Over the last decade or so, a variety of spins on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein have stalked the airwaves. Some have been dull two-hour telepics (TNT’s 1993 version comes to mind), others wild diversions on past big studio experiments like House of Frankenstein ‘97. Like a faulty car battery, the boob tube has slowly been draining the life from Shelley’s story to the point where you have to ask, “Where’s big Frank to go now?” Is there any charge left in the old Frankenstein monster idea to excite fiends like myself who still hold James Whale’s 1931 film and Karloff’s unforgettable visage close to heart?
At the time of this writing, two prominent names in entertainment, one of whom is moderately known within horror circles for his divisive remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, are combining their strengths to confidently prove there’s at least an entire series worth of shows to tap with a modern twist from the Frankenstein legend.
This October USA Network is debuting the aptly titled Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein series penned by the novelist himself and realized by director Marcus Nispel. Koontz will also serve as executive producer with Goodfellas’ Martin Scorsese and 24’s Tony Krantz. Filling out the cast are Parker Posey, Adam Goldberg, Vincent Perez, and Michael Madsen. It goes without saying that based on all of the involved talents alone, a certain amount of interest is generated. But look beneath the surface of this marketable package, and you’ll find a script that is a pieced-together Monster in and of itself with some parts being greater than the whole. It’s an amalgamation of every formulaic cop show you’ve ever seen that is almost consumed by moments of self-serious melodrama. And when it’s not brushing ever so lightly over a premise covered by Swamp Thing: The Series, Koontz also makes a little room to stumble around in Cronenberg territory.
Here’s the gimmick, and I’ll serve it to you straight up with a plot chaser to follow: The Monster teams up with two detectives to take down Dr. Victor Frankenstein in modern-day Seattle. Funky, eh? It’s a concept that’ll immediately turn you off or on, but let me elaborate. Our protagonists are detectives Carson O’Connor (a rough ‘n tough tomboy) and Michael Maddison; they’re wrapped up in a murder investigation in which certain organs have been surgically removed from the victims. Shades of Jack the Ripper? You bet, and the references to other literary and cinematic horror icons don’t stop there. Koontz names another pair of detectives Harker and Frye, and Maddison playfully jokes about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at one point. While all of this is happening, we’re also introduced to a circus performer named Deucalion, the Frankenstein Monster who has lived for 200 years on the gift of immortality lightning has given him. Also alive and well is his creator, Victor Frankenstein, an affluent member of the Seattle community cloaked under the identity Robert Ingolstadt. All three plots surrounding these characters collide somewhere around the second act when O’Connor learns from Deucalion that his creator has been keeping himself busy constructing a race of men and women who are weaving themselves into society as priests, security guards . . . regular folk. (Thankfully they don’t appear in the guise of grunge rockers.) But Victor’s plan begins to fray at the seams when one of his “experiments” begins killing its own kind.
Koontz expands the core idea and theme behind Shelley’s novel by giving Victor a larger playing field in which to meddle with his experiments. However, unlike previous incarnations, there’s no empathy to be had for the good doctor. Koontz’s portrayal here is very cut and dried. Good vs. Evil – with Victor playing for the latter team. His God complex has wholly consumed him; at one point he gets off on the strangulation of one of his female creations when she asks him to destroy her. Elsewhere in the script he leaves a conversation with a priest by saying “God bless you,” a playful joke because, in fact, the cleric is actually one of the doctor’s “children.” There’s no gray area when it comes to Victor and no sense that there’s retribution for this man down the road. What differentiates him from a one-dimensional antagonist like, as previously mentioned, Dr. Arcane of the Swamp Thing series, who only served to keep the show afloat by cooking up new creatures each episode, is a very thin line.
O’Connor and Maddison are slightly more fleshed out than their adversary although their relationship is annoyingly reliant on the weak-humored banter they exchange while on the job. Their romantic chemistry, on the page, feels non-existent until Koontz forces the issue to come to the forefront when Maddison ponders, to another character, what his life would be like with O’Connor if they weren’t partners. While Maddison seeks to answer this unneeded question in his head, Koontz provides O’Connor with emotional meat of her own to chew on concerning the fact that she lives with her 12-year-old autistic brother. Naturally, Koontz aligns a connection between this “special” kid and Deucalion – a cliché mark of death as far as I’m concerned. And as for Deucalion, setting him up as a staple circus attraction is an intriguing approach; but again, like so much that happens in the script, Koontz puts a tacky flair on the Monster such as the “glow” of an electrical charge one can see crackling in his eyes. He has also had a Maori-style tattoo inked onto one side of his face to hide some disfigurement; that I can live with if the end result has an intimidating and creepy effect.
A pilot episode, for all intents and purposes, makes or breaks a series, so will viewers want to come back for seconds? There will likely be a straggler or two looking for an ounce of cult value to cling to, trying to recapture that “thing” that made The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer fun. But I don’t see enough of a spark in Koontz’s Frankenstein to sustain a horror fan’s curiosity.
Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein
Draft: November 24, 2003
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