Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
This weekend sees the release of Mary Shelley, a look at the youthful years of the author of Frankenstein. The film has one admirable touch, which is that Elle Fanning, the actress who plays Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, was still a teenager when the movie was shot, which corresponds with the actual age of the preternaturally gifted writer. Director Haifaa Al-Mansour (whose Wadjda is well worth watching) otherwise takes a fervently female-first approach to the material, a perfectly appropriate choice that doesn’t generate a great deal of storytelling excitement.
The second half of the film revolves around the fabled summer of 1816, when Mary, her companion Percy Shelley, and her half-sister Claire Clairmont went to a villa on Lake Geneva and stayed with Lord Byron and John Polidori. The episode has been heavily mythologized already, and there are a few films we might mention that cover that very turf. To wit:
Gothic, 1986, directed by Ken Russell. I recall the guys at the Egyptian Theatre cranked the volume up really loud when they screened this, but then they always cranked the volume really loud. This tactic fit Russell’s head-splitting treatment of the material, an art-horror approach with lots of crashing thunder and heavy breathing. Natasha Richardson plays Mary, more thoughtfully than the movie seems to notice, and Gabriel Byrne and Julian Sands are Byron and Shelley; Timothy Spall goes full-on grotesque as Polidori. The music is by Thomas Dolby. It’s a crazy watch, and it supports my theory that Russell sometimes needed a little restraint to be at his best. But then he wouldn’t be Ken Russell.
Haunted Summer, 1988, directed by Ivan Passer. I liked this film at the time, although a more recent viewing was a disappointment. Passer creates a romantic, hippie-inflected treatment of the story, and he lucks out by getting the intelligent Alice Krige to play Mary. There’s something about the ensemble that reminds me of Passer’s friend Milos Forman’s approach to casting, which sometimes leaned toward plainness and simplicity; if Tom Hulce could play Mozart, why not Eric Stoltz as Shelley? And yet, maybe this particular group of historical characters needs more madness in its makeup. Laura Dern plays Claire, Alex Winter (yes, of Bill and Ted) is Polidori, and the interesting Philip Anglim is Byron. Anglim has an unusual story—he triumphed at the end of the 1970s in the original Elephant Man Broadway production, then seemed to flame out of an acting career.
Frankenstein Unbound, 1990, directed by Roger Corman. Corman’s latest film as director is a lively riff on a novel by Brian Aldiss. The story follows a time traveler (John Hurt) who drops in at the Villa Diodati in 1816, only to discover the actual Dr. Frankenstein (Raul Julia) on hand, along with Mary (Bridget Fonda), Byron (Jason Patric), and Shelley (Michael Hutchence, the INXS singer). I’m not sure the mish-mash entirely works, but it sure is fun to watch.
Bride of Frankenstein, 1935, directed by James Whale. Here, the opening five minutes give us Byron and Shelley (Gavin Gordon and Douglas Walton) teasing Mary about how such an innocent-looking woman could conjure up a monster. Elsa Lanchester plays—gloriously—both Mary and the bride, an inspired touch that, as Lanchester later reported, underlined Whale’s theory about the monster inside everyone, especially the superficially pretty.
There’s also a very obscure Spanish film, Rowing with the Wind (1988), with Hugh Grant as Byron and Elizabeth Hurley as Claire. I haven’t seen it, but despite its obscurity, Scarecrow has it. Completists, be advised.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.