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Shadowvision: “MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN”

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Welcome to Shadowvision, a regular column in which Fangoria.com revisits modern horror films in black-and-white. The purpose is to analyze these films through a new lens, seeing if the classically informed viewing experience will give a new angle to familiar images. If you’d like to watch along at home, it’s simple: go into your TV settings and desaturate the picture completely, then adjust the contrast and brightness to fit either standard or high definition

Among the most well-known and iconic of black and white horror films, the Universal Monster movies are considered to be an extension of the origin of horror cinema. While it was certainly predated by some silent terrors, the Universal Monster era became a cultural phenomenon during their releases and would go on to influence filmmakers and artists for decades since. But those black and white classics are only as strong as their source material, and in the years since, the later adaptations of that material never quite hit that unique cinematic stride that the Universal Monster films could.

However, with the experimental nature of Shadowvision, this writer has certainly attempted to see if any of the adaptations of FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA and the like could capture that Universal Monster magic in black and white. While Francis Ford Coppola’s DRACULA was a more frightening adaptation in black and white, it never reached tonal or atmospheric similarities to the classic Tod Browning adaptation. And with the recent glut of FRANKENSTEIN films, varying from reimaginings to found footage takes to even giving the character the antihero treatment, there’s few that cry out for a black and white viewing as much as the Coppola-produced adaptation of MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN from Kenneth Branagh.

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Technically speaking, this edition of Shadowvision once again depends on the set-up on the presentation. While even High Definition sets might want to increase the contrast up a notch, most HD sets will have a natural brightness to the presentation that will provide a great balance of black and white. Standard Definition, on the other hand, might need to increase the contrast and brightness to achieve a similar picture, especially for bigger sets. In any case, drastic increases in contrast are unnecessary, as a radical contrast will blow out daytime scenes without improving skin tone or shadowing.

In black and white, Branagh’s FRANKENSTEIN is a much more intriguing beast than its color counterpart, offering a tale that’s much more visually haunting than elegant. Much like Coppola’s DRACULA, black and white FRANKENSTEIN captures the frightening element of the source material much easier, and the monster itself truly feels more monstrous despite having a multidimensional portrayal thanks to the superb contemporary script and direction. And the scope of the production, while incredible in the color version of the film, is much less tied to color and is much more representative of a Gothic inspiration than Coppola’s DRACULA in monochrome.

However, the greatest benefit FRANKENSTEIN earns from a black and white re-examination comes from the unique visual composition of the film. While gorgeous in color, Branagh’s FRANKENSTEIN is less focused on the romantic elements of it source material as it is the historical tragedy of it all. Therefore, the black and white visuals create a compositional continuity between the snow-ridden landscapes, the archaic medical halls and various other locales. In that sense, FRANKENSTEIN feels like a much more immersive experience, and every black and white frame feels authentically grimy, sweaty and unnerving as a whole.

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However, MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN is also quite problematic in black and white, especially considering Coppola’s DRACULA is shot much more extravagantly than Branagh’s FRANKENSTEIN. While certain characters, including both of the monsters in the film, benefit from the monochrome visuals, other characters fit firmly into a greyscale, only appearing better during heavily lit frames. The gore of the film also feels less effective in black and white; the bloody messes left by the monster’s wrath have a gorgeous red appearance in color when balanced against the classical costumes and decor, which cannot be replicated by gruesome smears against the colorless background. And while the film does carry a creepier, more haunting atmosphere in black and white, the film itself doesn’t quite capture the stranger tone of Shelley’s novel in the same way that Whale did so effortlessly in his Karloff-led version.

Yet the oddest failure of MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN comes in the form of Branagh’s cinematic voice, as his focus on finding the inherent drama of FRANKENSTEIN comes secondary to creating a dramatic horror story in the way Coppola had done so well with DRACULA. Ironically, the performances of FRANKENSTEIN are one of the elements that works superbly in black and white, with Branagh’s classic sensibilites and casting beyond type made for some truly compelling and almost RKO-esque ensemble work. Yet while the film is unnerving and well-made, it doesn’t have the horror moments that really capture the imagination and inject it with fright in the way that seeing DRACULA lurk into the shadows and become hundreds of rats can be. Considering how creepy the medical lair of FRANKENSTEIN could have been, a less bland take on terror could have made this Shadowvision a radically different experience.

Overall, despite being a horror film in genre, it’s precisely the lack of focus on the horror that makes MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN an interesting but ultimately unfavorable Shadowvision experience. While fans of the film may admire the more immersive and transparent black and white experience, there’s little to be mined in terms of scares or tone that don’t pale in comparison to the original FRANKENSTEIN film. In this case, the cons outweigh the pros, so for those looking to dip contemporary toes of these adaptations into monochrome water, you may want to go back to the far more terrifying in black and white BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA instead.

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Recommended for Black and White Consumption?: No.

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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