Bernard Rose on updating Frankenstein and Candyman’s legacy

We talk to Bernard Rose about faithfully adapting Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

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One of the great complaints that fans of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein have (yes, that’s all of us) is that no one’s ever got the film quite right. Obviously the James Whale classics are masterpieces, but they’re not exactly the novel. Since then, they’ve either been overwrought and turgid, or they’ve just used the title to have fun with a movie about bringing the dead to life.

At first glance, Bernard Rose’s Frankenstein might look like it belongs in the latter category, but despite taking the novel to present-day LA, it’s actually remarkably faithful. It even has a soulful creature, played by the superb Xavier Samuel (The Loved Ones, Twilight). In this version, he’s brought to life by Beverly Hills doctors Victor and Elizabeth Frankenstein (Danny Huston and Carrie-Ann Moss), but is left to die when his body begins to sicken. Cast out and wandering the streets of LA, Adam sees just how beautiful and horrible humanity can be.

We had the chance to talk to Rose about updating Shelley, how you can’t avoid James Whale, why he keeps coming back to horror, and why Candyman still resonates.

How did this come about?

Quite simply, it came about by me reading the novel, which I’d never read before. I was very impressed by the novel, and by how it had been misrepresented by most of the key representations. The James Whale film is so indelible it’s almost affected the way we read the text anyway. You can’t ignore the Whale movie, and at the same time I wanted to get back to something closer to what Mary Shelley had actually intended. So I came up with the idea of taking the chapters from the monster’s point of view. I thought, well the monster is the character everybody’s interested in so let’s just make a film about the monster.

And it starts with the “It’s alive!” moment!

Well, what also struck me from looking at all the movies is that they always have this rather dull first act where the guy’s going [dramatic voice] “I want to create life!” Alright, get on with it! The movie comes alive when he does. Let’s start there.

I was surprised by how well it suits being updated.

One of the brilliant things about the novel is that it’s 200 years old and people still read it, not just because they’re forced to. Mary Shelley intuited right at the very beginning of the scientific era that the object of science would be to try and create consciousness, and it’s still our objective 200 years later. As opposed to sci-fi novels of Jules Verne, which have been overtaken by events. And Mary Shelley actually drives at the very heart of the scientific question which is: should we be doing all this? That’s why it still feels very modern, because it’s still our real concern.

If you look at the Whale film what’s interesting is that it’s not set in 1819. It’s set in a weird, almost 1930s world. It’s obviously shot mostly on the backlot at Universal, but the women don’t have 19th century hairdos, they have 1930s hairdos. No one ever says what year it is and the technology doesn’t look like technology from 1819 at all.

So I think that audiences in 1931 wouldn’t have gone “Oh that’s a period piece.” I think when they’ve done Frankenstein films and tried to put them in the era that Mary Shelley wrote the book, it’s a struggle because actually in 1819 there was nothing. She was a visionary.

It’s nice to see Elizabeth have a more active role as well, she’s working with Victor…

Elizabeth Frankenstein is always banging on the door of the laboratory going “Victor! What are you doing?” That doesn’t work in a modern context, she should be a scientist and his partner. It is interesting that Frankenstein is a story about a man who makes a creature, where it’s of course something that women do routinely, but it’s interesting that it is written by a woman. There’s something very interesting going on there, I’m not quite sure I understand what it is.

Xavier Samuel as Adam on the streets of LA
Xavier Samuel as Adam on the streets of LA

Was it important to you to give the Creature the voice that he has in the novel?

I think that my reason for doing it in the first place was that there seemed to be no film adaptation that caught the way the monster speaks. He sounds like Lord Byron in the book, he doesn’t go [monster noise], I think that’s important. She created a sensitive, sophisticated creature that has a soul. She didn’t create a lumbering beast who wants to rip people’s heads off. He’s not the golem. He’s a human being, and that’s the tragedy of Frankenstein.

Watching him go on that journey is really moving…

Well, in that sense we all feel like that, don’t we? We were born into this world and nobody tells us what’s going on and everybody’s horrible, and then people are violent and threats are everywhere and then we die!

Speaking of the monster, did you want to steer clear of the Universal look?

Not only did I not want to have the look of the Universal monster, but they also have copyrighted the look of the make-up so anything that even vaguely relates to it is absolutely off limits! But I had a very different concept. He’s degrading and I wanted it to look real, he’s got sarcomas and flesh eating diseases and things like that. He looks diseased.

A key thing that’s different in this adaptation is that the book never tells you how Victor Frankenstein makes the monster. The ship’s captain asks him “How did you do this?” and he says “I’m not going to tell you because I don’t want you or anyone else following in my footsteps.” So James Whale very logically decided that he must have dug up body parts and used them as the building blocks of his creature, but in a modern context you wouldn’t do that. The book says that he created life, not that he reanimated a corpse.

I think that’s really important because the story of Frankenstein is that the monster kills the people who are close to Frankenstein, it’s a way of punishing him. But if Victor really has the ability to reanimate corpses it makes that kind of meaningless. I think it’s always been an unspoken mistake in the Whale films, that obviously made complete sense at the time. Now we have come to think of Frankenstein’s monster as being stitched together from body parts, that’s not what Mary Shelley wrote. Obviously the 3D printer would be the way to go now. Why would you have to dig somebody up? They’d be rotten anyway! It wouldn’t work, the veins would be collapsed!

I wanted to ask about working with Tony Todd again. He’s brilliant as the blind beggar.

It’s in the book, and in Bride Of Frankenstein the blind beggar is a pivotal part in the story. When I moved it to downtown LA somebody said “what about Tony?” And I immediately thought what an incredible idea, he’s so great, I hadn’t seen him in 20 years and it was lovely to see him again, and he really leapt into it. He added so much complexity and heart to that part of the film.

The other film that you have to fear is of course the Mel Brooks film, Young Frankenstein which is a kind of masterpiece in its own right and there’s that incredible scene with Gene Hackman which is possibly the funniest scene in the film. So somehow I thought “I’m not going to avoid this, he’s got to give him a cigarette!” And if he doesn’t you’re not doing Frankenstein! But I think that Tony did it with such sincerity and such grace that it’s not funny at all but very moving.

Adam with his creator Victor Frankenstein (Danny Huston)
Adam with his creator Victor Frankenstein (Danny Huston)

How have you found the reaction to the film so far?

So far the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive which is wonderful. I think it was a slight shame of timing that there was the other big film that Fox made, Victor Frankenstein, I haven’t seen it but for whatever reason it didn’t capture people’s imagination so it’s difficult now with my film to say what’s different about it, but to me Frankenstein is a key text. A book like Frankenstein can always and will always be adapted and readapted because it’s a key text of the modern era. It’s a very important book. And incredibly, written by a 19 year old. Amazing.

You’re obviously not exclusively a horror filmmaker, but why do you think you keep returning to the genre?

I do have a somewhat dark imagination and when you put it in the context of horror, suddenly people think “Oh, I’m up for a bit of Grand Guignol,” and they’ll go and watch it. The genre is a great place where you can have a vehicle for ideas without the pressure to be positive, which seems like a weird thing to say, but I can’t watch rom-coms. I actually come out of them wanting to kill myself. I find them deeply depressing. Sometimes I think it’s really useful to say something in the genre because it gives you a bit of liberty and it gives you the commercial value. Drama is the kiss to the studios nowadays.

Do you think that the landscape has changed in terms of getting a horror film made?

I think that it’s always a miracle to make any film. When I made Paperhouse people were saying “That’s it, movies are dead, especially in Britain, it’s all over.” There’s always somebody telling you that, and then 20 years later they’re still saying it. So the movie business is just a corpse that won’t lie down. It’s very hard to find things that are frightening for an audience, especially in this day and age, but I love the challenge.

I love the idea of taking 19th century texts and putting them in a modern context. Frankenstein was kind of dipping my toe into a new thing that I’m interested in doing more of now, which is basically radical updates of classic tales.

Would they be horror as well?

We’re talking in the horror genre. Anything to avoid it being a drama, and I think it’s a wonderful challenge to frighten an audience and to put them on edge. And if you can beat them up a bit, then they’ll listen to the ideas too. We’re always going to want it because 99% of horror films are trash but the 1% of horror films that are not trash are the best films ever made. The great titans of the genre like The Shining, The Exorcist, The Devils, they’re towering cinematic achievements. They’re so visceral to watch, you watch them and your breath is taken away. No one needs to explain why it’s good, you come out of it panting, and that’s what’s great about a great horror film. Like a comedy, it’s a cathartic experience. Something that really excites an audience. And that’s why it’s a great genre, it’s a great genre to play with as a filmmaker.

Virginia Madsen goes looking for an urban legend in Candyman
Virginia Madsen goes looking for an urban legend in Candyman

I want to quickly ask about Candyman; how does it feel to see it reevaluated as a modern horror classic?

Obviously it’s very gratifying that that’s the case. I think what was unique about Candyman, what we tried to do was to give it a real grounding in social reality and to make it about something. And to make the characters as important as they would be in any drama. I think once you concentrate on the characters and the reality of the situation, then the horror can become more intense, and I think that’s why Candyman still resonates. It actually is addressing the dark past of American history, which is enslavement of African people, and it’s about that in a very oblique way. And again, that’s what’s so interesting about horror films is that when you’re dealing with people’s fears, you’re dealing with the things underneath society and drive it.

It still feels so relevant as well, the issues that it deals with are still around so it hasn’t aged a day!

No, it hasn’t. If you’re going to make somebody frightening you’ve got to set the film in an environment that people are actually frightened in, and that’s an environment that terrifies people, a housing project, a council estate. You go in them and you fear for your life, and then you suddenly go “Wait a minute…” When you start thinking about that, there is something so wrong about it! Why? It’s just somewhere people live. Fear must be rational, and it is largely of course. You can be attacked anywhere.

Frankenstein is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and digital platforms from Signature Entertainment. Keep up with the latest horror news with the new issue of SciFiNow.