It’s been a long time coming for me to discuss Roger Corman, who I am comfortable calling the Stan Lee of the film industry. Corman is the original rebel who went against the film industry, right as it was falling apart in the 1950’s, and inadvertently rebuilt Hollywood. In his lifetime, he has produced over 400 features, chasing trends and giving a new generation of filmmakers their debuts. So, without Corman, there may not have been Coppola, Scorsese, or any of the “New Hollywood” kids. Corman’s exploitation films made Hollywood take notes on what was profitable. Within those features, Corman directed a little over 50 films, primarily between 1955 and 1971 before taking an almost 20-year hiatus. This could have been it, but in 1990, Corman surprised the world with his last film to date, Frankenstein Unbound, based on the sci-fi novel by Brian Aldiss.
Like most films about Frankenstein’s monster, this film opens...in the future of 2031 (snickers), where Dr. Joe Buchanan, played by the late John Hurt, is developing an all-powerful laser for the US government. However, the laser’s usage has begun to trigger erratic rifts in space and time, which Buchanan and his AI self-driving car get sucked into. Buchanan lands in 1817 Switzerland, without technology, or a way for his car to access information instantly (at max it takes the car four days). At a pub, where he’s able to pawn a ring for some gold coins, Buchanan has a chance meeting with Dr. Victor Frankenstein, played by the late Raul Julia, and is astounded that he’s real. With a hunch, Buchanan begins trailing Frankenstein, after hearing rumors of something in the woods killing farm animals. This leads him to a trial for a nanny, accused of murdering Frankenstein’s younger brother. Soon enough, he encounters Frankenstein’s monster, who is already intelligent enough to speak and demand answers about his creation. He vows to leave if Frankenstein makes him a mate. After the monster kills Frankenstein’s fiancée, Elizabeth, the truly mad scientist obliges the monster as long as Buchanan will supply his car as a source of power for the experiment. Buchanan agrees, knowing that this is the perfect opportunity to power up the laser in the car to create a rift in this timeline.
Corman specialized in B-movies, low budgets, and outlandish plots. Frankenstein Unbound has all of that in spades, but looks like an above average made-for-TV film you’d find on Cinemax. The visual presentation isn’t the best. Because the film has two credited cinematographers AND two credited editors, the film looks choppy. Action, at points, can be jarring, with more hits and damage heard offscreen. It does get gory when it needs to, in fact that’s the only merit to this film’s tame R-rating. There are some pretty cool death pieces that unfortunately don’t stick around too long to be admired. What we do get to admire is the Italian landscape where the primary scenes were filmed. The real countryside stands in stark contrast to the heavy mat painted future scenes that bookend the film, which is gloriously cheesy in that late 80’s way. As for our monster effects, we’re given a pretty grounded looking creature, something more akin to a side-show giant with its skin stretched over its face. It’s almost Clive Barker-like, which would make sense since this film came out nine months after the release of Barker’s Nightbreed (there could be some influence).
Casting wise, John Hurt adds his usual British class to the character of Buchanan, managing to make a pretty despicable protagonist into someone endearing. Hurt also gets to shine as a demonic figure that Buchanan encounters in three sporadic dream sequences, never letting us forget that Buchanan is the real villain here. Raul Julia is an interesting choice to play Frankenstein. It’s not a terrible performance playing an immoral psycho, but he seems under-directed. Nick Brimble handles the monster pretty well, conveying a sense of constant agony, and always demanding answers for his existence. This performance, unfortunately, is quite underrated. Finally, there’s Bridget Fonda as Mary Shelly. Yep, she’s in the film too, just starting to write her eponymous work based on her suspicions about the real doctor. Fonda’s subplot is wasted though, as she’s only there to be told that her story will be published, and to have a short, questionable romance with Buchanan.
Back to the film. We finally get what Frankenstein films are all about, the reanimation in the laboratory. It’s definitely a fun little spectacle seeing the light and particle effects at work. It almost makes you want to go to your nearest Spencer’s and pick up a few plasma balls of your own. With the car adding the extra power needed, lightning strikes the cross on top of the tower symbolically, and Elizabeth is revived. Both Frankenstein and the monster have a small moment to rejoice at what they think are victories before the car fires the laser triggering another rift that pulls the four into a frozen wasteland. A furious Frankenstein attempts to shoot Buchanan but Elizabeth blocks the shot point blank, unable to face the monster she has been turned into. Enraged, the monster breaks Frankenstein’s back, Bane style, and retreats into the wasteland. Buchanan grants Frankenstein’s last wish to hunt down and destroy the creature.
He tracks the monster down to a bunker which is revealed to be the remains of the lab that is storing his laser. The two have a tight final fight, but Buchanan is able to fire up the laser one last time to destroy the monster. As an exhausted Buchanan exits the compound and heads to the remains of a city in the distance, the voice of the monster is heard, indicating he’s been unbound from his physical form, and ending the film with uncertainty.
I think this film missed a good opportunity. Frankenstein Unbound could have been an interesting pilot for a series, where a scientist from the future peruses Frankenstein’s monster over various time periods. Something like Quantum Leap meets The Twilight Zone. It’s the way the film ends that just feels incomplete and rushed. There is not a lot recorded about the making of the film, and most associated with the project, who are still alive, never really bring it up. Sadly, this is an interesting concept, but a forgettable film, and really only exists as a footnote in the career of one of the important hidden figures in film history. Corman has been pretty adamant when he says he’s retired from directing. He has since stuck to producing low budget features for the rising direct-to-video market and the Syfy channel. I can’t say that I hate this film, as it reminds me of the schlock I used to find on the Syfy channel on Saturday nights, but I am disappointed. A man who made his career delivering entertainment on shoestring budgets was honestly given the keys to the candy factory. This could have been a bang to end Corman’s directing era, but instead he went out with a whimper.
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