November 07, 1994 12:00 PM

Robert De Niro, Kenneth Branagh, Helena Bonham Carter, John Cleese

Trying to improve on director James Whale’s 1930s horror classics Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein is like hanging stuffed dice from the rearview mirror of a Lamborghini. But nobody ever said Francis Ford Coppola let good taste get in the way of his ego. Having desecrated 1931’s Dracula with 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Coppola now serves as producer of this dehorrorized, desensitized $45 million costume epic. Coppola’s Frankenstein monster not only speaks in articulate English but he also reads and utters such unmonsterlike lines as “I’m capable of more love than you can imagine.”

Branagh, who directed this movie, also plays the well-meaning but misguided mad scientist who raids a cemetery for parts for an artificially created man. The brain he uses for his experiment belonged to predecessor mad scientist Cleese, the old Monty Pythonite whose mere appearance elicits unwanted chuckles even before he starts ranting about “reanimants.”

De Niro, as the bald-headed monster, doesn’t lurch in traditional Frankenstein fashion. Instead, he walks with only a slight limp and even proves to be an Olympic-caliber swimmer. Nor is De Niro’s performance any threat to the memory of Boris Karloff, who in the 1931 original gave the monster a personality despite heavy makeup and no real lines. De Niro communicates less emotion even though his face is visible despite a mass of suture scars.

Branagh lets himself overact at a fever pitch, with a teeth-gritting intensity more suited to O’Neill than Shelley. Bonham Carter, as Branagh’s, financée has two modes, rapture and tantrum. The best acting comes from Ian Holm, the English Joe Pesci, as Branagh’s father, and Tom Hulce, as Branagh’s good friend from medical school.

This movie shamelessly lifts the Bride scene in which the monster meets a kindly old blind man in a cabin—the one Mel Brooks, Gene Hack-man and Peter Boyle parodied so artfully in 1974’s Young Frankenstein. (R)

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