[note that this review of Frankenstein’s Creature was based on a test preview]
“My story lies in pieces, but I’ll offer it to them in pieces, and extend to them the chance to piece it back together.”
So says the Creature (James Swanton), unravelling the sorry tale of his brief but extraordinary life of constant rejection and exile from humanity, narrated as he floats on an Arctic raft toward his final auto-da-fé (mirroring his lightning birth). It is a familiar story, adapted (by Swanton) from Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, and performed on the 200th anniversary of the novel’s publication under the direction of genre film critic Sam Ashurst (in his feature debut).
Arguably the mother source of all horror, Shelley’s influential myth of hubris and all-too-human monstrosity is here confined exclusively to the Creature’s perspective, and is presented in a form both fragmented and reconstituted. Yet what stitches together the disparate parts of this piecemeal narrative is the absolute and ever-present centrality of the Creature himself, captured in a single, continuous monochrome take as he treads the boards of a ruined building’s alcove that serves all at once as proscenium and performance space for his tragic rise and rise.
Shot wide by a fixed camera, this set becomes the imaginative, flexible stage for all the Creature’s transglobal adventures, while also becoming his (and our) prison house. For, spurned from the start by his Maker/Father, the Creature is unloved, friendless, entirely self-taught, and always profoundly alone – and this solipsism makes his point of view itself a form of solitary confinement. This is a solo show – a monologue delivered in absolute isolation and exile from humanity, with the series of victims that the Creature has left in his wake all conjured entirely by cloth props. Indeed, our only visual escape from this concentrated spectacle of the Creature’s self are occasional superimpositions of illustrative landscapes – or yet more images of the Creature.
Filmed in a single day, Frankenstein’s Creature is a peculiar hybrid of book, theatre and cinema that comes “far from fully formed”, and revels in its own monstrous imperfections. It is undeniably stagey – but Swanton’s performance is an intense tour de force, captivating the viewer’s attention with not just the Creature’s cruel perversion, but also his pathos and poetry. Unlike the inarticulate brute typically portrayed in cinema ever since his first incarnation in James Whale’s 1931 classic, Swanton’s Creature is much closer to Shelley’s original: a thoughtful, sensitive, eloquent entity, made murderously monstrous by his own harsh treatment, and always aching for the approval of the Father who has despised him. Swanton’s soliloquised script (originally written as a play) brims with sophisticated verbal symmetries and echoing wordplay, at last giving voice to a Creature woven as much from his own words as from the parts of others’ corpses.
Filmed in a literal niche, Frankenstein’s Creature is also a production of unquestionably niche appeal – but for those attuned to its particular vibe, it is a complex, paradoxical creation, not quite cinema in much the same way that its only character is not quite human. The challenge to the viewer is to accept both film and protagonist for what they are, rather than casting them out for what they are not.
© Anton Bitel