The Empire of Corpses
Kim Newman’s Nightmare Movies
Kim Newman rummages through the straight-to-DVD treasure trunk
Unusual touches and a profusion of ideas are let down by hasty direction and animé clichés in this steampunk revisiting of Frankenstein.
In a parallel 19th century, society has been reshaped by the scientific innovations of Victor Frankenstein and Charles Babbage. A vast underclass of living corpses function as soldiers, servants or suicide bombers – revived by Frankensteinian injections and programmed with punch-card software generated by Babbage’s giant proto-computers. In 1878, boyish medical student John Watson reanimates a close (perhaps, very close) friend as a sad-eyed scribbler he names Friday (though his official designation is Noble Savage 007). Blackmailed by one-eyed spymaster Walsingham, who uses the code-name M, Watson and Friday are packed off on a quest to get the lost notes of Victor Frankenstein. These are being used by renegade Russian scientist Alexei Karamazov, who is holed up in an Afghan stronghold. Alexei wants to refine the process to match Frankenstein’s original, unrepeated experiment in creating an articulate monster with a soul (or, at least, intelligence). Also involved in a chase that dashes about the world – including spells in Tokyo and San Francisco – before looping back to London are macho British adventurer Frederick Burnaby (a real historical character), bosomy American mystery woman Hadaly Lilith (an Edison-made automaton, working for ex-President Grant), the USS Nautilus (a nod to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as much as Jules Verne), and Frankenstein’s white-bearded original monster (‘the One’).
This steampunk animé is based on a novel by Project Itoh, which seems to borrow an approach from my own Anno Dracula. It takes a different Gothic text as source but similarly extrapolates a world dominated by fall-out from a famous monster’s story and mixes in real people and characters from other Victorian fiction. The book was published posthumously (completed by Tô Enjo), which might explain why the film’s plot clanks a little as it waffles about weighty themes (what is a soul?) while speeding through incidents (several wars and mini-apocalypses), which might have benefited from a more leisurely approach. Too often the main characters are on the sidelines of mass action, watching or taking notes while battles are fought or maddened zombies run riot (seemingly turning vampire by the amount of neck-biting on view). There are several unusual elements, like the understated homoerotic bond between Watson (who doesn’t hook up with his usual partner until an after-the-credits tag) and his corpse near-doppelganger Friday, but the picture slips into an animé-manga rut as it all boils down to a world-changing catastrophic event masterminded by a cackling villain and thwarted by straight-up good guys. A confusion of characters – including a Karloff-look flat-headed brute – clash with each other at the Tower of London as a Big Magic Effect appears in the skies above.
The animation is variable, with rich detail and backgrounds but some shaky character stuff (Hadaly’s ridiculous breasts are rather disturbing).
Watch the trailer: