Would you turn out in the spring for either the old-school vampire movie Dracula (2018) or the contemporary bicentennial version of the Frankenstein story (1931)? The suspense in those two films would be matched only by the audience’s interest in learning about what those ancestors of ours did to each other. All the pressure is on them to imagine their own versions, and the actors seem to be passing it off as real emotion, with one or the other becoming cackling maniacs while the other (mostly Edmund Kean) looks anguished.
Dracula reveals a pile of faux surprises, of course, some of them through a half-dozen British actors who talk in an American accent, and none of them as convincingly as the two Americans who spoke in their own tongue (Barry Nelson and John Gielgud, good as ever), but you figure they’re not that sophisticated. Compared to the special effects that make “Frankenstein” so much scarier, the Huntington Museum’s superb presentation of the film has all the true scares in the world.
That may not matter to the Dr. Frankenstein descendant in your life, however. You might get a thrill out of watching this world transformed by female selfishness; and the Lily (Isabella Seymour) who looks like most women on view in the scene when she marries her most likable husband, Victor Frankenstein (Ralph Fiennes), is the movie’s unspoken star, so full of life that I remember how dangerous she looks to him as her bank balances grow and her lovely doctor’s lab fills up with protoplasm. That is, until she starts beeping and shrieking at him and then she suddenly stops beeping and starts lashing out at him and his devoted fiancée. (“What is going on here?” he asks, as she breaks his manacles.)
It’s hard to tell whether she was going to kill her fiancée because his initials had been tattooed on her ankle or because he first rejected her heart as “beast” and then at first tried to get away with the guillotine, but he is into the whole arguable theory of Hitler that justifies human sacrifice as the basis of a scientific race. Whatever the case, she does eventually reject Frankenstein, making an impressive impression in the process.
Frankenstein’s look isn’t as sharp as Fiennes’, but he’s excellent as a scientist who realizes that maybe life is better than death and wants to devote himself to preventing the world from repeating the chaos that befell him in creating his monster. And for the first time ever, he is given a bad boy side, easily exaggerating his raw power and determination. Fiennes’ directing also benefits from the cartoonish prettiness of the summer color palette, which superimposes the chemistry between the two lovers on the flat, craggy exterior of the Victor’s life lab, so that everybody’s smiling instead of cowering.
That is not to say that the creature who discovers his deadly power is rendered far from scary. Being reborn from a flesh-colonized dead shell of a beast with a head full of teeth as big as a gas pump (Andi Sheppard) is the film’s blackest tonal area. And we see in one scene how small it makes his face appear when he is doing his demonizing work, devouring its victims all at once. And although other actors (Ronald Pickup, Richard Adamson) say silly things to him in the best possible way, Rosalind Sharpe as the film’s faithful widow seems to mouth the line, “I can’t believe I haven’t married you already.” Sometimes you just have to ask yourself, “What is going on here?” For sure, the history of these two star-crossed victims is rather long, and they’re as far from the great moral heroism of Hume and Hobbes as a butter snake, but you can’t help be impressed by the movie’s touch with real life.