Having seen many film versions of the the classic Frankenstein story over the years, I can safely say that Roger Corman’s 1990 interpretation, Frankenstein Unbound, is the most…ummm…unique. A science fiction film as much as horror, the story begins in the far distant year of 2031, where a scientist named Buchanan (played by John Hurt) has developed a powerful laser that disintegrates anything in its path. An unfortunate side effect of this mysterious new weapon is the creation of an ominous cloud that abruptly transports people to random points in history.
Buchanan ends up getting sucked into the cloud and transported back in time to 1817 Switzerland, just in time to meet up with the infamous Victor Frankenstein (played by Raul Julia). Fortunately for Buchanan, his snazzy talking sports car, a thinly veiled ripoff of KITT from Knight Rider, is also transported with him and serves as his companion as they traverse the Swiss countryside. After bumping into Victor at a pub and dazzling him with his high tech digital watch, Buchanan learns that his young brother was recently murdered. While the boy’s nanny is the prime suspect, the villagers suspect it was a monster that roams the wilderness.
Peaked with curiosity, Buchanan attends the nanny’s trial and befriends Mary Shelley (played by Bridget Fonda) who is just beginning to write her famous book. Shelley believes the monster is real but ultimately the nanny is found guilty for the crime and is hung.
We first meet the monster when Buchanan encounters Victor arguing with his creation in the woods where it laments that it doesn’t have a mate and commands Victor to make one for him. The monster in Frankenstein Unbound is one of the more interesting interpretations I’ve seen and keeping with the science fiction theme, it looks more like a Klingon than the traditional square headed monster.of yore.
Conflict erupts when Dr. Frankenstein refuses to create a mate for his monster because he is ashamed of how his first creation turned out. Ultimately, his hand is forced when the monster kills Victor’s finance and he has to reanimate her with electricity to bring her back. Fortunately, this time he has the help of his scientist friend from the future who jerry rigs the portable laser system that was conveniently installed in his car to provide power for the reanimation process. The monster is thrilled with his new mate despite the fact her appearance is somehow even more off-putting than his own.
An unintended side effect of this procedure is a reemergence of the time travelling cloud which proceeds to suck the group into a wormhole and spit them into a barren, arctic tundra in the future where Frankenstein and his monster battle it out for the affection of Lady Frankenstein. The climax of the film involves a showdown between Buchanan and the monster in an underground bunker, oddly filled with computers and lasers, which results in the monster becoming eternally “unbound”. I think there was a deep philosophical message attached to this act but quite frankly, I don’t really understand what it was supposed to be.
What Frankenstein Unbound lacks in scares or thrills, it makes up for with cheese and (unintentional) laughs. It exudes the similar silly, amateurish style that Roger Corman films are known for albeit with a larger budget and more esteemed cast. I was a bit surprised to see respected actors like John Hurt and Raul Julia in these roles but they do admirable jobs considering the script and convoluted storyline they had to work with. Other notable actors include Jason Patric as Lord Byron and an unexpected portrayal of Percy Shelley by the late INXS frontman, Michael Hutchence. I never realized he had dabbled in acting but he did deliver a respectable performance playing a somewhat insignificant character in the film.
Frankenstein Unbound is the last film Corman directed although as he is still with us, that could change. Much like most Corman produced films (now over 500 and counting), the entertainment value of this film comes from its unintended silliness. I admired Corman’s attempt at a fresh take on a classic tale like Frankenstein by introducing new elements such as time travel. Unfortunately, his inclusion of serious topics like mankind’s destruction of the planet through science is a bit of an overreach. At one point, Buchanan exclaims to Victor that “Scientists have made far greater monsters than yours!”, an inference that the weapon he created to save mankind which could ultimately lead to its destruction. While Corman may have attempted to create a film that sends a message, he ends up delivering a cheesy good time instead. In a Roger Corman film, I’d neither expect nor want anything less.
Frankenstein Unbound is available to stream on YouTube.
This is my contribution to The Corman-Verse Blogathon. My maniacal coconspirator on this site has also contributed an article for the blogathon here. Click on the image below for many more Roger Corman themed reviews. Our thanks to Cinematic Catharsis and RealWeegieMidget Reviews for including us in this tribute to the films of Roger Corman.