Back in 1984, Tim Burton was just starting his film career. He had never directed a feature film, but he came to Walt Disney Pictures with a concept and vision that was approved as a 30 minute short. This year, Frankenweenie got the feature film treatment, but this was the original version.
Cast and Crew Information
Shelley Duvall as Susan Frankenstein
Daniel Stern as Ben Frankenstein
Barret Oliver as Victor Frankenstein
Joseph Maher as Mr. Chambers
Roz Braverman as Mrs. Epstein
Paul Bartel as Mr. Walsh
Sofia Coppola as Anne Chambers
Jason Hervey as Frank Dale
Written by Tim Burton and Leonard Ripps
Directed by Tim Burton
Young Victor Frankenstein loves his dog, Sparky. Unfortunately, he’s an idiot when it comes to safely playing with his dog. Sparky chases a ball out onto the street and is killed by an oncoming vehicle. Inspired by a demonstration in science class, young Victor digs up the corpse of his beloved pet and reanimated it with mad science and electricity.
A tremendous amount of Tim Burton’s individual style is present here at the start of his career. The influences of German expressionism from the 1920s, Universal horror films from the 1930s and his twisted sense of humour are all on excellent display.
Burton may have been unique and distinctive at this stage, but he wasn’t perfect. Blocking and staging scenes is an aspect of filmmaking that shows clear room for improvement.
There is a definite sense of originality here. Although there are extreme and deliberate parallels to the James Whale directed Frankenstein (1931), Burton took those story points and dealt with entirely different and far more upbeat themes. I give it 5 out of 6.
The effects are mixed. The electricity and makeup effects are surprisingly effective, but some of the effects during the climax are pretty poor. I give it 4 out of 6.
The story generally holds up. The initial introduction to happy family life seems a little long and ham-handed, and Sparky’s death scene was far too predictable, but once the triggering event has taken place, the rest progresses quite nicely. I give it 4 out of 6.
The acting is very impressive for a short film. The cast is very capable, including a mix of people who were known and respected at the time and others who would become known and respected later in their careers. As an aside, Daniel Stern looks jarringly different when clean shaven with neatly combed hair. I give it 5 out of 6.
The production is irritatingly close to perfect. The lighting, photography direction and editing are all virtually flawless. The German expressionist influences are used in appropriate moments to connect the mundane real world of the initial scenes with the fantastical world that will be created by the time the short is over. Unfortunately, there are moments of staging and blocking that are clearly amateurish, failing to allow a smooth flow of the narrative. Characters are often seen in places that are chosen to fit that moment, but don’t flow effectively from scene to scene or even shot to shot, disrupting the narrative flow. I give it 4 out of 6.
The emotional response is good. Burton’s twisted humor is used very effectively in the film, carrying the story along and bridging scenes nicely. I give it 5 out of 6.
Overall, it’s an entertaining short in its own right. If you have the opportunity to check it out, I’d recommend you do, both as a piece of entertainment and as a component to study the growth of a present day auteur. I give it 5 out of 6.
In total, Frankenweenie (1984) receives 32 out of 42.