this Cannon production did not enjoy a stellar reputation. The script by Lewis John Carlino (SECONDS) is literate and clearly the result of extensive research (source novel: Anne Edwards), but crucially lacks drama. Things only very occasionally get remotely tense, for instance when Shelley is induced to smoke opium in a scary cave, with Byron inciting him into a bad trip in which he is terrified by a transmogrified Mary — but the best the movie can manage for a hallucination here is Alice Krige in sudden lipstick, filmed off a wibbly-wobbly reflector. And then any anxiety produced is dissipated by a soft focus sex scene. A later love scene is shot through drifting muslin, the kind of “tastefulness” which quickly seems extremely tacky.


We DO get a vision of a monster, and rather sweetly the filmmakers have made him resemble Charles Ogle as the monster in the Edison FRANKENSTEIN.

Those perfect English accents are part of the problem. Apart from Krige, who talks posh naturally so far as I know, the movie showcases cut-glass vocalisations by Laura Dern (as Claire Clairmont), Philip Anglim (Bad Lord Byron) and a tiny, barely-formed Alex Winter as Dr. Polidori, looking like an Oompa Loompa with jaundice. They’re all quite good — nobody dives into the strangulated manner of Keanu Reeves in B.S.’s DRACULA — but the cast’s inability to talk in their own tones does create a slight feeling of airlessness. I wonder if Passer shouldn’t have followed his Czech mate Milos Forman’s lead in AMADEUS and let the Americans talk American? This nagging doubt is confirmed if you tune out the chatter and just look at the relaxed faces: these are all terrific actors, able to bring an unwonted naturalism to the period setting.


The great Giuseppe Rotunno shot this, but I would have to see a better copy to know if he was having an off-day or if he’s simply fallen prey to pan-and-scan and a washed-out transfer — unlike the other 80s visits to Villa Deodata, this movie seems to offer nothing resembling a strong, cinematic image. It also soft-pedals the whole point of the story — the origins of Frankenstein — leaving out the ghost story competition completely. If you didn’t know that Mary Shelley would conceive the idea for her masterwork during this sojourn by the lake, you wouldn’t guess it from the movie. How not to win the audience over: leave out the one historical fact they know, and the thing they’re already interested in.


Thematically, the film could be about the end of the sixties, rather than 1816. Byron refers to his friends as “children of the revolution,” conjuring Marc Bolan rather than George Gordon Byron, and the progress from light to dark could represent the corruption of idealism. If so, the film would have seemed more dated in 1988 than it does now. All the late-80s slew of films dealing with this literary vacation come up against the same problem — apart from the conception of Frankenstein, an internal event difficult to capture on film, not much is known to have happened at the Villa Deodati, despite the explosive mix of people. The various filmmakers involved — Passer & Carlino, Gonzalo Suarez, Ken Russell & Stephen Volk, and Roger Corman & F.X. Feeney, all have their own strategies for tackling this problem. I might as well tell you now: none of them could quite solve it.

Read on…