Frankenstein Unbound (1990)

MARCH 19, 2011


As the only movie Roger Corman has directed himself in the past 40 years, I was hoping for a little more from Frankenstein Unbound. It’s a decent movie, and I like the time travel aspect in concept, but it’s also quite rushed, with a hero who doesn’t seem to have any agenda. Also, I’m not sure if the alt-history approach works – if this movie is to be believed, Mary Shelley wrote "Frankenstein" based on true events that occurred in 1817 Vienna, and just left out the parts about the talking car and laser beams.

So basically it's like a Twilight Zone story or something; John Hurt’s scientist (Buchanan) is from the “real” world and thus when he goes back in time he could easily meet a young Mary Shelley (as well as Lord Byron and Percy Shelley), and in other hands maybe he would inadvertently give her the idea for her still-unwritten novel. But in the same world exists both Victor Frankenstein (Raul Julia, having a grand old time) and the Monster, which makes it a bit confusing – did he go back in time or get trapped in a book like The Pagemaster or whatever? And that he arrives in the past after Frankenstein has already created the monster makes things confusing, especially near the end when Victor needs Hurt’s stuff from the future in order to revive his wife (killed by the monster, something Victor either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about since he still has him under his employ of sorts) – why can’t he just use whatever he used before when he made the original monster?

It’s just one of many things that seems like would be part of a longer cut, because 85 minutes is just not enough time for a movie that involves time travel, black holes, the creation of life, two doomed romances, and even a goddamn Mongol soldier who appears out of nowhere. The relationship between Frankenstein and Buchanan is particularly puzzling – they become pals far too quickly and turn antagonistic toward each other just as randomly. And again, Hurt’s intentions are a bit fuzzy – is he trying to stop Frankenstein or the Monster? Why does he get involved with the innocent girl blamed for one of the monster’s killings? And does he even want to get back to his own time? He seems to be having fun in Vienna, strolling around in his new suit and banging Bridget Fonda (actually, I’m with him there). Hell, he doesn’t seem to care about potentially wrecking the natural order of things by letting folks from 1817 see a goddamn talking car driving around (he also provides Shelley with a copy of her book, which his car can print out instantly), but then again no one seems particularly fazed by it either. When he tells Fonda that he’s from the future and gives her a copy of her book to prove it, she’s just sort of charmed. And no one seems too confused about his “carriage”, which would look out of place even nowadays, let alone before the invention of the passenger train. Hell, the goddamn farmer family from Back to the Future freaked out about the DeLorean – and they actually HAD cars!

Plus it goes pretty fast, unlike their horse-drawn buggies, apparently. One of the film’s big action scenes finds the Monster chasing a buggy and actually catching up to it, despite the fact that he doesn’t seem to have any super speed powers or anything. If anything he too is kind of slow (like most Frankenstein Monsters); the entire climax consists of him lumbering around and knocking shit over, until Hurt uses a laser beam that operates on a Clapper type system (for reals) and kills him.

Speaking of lasers, the movie as a whole feels more like a sci-fi movie than a horror one, which is why the loose plotting and characterization bugged me. If they were going for full blown horror, that stuff wouldn’t be as important – long as the Monster was tearing folks apart every 10 minutes or so, it’s all good. But if you show me lasers and time travel – I want that stuff crystal clear and with a little more meat to it.

Also, it seems like Corman blew most of the dough on acquiring the cast. Sure, having John Hurt, Bridget Fonda, Raul Julia, and Jason Patric all in one schlocky horror movie is pretty impressive, but it seems like it came at the expense of pretty much everything else. More than once I got the impression that the movie was designed around a few available sets made for entirely different movies, particularly the icy “wasteland” and goofy “Science lab... OF THE FUTURE!” locales that provide the backdrop for the final reel. Even the lasers and such feel like they belonged to another movie first.

But all of this sort of works in its favor, because it’s certainly the least generic Frankenstein film I’ve seen in a long time. I never knew for sure where the hell the plot was going, which is pretty impressive for what was probably the 40th Frankenstein movie. And the monster had a fairly unique design - closer to DeNiro’s version than Pierce/Karloff’s, so that was nice (note – this movie came four years BEFORE DeNiro’s). That movie, in fact, had all the money in the world, lavish sets, state of the art FX, etc... but it was kind of a bore. This movie may have problems, but being boring isn’t one of them. For a story told this many times, anything they can do to mix things up a bit is to its benefit.

As mentioned, it’s based on a novel, not by Shelly but a guy named Brian Aldiss. I’ve never read it (or even heard of it), but assuming that the occasionally schizo plotting was the movie’s “fault”, I’d totally support a new version. Been a while since we’ve had a real Frankenstein movie anyway (since Branagh’s, just a couple of TV projects have come to fruition), and I’m always interested in more horror/sci-fi blends to boot. Let’s do this!

What say you?


  1. Brian Aldiss is one of the world's most renowned SF writers with shedloads of awards to his credit. He's also written a number of well-received mainstream novels and is also a hell of a nice guy.

  2. Another great review... I'll always remember this movie for two things you didn't mention. I love the poster/cover art. That eyeball stitched together is a killer design and I agree that it totally likens itself to DeNiro's version, which by the way I rate as the best Frankenstein monster design to date. The other thing I was surprised you didn't mention was that Michael Hutchence played Percy... but that's most likely due to my Australian heritage more than anything. That man is legend over here!


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