Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound (1990)

In 2031, Dr. Buchanan and his teamwork to develop the ultimate weapon, an energy beam that will completely remove whatever it is aimed at. Buchanan hopes he can create a weapon so powerful that it will end all war and have the added benefit of no impact on the environment. Unfortunately, the prototype has unpredictable side effects, creating erratic global weather patterns and rifts in space and time that have caused some people to vanish. As he drives home from the testing facility, Buchanan himself is caught in one such rift.

Buchanan and his futuristic computer-controlled car reappear in Switzerland in 1817. In a village, he meets Victor Frankenstein. The men discuss science over dinner and it is revealed that Frankenstein’s young brother has been killed. A trial is to determine the guilt or innocence of the boy’s nanny, who is suspected in the murder.

Several villagers claim to have seen a monster in the woods and suggest this is the killer. Buchanan observes the trial and becomes interested in a young woman taking notes. She turns out to be Mary Shelley, author of the Frankenstein novel. Shelley gives credence to the talk of monsters, but the judge does not. The nanny is found guilty and sentenced to die at the gallows. Buchanan knows the monster killed the child. He implores Frankenstein to come forward and reveal the truth, but Frankenstein refuses. Buchanan then asks Shelley for help, telling her that he is from the future. They are attracted to each other, but Mary, fearing to know too much about the future and her own destiny, chooses not to become involved. Buchanan is on his own. He drives his car to Frankenstein’s workshop and finds the doctor in discussion with the monster.

The monster has killed Frankenstein’s fiance, saying that if a mate was not made for him then he would deprive Frankenstein of his. Frankenstein asks Buchanan to use his knowledge of electricity to assist in resurrecting the dead woman. Buchanan instructs the monster to run cables to a weather vane on the roof. While the monster is distracted, Buchanan re-routes some of the electrical cables to begin powering up the prototype laser in his car.

As the lightning strikes the tower, again and again, the battery on the laser begins to charge and the corpse on the table begins to move. At the same moment, the woman is restored to life and Buchanan’s energy beam is fully charged; he fires. The castle is destroyed.

But the laser opens another space-time rift, sending Buchanan, Frankenstein, and the two monsters far into the future. They land on a snowy mountain with no sign of civilization. Frankenstein and the monster both try to entice the woman to them, only to have her force Frankenstein to shoot and kill her. Enraged, the monster kills Frankenstein and trudges off into the snowstorm. Buchanan follows, hoping to kill the monster before he reaches a city and kills again.

Eventually, the monster is cornered in a cave filled with computers and machines. When Buchanan enters, the machines chirp to life and a voice says “Welcome back, Dr. Buchanan.” The monster tells Buchanan that the cave is the central brain for the nearby city, the last one remaining after the world has been devastated by Buchanan’s ultimate weapon. Buchanan engages security devices and the monster is burned to death by lasers. Buchanan makes his way to the nearby city through the snow.

As he walks, the monster’s voice is heard saying that he cannot truly be killed, for now, he is “unbound.”

The project dates back to the mid-’80s, when Corman wrote a treatment, set in a surrealistic, post-apocalyptic world, featuring a Frankenstein monster created through gene-splicing. Wes Craven was hired to develop the screenplay, but Corman deemed it too expensive for the budget at the time. The project was shelved until Corman remembered reading Brian W. Aldiss’ 1973 novel Frankenstein Unbound, which suggested the film’s futuristic time travel element.

“Aldiss’ novel was very interesting,” said Corman. “It went back in time—but to a world that never was, in which Mary Shelley, the creator, and Frankenstein and his monster, her creations, coexist. It wasn’t exactly the picture I wanted to make, but I thought of a couple ideas of my own.” Corman wrote the first draft of the screenplay himself to set the structure. At the suggestion of Mount, Corman brought in former film critic F.X. Feeny to write a second draft. Further dialogue revisions were made by Ed Neumeir.

Working with Corman, Feeny developed Aldiss’ time traveler into a futuristic equivalent of Victor Frankenstein, emphasizing the theme that science, when not guided by conscience, can lead to disaster. “My idea was to make him the inventor of a device that is itself monstrous,” said Feeny. “When he meets Frankenstein, it’s like a buddy film between two mad scientists. That helps enhance the theme of moral responsibility. Having someone else who resembles him in his own eyes makes that dramatic.”

Corman directing style has changed since the old days, but was quick to add that despite his years away from the director’s chair, “The biggest surprise was how little it had all changed,” he said. “Driving to the set the first day, I was a little concerned. It turned out the set wasn’t quite ready. Immediately I said “Okay fellas, let’s move the props in; put the set decorations over there,’ and I was working again. It was as if I’d just finished shooting on the previous Friday instead of 19 years earlier.”

Corman said the film’s bigger budget and longer schedule allowed him more time to devote to the creative aspects of directing. Also, although he is co-producer of the film, he was less involved with the business aspects, handled by Mount, whose company produced the film. According to Feeny, “Mount thought, as he explained it to me, ‘Everybody in this town owes Roger. It’s time we did something for him.’ He gave him a picture where ideally Roger would not have to lift a finger as producer, just step in and direct his heart out.”

Sitting in the director’s chair again was apparently an enjoyable experience for Corman, and he has received several more directing offers. “Having done this film, I think it’s highly probable I would not wait 19 years before I do it again,” said the 64 year-old director. “At my age, I don’t think I can afford to wait that long!”

The credit for getting Corman back in the director’s chair goes to producer Thom Mount. who first conceived the idea of remaking FRANKENSTEIN with Corman while head of Universal. He took the project with him when he left to form The Mount Company. “I had worked for Roger, like a million other people in this business, when I first got into town,” said Mount, who wanted to repay Corman for giving him a doorway into the industry. “I always enjoyed tremendously Roger’s work as a director, particularly the Poe series, which has attained a sort of legendary status, and I thought it would be a good idea to get him back on the floor.”

Corman agreed to take up the directorial reins again under the stipulation that he could take an entirely new approach to the Mary Shelley material, such as setting it in the future, but the project languished until he hit upon the idea of basing his treatment on the Aldiss novel. “The most important part of the book was that it made an ethical connection between contemporary science and the work of Dr. Frankenstein-the moral implications of that excited us, “said Mount. “There have been so many FRANKENSTEIN movies—by our count, 103 in the short ninety years of the film business, so what we didn’t want to do was just make the 104th version.”

Corman wrote the film’s first draft script adapting the Aldiss book himself, a change from his usual working method. “I started as a writer, but I don’t consider myself a good dialogue writer,” said Corman. “I haven’t written a screenplay for many years. My normal method is to come up with the ideas and tell them to a writer. But writers will always bring something of their own to a project, and very often it veers from the original idea I’ve had. Since I was going to direct this one, I wanted to make certain that the basic line of the script was the one I’d come up with.”

Former film critic, F.X. Feeney was brought in, at the suggestion of Mount, to develop the dialogue and characterizations. “Roger’s draft was a good breakdown of the kind of movie he wanted to make, but there were elements missing, like thematic development and characterization, and Roger was the first to admit it,” said Feeney. “The thing I tried to do, which Roger encouraged, was make it more of a detective story. In other words, our hero doesn’t arrive in 1816 knowing ‘This is the year of Frankenstein.’ Instead, he gets there and slowly puts the pieces together.” Further dialogue revisions were made by Ed Neumeir.

As an alternative to the book’s first person narration, a talking computer was introduced into the automobile which accompanies Hurt through time a convenient device to provide exposition regarding Mary Shelley, her cohorts, and her creations. More significant was the transformation of Hurt from Aldiss’ diplomant to Corman’s scientist, Buchanan. “This enabled me to bring in some thoughts about the meaning of science and the ways in which scientists of all generations look at their work,” said Corman. “That to me was the key to giving a different dimension to the film. Part of the theme of the picture is that the differences between Frankenstein and Buchanan are superficial. Underneath, they have the same goals, and they see life and their work in a similar manner.”

If this sounds somewhat pretentious, Corman is quick to point out that his film is intended first and foremost as an entertainment. In fact, ever since the box office failure of THE INTRUDER (1962), considered by many critics to be Corman’s most personal and artistically successful film, the director has been unwilling to expose his sentiments openly in his work. “The picture is part horror, part science fiction, and part fantasy, but behind the entertainment there is a little bit of a theme,” said Corman. “I don’t want to push it or pound it home or even discuss it at any great length, but there is a slight religious overtone to the picture. If we can create life, then to a certain extent we are challenging God. What I wrote in the first draft, and what remains through the second and third drafts, is that these themes are inherent in the picture but they must be handled with delicacy because they must not overwhelm the film. I’m a believer that you can’t say everything in a film, that the audience should contribute. You can imply certain things, and the audience solves the equation. The film becomes more meaningful for the audience if it participates in the process.”

In a sense, Feeney said he had to go through a similar process while working with Corman on the script. “He’s a hard man to read because he plays everything close to the vest,” said the screenwriter. “When I went in for the first meeting, he was extremely friendly in the hall, but when we sat down in his office, his face went hard. Not hostile, not mean, just absolutely emotionless. He was not going to give me reaction one. I was going to have to project the movie as I saw it on a blank screen.

Corman pointed out that his budget on FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND was only “somewhat bigger” than those of his previous films. “It’s theoretically $9 million, but more than half of that went to what we call ‘above-the-line’ costs,” he said. “Less than half was available for the actual production.” Still, the additional time and money allowed Corman to concentrate more on the film’s creative aspects, including the actors’ performances-occasionally a weak point in Corman’s early quickie efforts:

“Having seven weeks on this picture, I was able to work a little more closely with the actors, and I think it shows. I had to compromise a few things. I couldn’t really get everything I wanted in seven weeks, but I got most of what I wanted, so if the picture doesn’t turn out well, I can’t blame the schedule.”

But if seven weeks was insufficient to fulfill Corman’s vision as a director, the question arises, why hasn’t he followed the path to multi-million-dollar studio pictures like many directors who got their start with him? “The thought occurred to me,” said Corman. “Frankly I think of myself as more of a sprinter than a long distance runner. I would just as soon go in, work very hard, and finish. After seven or eight weeks, my mind might start to wander, and I might start wondering, ‘Why am I still making this film?”

Corman concludes, “I believe Mary Shelley’s book is a true classic. It is a major novel in western civilization, and it has never gotten the credit it deserves. The very fact that people still read it indicates that it has elements which are universal.”

Interview with Director Roger Corman
Tell us about the story and the novel it comes from.
Roger Corman: It starts in the 21st century. An American statesman or diplomat is transported through a time slip-an accidental result of military warfare in space-to Switzerland in the early 19th century. He wanders into a small village and finds an inn there, and is seated at the only available table. He’s seated next to a man, and they become engaged in conversation; as the man gets up to pay his bill, the innkeeper says. “Thank you, Dr. Frankenstein.” And we are off and running. He has gone back to Switzerland and has met the real Dr. Frankenstein, and he is in at the creation. Another important aspect is the futuristic vehicle that is transported with our hero. I like Brian Aldiss” novel very much, and I want to stay as close to it as I can, though I do have some additional ideas of my own which I incorporated into the first draft of the script myself.

You have not often written your own scripts.
Roger Corman: Yes, I haven’t done that in a long time. It’s because I like the novel-it’s a brilliant novel-that I was very specific on the changes I want to make. I want to make a certain number of small changes that fit my philosophy, and not make more changes. One of the great traps in Hollywood is to buy a very good novel, and then make so many changes that you lose the essence of the novel. Inevitably, any work from another medium, whether it’s a novel, a play, a short story or whatever, must undergo changes to fit the film medium, but I want to keep those changes to a minimum. We’re totally faithful to the spirit of the novel, and in the sequences of the plotting, we’re reasonably faithful, with a few additional ideas, but not many.

Will the Monster match the description in Shelley’s novel?
Roger Corman: No. It’s totally different, what we’re coming up with. I can’t talk about it yet, but I hope it will be completely original.

In the novel, when the man goes back in time, he’s especially surprised to find Dr. Frankenstein, because in the time our hero comes from, Frankenstein is considered fictional. Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein, was involved, too.
Roger Corman: Mary Shelley is still involved. I’ve changed a few things. One, in the novel, a politician goes back; in mine, a scientist goes back, and he’s the scientist who’s primarily responsible for the military research that led to the timeslip.

His own Frankenstein, in the sense of a “Frankenstein” being a creation that destroys its creator.
Roger Corman: Exactly. One of the changes I’ve made is exactly what you said. I wanted to draw a parallel between scientific research in the 21st century and scientific research in the 19th century, which is there in Aldiss’ novel. By making the man who goes back the scientist responsible, and then having him meet Frankenstein, we have as it were two kindred spirits, one a scientist from the 19th century, the other a scientist from the 21st century. I draw that analogy a little more clearly. If there’s a theme, it is the consequences that can occur from irresponsible scientific research.

You seem to have given this a great deal of thought.
Roger Corman: Yes. What I’m trying to make is a picture on two levels, which I’ve tried before and sometimes achieved, sometimes not. To make on one level a horror picture, and on another level, a film with some philosophical content, having to do with the morality of scientific research. I don’t want to make it pretentious; it will not be a philosophical discussion. There will be elements of that theme there for those who want to see it, but for what is probably the majority of the audience, who aren’t interested, they will have ample opportunity to yell at the monster.

For several years, there have been rumors and announcements that you were about to begin work on a Frankenstein project. Is this that same project?
Roger Corman: It is. I started at one time with a different script and didn’t like the script, so I abandoned it. Thom Mount of the Mount Company came to me recently and said he had financing if I wanted to make the film. Well, I really didn’t like the previous approach, but I remembered the Aldiss novel, and if they would go with that novel, I would be happy to film it. They agreed.

So the Aldiss novel wasn’t part of your original plans?
Roger Corman: No, I had a whole different idea, but I wasn’t satisfied with the first draft. Wes Craven was involyed. He’s a good writer. He and I worked together on it, but both of us felt at the end that we hadn’t really pulled it off. We never went beyond the first draft.

Why have you decided to direct again?
Roger Corman: I never planned to stop directing. The last picture I directed magic.

Did you stop directing because of the critical and box office reactions to your last films?
Roger Corman: It certainly wasn’t the critics. Both Gas-S-$ and Von Richthofen were very well received. One magazine said that if I wasn’t the critics’ darling, then I was their mascot! The biggest reason I stopped directing was that I had made fifty films in sixteen years, and I was tired of it. My feelings really became apparent while I was shooting Von Richthofen in Ireland, and I had to restrain myself from flying home every morning. I originally just wanted to take a year off for my family and New World Pictures, but the company took off, and I didn’t get to direct again. I never intended that to happen.

Do you regret the time you spent away from directing?
Roger Corman: I’ve thought about that a lot and I still haven’t come to any real decision. I remember that as a distributor, we distributed low-budget American independent films – most of which we made ourselves, but some we picked up. Then I started distributing European art films and one of these was a film by Federico Fellini (Amarcord. Fellini once said to me, “Roger, forget about distributing and go back to directing!” But I thought too much time had gone by and I’d made this commitment. Over the years I’ve often wondered what would have happened if I’d followed the original plan and taken just one year off and then come back.

Why direct now, and why Frankenstein Unbound?
Roger Corman: A marketing research team discovered that a picture called Roger Corman’s Frankenstein would make a lot of money, but I didn’t want to do a film for that reason. There were already too many Frankenstein movies. I insisted that the only way I’d shoot the project was if a different approach came up. Then I remembered Brian Aldiss” novel, which had the unique approach I was looking for.

Besides its time travel angle, what really differentiates Frankenstein Unbound from the series?
Roger Corman: Aldiss thought up this statesman from 2031 debating over the goals and methods of science with an 1850’s Dr. Frankenstein. Both of them have abused their inventions, and that theme of scientific responsibility was more important to me than the story’s horror aspects. This is also the first Frankenstein movie to really go back to the story’s roots. It involves Mary Shelley, who created Frankenstein and the Monster. Buchanan goes into her past, but it isn’t real, because Shelley’s fictional characters exist alongside her. This film is resultantly about creator, and creation.

Then would you describe Frankenstein Unbound as social commentary?
Roger Corman: I don’t try to make “message” pictures. I just wanted Frankenstein Unbound to be fun and entertaining. But while its action might be on the surface, I’ve put my statement about the dangers of uncontrolled science on a conceptual level.

How did you adapt Aldiss’ novel for the screen?
Roger Corman: I played up the differences between the technologies of future and past, and changed Buchanan from a statesman into a weapons inventor. The location also switched from Geneva to Italy, since that’s where we had our studios. One of the bigger changes came from the studios, who wanted to play up the love triangle between Mary, her husband Percy Blythe Shelly and Lord Byron. So we got Bridget Fonda (Scandal), Jason Patric (The Lost Boys) and INXS Michael Hutchence. This allowed our younger audiences to emotionally identify with the story, since our lead characters were in their 40s.

John Hurt and Raul Julia aren’t people usually associated with horror films. Why did you cast them?
Roger Corman: It was a normal casting procedure, actually. John Hurt and Raul Julia were not big movie stars who commanded giant salaries, but they still received a fair amount of money. I’d always felt that John was a brilliant actor who was always floating on the edge of stardom. That has been John’s whole career. He’s kind of a star – not because he’s been a handsome leading man but simply due to the fact he is an outstanding and intelligent actor. I felt that John could bring his intelligence and sensitivity to playing Buchanan as a rational and humane scientific mind, whereas telt Raul – although he was Puerto Rican – would contrast perfectly as the more passionate Frankenstein. I thought Raul was the right choice in realizing a character that is both pioneering and blindly fearless in what he is attempting to do.

Would you say this is the best cast and material you’ve had?
Roger Corman: It’s definitely one of the best, but you’ve got to remember that I’ve also worked with Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and Peter Lorre!

You once remarked that “directing is a young man’s game.” Is that still true after twenty years?
Roger Corman: Surprisingly enough, I had the energy to shoot Frankenstein Unbound in seven weeks, which was the longest amount of time I’ve ever had on a movie. But if I had to direct like I used to, and shoot picture after picture with little time between them, I wouldn’t have had the stamina. But even an old man can make one or two films a year, especially when he has two months for each of them!

Did you have artistic control over Frankenstein Unbound?
Roger Corman: Not completely, since I shared a producer’s credit and had two major studios distributing the film. That resulted in a few concessions on my part, but I’m still quite satisfied with the way the film came out.

How closely did you work with Nick Brimble on the design of the monster?
Roger Corman: I worked reasonably closely with Nick – who, when we were casting the Monster, was easily the best actor in his height category – but when collaborating with actors my technique as a director is not to be telling them, “Pick up that coffee cup on line three.” It’s more concerned with my discussing the role with them in advance so that we are both in agreement on the basic thrust of the character. I then leave a lot up to them during shooting. I’ve seldom had problems with actors, but I believe that when problems do occur between a director and an actor it’s almost always over the interpretation of a character. As long as the actor and I are on the same page as it were in regards to the interpretation, I give them considerable freedom and just of fer suggestions on the set. I’m there to respectfully help them, not dictate to them.

Does Frankenstein Unbound go for the sex and violence, like some of your earlier films?
Roger Corman: I wanted to be straighter here, because I’m intentionally trying to recall my Poe series with Frankenstein Unbound. For pictures like Masque of the Red Death, I’d go for a restrained, gothic style that accentuated the mood over the terror. I wouldn’t even classify my Poe films as horror. Was it easier to work with $9 million? Not really, because of the huge overhead costs involved, including the cast. A lot of the budget was swallowed up there, so Frankenstein Unbound wasn’t a very different working situation for me. I still had to cut corners, and my best trick for that was doing a lot of tight shots for the interiors, which made the sets even more impressive. The prosthetic makeup also looks great, especially since we had Nick Dudman work on them after Batman.

Though your past films have cult followings, would you say this is your biggest attempt at capturing a mainstream audience?
Roger Corman: With the amount of money that’s being spent on the film, I’m trying to go for the widest possible audience. But I’ve gotten plenty of viewers before, especially with films like The Trip and The Wild Angels, whose grosses still compare favorably with today’s big-budget films.

Is Frankenstein Unbound guaranteed to make a profit?
Roger Corman: Very few movies are assured of making money, but it’s certainly easier to get a profit with the video market. A lot of Concorde’s films get their money back that way. Since 20th Century Fox and Warner Brothers were financing Frankenstein Unbound, I didn’t stand to lose any money.

Of course, a major element of any FRANKENSTEIN film is its monster. In keeping with the Aldiss novel, Corman and company presented us with a more articulate, intellectual monster, along the line of Shelley’s original creation. “We went heavily back to the original concept of the monster,” explains Corman. “In Shelely’s novel, the monster, although uneducated, was quite intelligent and could give vent to his emotions.”

Cast in the role was English Shakespearian actor Nick Brimble, although Corman had originally wanted a tall basketball player capable of quick, athletic movements. “I felt there would be so much prosthetics on the actor’s face that the acting wouldn’t shine through and that I could loop the voice in,” claims the director. “But when we were casting, Nick Brimble read so well that I changed my plan and decided maybe the acting would come through, and I’m very happy I made the change.”

Makeup artist Nick Dudman signed on to Corman’s film for a chance to create his own Frankenstein monster, but he was a bit taken aback by other gory requirements, such as showing the monster ripping open Elizabeth’s chest. “This isn’t a splatter movie, but it gets close a couple of times,” recalls Dudman. “We rigged it in such a way that you couldn’t linger on it. For one thing, we had no time to build anything too sophisticated; in fact, that was quite a good safety net for us, because it meant they couldn’t ask for too much gratuitous gore.”

Dudman also provided a makeup for when Frankenstein revives his fiance’s body. “We had a design point for the monster whereby, instead of bolts in the neck, we had heavily sculpted copper and silver contacts on either side of his forehead, so we did a delicate little pair for her.” Dudman also had to repair the chest wound that had killed the character. “Which was fun, because Kate [Catherine Rabett] is not the most well-endowed lady, chest-wise. It was quite handy because it meant we could build out her left breast quite substantially and leave the scarring up over her right breast on a very thin prosthetic. It gave the impression that one breast was completely missing. It looked very painful.”

In order to insure that Brimble’s acting came through, Dudman’s twelve-piece prosthetic makeup was designed not to obscure the actor’s features. “Basically, you’ve got Nick Brimble’s face surrounded by a lot of foam rubber,” explains the makeup artist. “Apart from the nose piece and the edge of the cheeks, the center of the face is his own, so you see what he’s doing as an actor. I decided that if you really want to bring out the subtleties in an actor, then whatever you slap on his face has got to be very thin, very subtle. What you do around his face is completely irrelevant.”


Poster art that David Christensen created while working on the poster of Roger Corman’s “Frankenstein Unbound” (1990)

Roger Corman

Jay Cassidy
Roger Corman
Kobi Jaeger
Laura J. Medina
Thom Mount

Roger Corman
F. X. Feeney
Based on Frankenstein Unbound
by Brian Aldiss

Carl Davis

John Hurt as Joe Buchanan
Raul Julia as Victor Frankenstein
Bridget Fonda as Mary Shelley
Nick Brimble as Frankenstein’s monster
Catherine Rabett as Elizabeth Lavenza
Jason Patric as Lord Byron
Michael Hutchence as Percy Shelley
Catherine Corman as Justine Moritz
Mickey Knox as General Reade
Terri Treas as Voice of Computer

Cinefantastique v20n05
Cinefantastique v21n04
Imagi-Movies v02n02
Rue Morgue#160
Toxic Horror#05

One thought on “Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound (1990)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s