Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein holds an almost untouchable place in the legacies of both literary history and pop culture iconography, with image of Karloff and his neck bolts firmly on the hypothetical horror cinema Mount Rushmore. However, the iconography is merely a small aspect of it’s endurance. What makes the tale of Frankenstein endure, with countless adaptations on stage, screen and audio, is the sensitivity and humanity at its centre, encapsulated in the quest of the creation to understand it’s own existence, wrestling with the concept of what it is to be part of life. The philosophical inquiry and existential horror is limitless in it’s adaptation and experimentation potential; not trapped in the aged architecture of a fixed timeframe or strict narrative through line. This dexterity and the core thematic impact of the tale itself is on full display in Sam Ashurst’s Frankenstein’s Creature, which might not only be one of the most original interpretations of Shelley’s work ever devised, but perhaps it’s most vital and fascinatingly surreal in decades.

Based on James Swanton’s one man stage show, Frankenstein’s Creature sees Swanton reprise his role as the creature, stripping away all other narrative voices to look at Shelley’s tale through the prism of the creation. The singular perspective extends into the singular nature of the film itself: the entire film is performed by Swanton in one space, a stage to which his monologue is rigorously captured in fixed, static shot. This limitation of form conversely allows the character a greater freedom; there is no frame narrative, no escape to another perspective or comic relief. This is the creature confidential and there is no chance to escape it’s reality, it’s tragedy…it’s fractured humanity. In this sense, the film draws directly on the experience of theatre, or performance art in it’s evocative minimalism, drawing awareness to the audience’s role as not merely spectator, but as humanity itself, faced with the creature’s otherness. This is reinforced by the creature addressing the audience directly in a Brechtian confrontation, coming down from the stage to question our judgements and “understanding” of him, exploring troubling ideas of acceptance and the treatment of others based on identity that are as prescient now as they have ever been.

Director Ashurst combines the unsettling, unerring focus of the single, fixed shot with an ethereal texture of image superimposition. Images of a running stream as the creature talks about the good water; the landscape of a frozen landscape which holds ominous foreshadowing for the tale; and even alternate angles of Swanson’s performance overlapping the master shot. This combination of filtered imagery creates a haunting surrealism as if the gauze of reality was intertwined with the creature’s fevered dreamscape, its imagination rampant. Such a technique evokes the sensation of modern gothic, playing on the dark romanticism of gothic literature through the meddling of the artificial and natural to convey the conflict of enlightenment and madness within the creature’s tortured existence. The make up and costuming of Swanson further reinforces this relationship with gothic, as the design is a clear homage to the exaggerated, heavy black and white make up contrasts found in German expressionist horror cinema, particularly The Man Who Laughs as Swanson’s death grin shares an uncanny resemblance to the look of Conrad Veidt’s Gwynplaine.

Unquestionably for all the structural experimentation, the film is a triumph above all else because of the strength and beauty of James Swanton’s transfixing performance. Swanton brings a physicality of performance unseen in previous interpretations of the character: he moves and juts like a spider, crawling with both elegance and threat, making his every subtle motion and dart through the frozen space pregnant with expression, whether tender, violent or at its most heartbreaking, lost. Even his face contorts and shifts from leering mania to the etchings of pain and sadness. He envelops the audience in the baroque of his world, articulating the desperation of the creature’s philosophical quandaries. Crucially, as well as the physicality of the body, Swanton imbues the creature with the eloquence and intelligence of voice that defines Shelley’s original creation, one that has often been sorely lacking if not entirely absent in most screen adaptations. The audience hang on his every word, while his physical gifts allow him to manipulate his voice to reinforce further the voluminous breadth of the creature’s interior world: the mind, the heart and soul that cannot be contained. Mirrored by a masterful performance that equally cannot be contained.

Frankenstein’s Creature is an evocative, avant garde experience that might not be to all tastes, but for those willing to immerse themselves in the experience, is an enthralling dissection of a literary classic. The dismembered parts, like the creature itself, have been reconstituted into a new life, a new form that challenges audiences intellectually and emotionally, invigorated by a performance of rare power and tragedy by James Swanton.

Arrow Video Frightfest Review: Frankenstein's Creature
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About The Author

Matthew Hammond is a full time cinephile, specializing in cult, art house and 1980s cinema. While film is his overwhelming passion, Matthew has been known to enjoy comic books, Sherlock Holmes stories and a good film related T-shirt. Feel free to email me with any questions or comments: mattpaul250190@gmail.com