Surely you remember any number of those cheeky revisionist monster fight flicks from the last few years: The self-aware, vaguely spoofy, all-too-cutesy and well-remembered entertainments like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, or Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Sure there was also the truly lugubrious Jack The Giant Slayer in that mix, and I would count the bafflingly popular and utterly ghastly 300 in that lot, but for the most part, these openly deliberate mutations of famous stories or myths are harmless fun. Most of them are possessed of a slight, jokey, tongue-in-cheek tone, allowing the films to play less as serious reconsiderations of time-old material and more like the Mad Magazine versions of themselves.
Stuart Beattie’s bugnuts-crazy monster mash I, Frankenstein (based on a comic book) has no such levity, despite how off-the-wall it is. This is a steel-colored, stony-serious war picture that just happens to be about the eternal battle between demons and gargoyles, and the innocent warrior Frankenstein who gets caught in the middle. The premise is the stuff of 10-year-old boy fantasies, or perhaps an ambitious luchador film from the 1960s. This is the kind of film where actors scream lines like “Return to the Gargoyle Queen! Tell her I have Frankenstein’s journal!” and never once crack a smile, wink to the audience, or give the audience the slightest hint that this is perhaps the single stupidest monster film of the last decade.
The story of I, Frankenstein picks up where Mary Shelley’s novel left off, leaving the tragic monster (Aaron Eckhart) to murder his creator. As the embittered monster is burying Dr. Frankenstein, he is suddenly besieged by a pack of roving demons who “must return him to Prince Naberius!” The monster is luckily protected by a passing gang of holy gargoyles who, as we soon learn (from gargoyle queen Miranda Otto), are God’s army on Earth sent to fight encroaching demon threats. The gargoyles try to enlist the Frankenstein into their army, but he refuses, looking out for #1. Fast-forward 200 years, and good ol’ Frankie is still alive, and still fighting off the occasional demon.
Additionally: a comely medical doctor named Terra (Yvonne Strahovski) has just now found a way to resurrect dead rats with a laser chamber (you read that correctly), and the head of the modern-day demons (Bill Nighy) wants to use the machine to… Look, does the story really matter? Let’s just wrack up a goofiness tally instead: Medical doctors refer to the Frankenstein story as “just a myth.” Frankenstein leaps off the roof of a car and punches a gargoyle in the face. There are gargoyles in the film. A gargoyle warrior keeps his axe in three parts just so he can assemble it on the battlefield. An evil demon lord – even though he doesn’t know if he’ll ever actually discover the right technology – has been amassing bodies for years in the hopes that maybe he’ll be able to resurrect them someday, maybe. And at one point, there is a glowing computer readout on a screen indicating just how alive a creature is by percentage. I guess something can be only 17.2% alive.
Oh, yes, and let us not forget the bizarre detail that there seem to be no people in this universe. Aside from our lead human character, and a few fleeting scenes in a club and on a subway train, the city where this film is set (Budapest? Bucharest? Detroit?) seems to be absent of human beings. Demons and gargoyles fight across the rooftops, turning one another into smoking fireballs of death, smashing walls, breaking cars, and generally causing huge amounts of general mayhem, and not one person seems to be present to witness any of this.
The aesthetic of I, Frankenstein is colorless and drab, having taken its visual cues from the disposable Underworld films. The gargoyles are sloppy CGI concoctions with gray skin and no distinguishing characteristics. In close-ups, the demons at least seem to be actors in makeup, but in battle scenes, they are a mob of flashing video game avatars. Thank goodness we have someone like Bill Nighy to deliver his monster dialogue with the appropriate Hammer Film panache and no small amount of glee. And I do have to give credit to Eckhart, whose performance as Frankenstein is miles afield from Boris Karloff, and buddying uncomfortably close to a typically tough, ripped movie badass.
Wow. Aaron Eckhart’s career has taken a few weird turns, hasn’t it? You have to admire a man who can work with Neil LaBute on multiple occasions, and then turns around to star in a charming indie comedy, a Batman film, and some truly awful Hollywood garbage (he was in Battle Los Angeles). I, Frankenstein is certainly of the latter vintage.
And while I can openly acknowledge I, Frankenstein as the open can of stupidity that it is, I am tempted to recommend it nonetheless for its plucky insanity. The film may not be having too much fun with its monster-on-monster action, but many people at my midnight screening were certainly having a ball with it, giggling in constant incredulity. I, Frankenstein may be destined to become a late-night camp-fest in dorm rooms across the country. It will not, however, be defended as good.