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TELEVISION REVIEW

The ultimate creature feature, twice over

October 05, 2004|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Halloween is coming, and in advance of the candy corn, the monster known as Frankenstein's has become the subject of two very different TV movies.

That luckless creature has been much abused since the "dreary night of November" when Victor Frankenstein, by unrevealed methods -- lightning is traditional, but there's no textual authority for it -- first made dead flesh live and live flesh crawl. He has, in the two centuries since, been made to fight werewolves and vampires and to fright Abbott & Costello, has been reworked for "The Munsters" and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and called upon to shill breakfast cereal for General Mills. And still the little children run away.

Tonight he may be found yet again, in the Hallmark Channel's "Frankenstein," variously described in network press releases as "the most faithful version," "most hauntingly faithful version," "most authentic adaptation" and "the most faithful cinematic adaptation EVER" of Mary Shelley's 1818 novel. There are, of course, inventions, economies and compromises, and it is as padded at times as a Pentagon expense report. Frankenstein is given some traumatic youthful experiences involving dead animals; the monster, a sensitive one, has an Oedipal fixation the author did not assign him (he calls Frankenstein "father"); and there's some suggested sex. But it is probably true that of the many versions available, this is the one you'll want to watch when it comes time to cheat on a book report.

It is the latest production of Robert Halmi Jr., who with his father has made a life's work out of turning great literature into event television; previous outings include "The Odyssey," "Arabian Nights," "Gulliver's Travels," "Don Quixote," "Moby Dick," "Alice in Wonderland" and "Animal Farm." These well-intentioned films are typically distinguished by large budgets ($30 million in this case), big-name casts (frequently "international") and exotic location work -- not always the actual setting of the story, but somewhere impressively faraway. (Slovakia stands in for Switzerland in the film at hand.) Though they follow the primary texts more closely than usual, they are often psychologically modernized, and typically too long by half. And for all their visual bling, they can be surprisingly static.

"Frankenstein" follows this pattern exactly. While it isn't for a moment bad, it lacks the poetry, horror, humor, philosophy and/or outrageousness of the best of its predecessors -- James Whale's 1931 Universal classic, for instance, or the Christopher Isherwood-penned 1973 TV version, or even Paul Morrissey's Eurotrash "Flesh for Frankenstein."

The money names here are William Hurt, Donald Sutherland, Jean Rochefort and Julie Delpy, as a professor, ship's captain, blind man with violin and Frankenstein's mother, respectively -- something more than cameos, but less than central roles. The actors who must carry the story -- Alec Newman as Victor Frankenstein, Luke Goss as the creature and Nicole Lewis as Victor's lady love Elizabeth -- while decent enough, don't have quite the spark to animate the tale, though it should be said that they are all victims themselves of the flat production and dialogue. Shelley's own dialogue is too oratorical to act straight, but it has a certain lilt and eloquence missing from the additions of screenwriter Mark Kruger ("Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh").

As the monster, Goss, once of the British pop duo Bros, is actually not bad looking at all; apart from the fact that his pallor and hairdo make him weirdly reminiscent of Michael Jackson -- perhaps the most frightening thing about this movie -- he comes across as just a tall, handsome guy with bad skin; it's hard to see why he puts people off.

***

USA's "Frankenstein," which airs Sunday, is another kettle of flesh altogether, a modern sequel cooked up by horror writer Dean Koontz -- his contribution officially reads "based on characters created by," while John Shiban (ex-"X-Files") gets the "writer" credit ("subject to WGA arbitration"). It stars indie cinema "It" girl Parker Posey as -- you will not have been expecting this -- a New Orleans police detective, out to solve a string of murders with a surgical twist. And though it is being marketed as a stand-alone TV movie, it looks exactly like the pilot for a series -- its conclusion is no conclusion at all, but merely the preamble to a real beginning.

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