Frankenstein: The True Story (1973)

James Mason stars in a very interesting and well made Frankenstein television movie. Universal R1 DVD.

The Film                                     

In the 1960s, the last word on Frankenstein came from Hammer films - Curse of Frankenstein (1957) starring Peter Cushing had been a global sucess, and kick started a new era of gothic horror, and four sequels followed over the next few years, with varying quality. However, when the 1970s rolled around, horror became exploitation and the British studio lagged behind - after the failure of Horror of Frankenstein (1970), which tried to re-start the franchise, it seemed that Hammer's Frankenstein run was over (although they would shoot a last film, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell in 1974). Aiming to appeal to the gothic horror fans, who didn't just want exploitation, but enjoyed a well written story, Universal Television comissioned Frankenstein: The True Story for American television broadcast - it would also be shown theatrically in Europe.

The story opens (after a short introduction by actor James Mason), with Victor Frankenstein and Elizabeth Fanschawe relaxing by a lake - an accident occurs, and Victor's brother William drowns. Storming out of the funeral, he expresses his annoyance that any man can take away life, but he cannot create it. Returning to his studies at a hospital, he meets Dr. Henry Clerval, a man, it emerges, engaged in trying to do just that - his miniature experiments, sucessfully returning insects to life. However, he needs help to complete a full project and employs Victor's help. Together they construct a laboratory, and create a man from body parts - unfortunately, Clerval discovers that his apparatus is not set-up properly and that the effects are slowly reversing in the existing project - but he dies of a heart attack before he can tell Victor. Nonplussed, Victor transplants Clerval's head into the body and sucessfully brings him to life. Taking the new man home, Victor teaches him how to talk and read, and trains him to become a member of society. Unfortunately, the reversing effect takes hold, and the creature starts to worsen in appearance until Victor begins to reject him and the creature flees.

Finding himself lost, the creature finds a friend in a blind old man, but flees when his granddaughter, and her boyfriend arrive. When they do see him, there is some violent confusion, and Agatha (Jane Seymore) is killed by a passing coach. The creature takes the body back to the laboratory where he was created, only to find that the mysterious Dr. John Polidori (James Mason) (who has been spying on the project since its inception) has taken it over, and replaced it with his own alchemist lab. He contacts Victor, on his wedding day, and re-introduces him to the creature he thought dead, and they force Victor to come back and work for them, to create a superior female creature...

The intial reaction most viewers will have to this film is disappointment - despite the titular promise of an accurate rendition of Mary Shelley's story, we instead get an incredibly altered version, which tied in with some very poor characterisation make for a rather dull opening 45 minutes that might lead many viewers to switch off. The alterations to Shelley's book are so numerous it seems that the writer was deliberately trying to leave no detail unchanged - from the bizarre opening with his adult brother William drowning to death, the curious British setting, the fact that Victor is an orphan being looked after by Elizabeth's family and the idea of Henry Cerval being more Frankenstein than the man himself. More serious to those who don't know the novel so well, is the characterisation, Victor just appears and spouts his notions of wanted to create life within the first moments, no background is provided, as most adaptations do, to his childhood or motivations. Equally, Henry Cerval seems to trust Victor from the start and lets him in on secret information without knowing whether or not he can trust him.

Fortunately, the film really picks up at the 45 minute mark after the creature is brought to life sucessfully and Victor begins to look after and teach him. It becomes clear here that any links to Shelley's novel have been completely thrown out of the window, and instead a completely original story begins that is very unpredictable (especially for Frankenstein fans) and highly enjoyable - character is finally created and we begin to actually care about what is happening. This means that the second half of the story has a lot more tension and suspence than the first, with some very exciting twists - building up to a fitting and effective finalé that works a lot better than Shelley's original would have done for this particular adaptation. Despite the three hour run-time, the pacing is very brisk, and we have to assume in several cases that much more time has passed than is indicated (most notably in the case of the creature's observation of the blind man and his family which seems to take place over the course of a single day).

The Frankenstein: True Story script contains a lot of interesting themes and takes full advantage of its three hour run-time to develop them (compared to a lot of film adaptations that seem to rush through the story to emphasise on the horror aspects). Often considered to be the main theme of the original novel is that of parenthood and rejection - Shelley's Victor is the father of his creation and rejects him at his birth, leaving him wandering and cursed by his appearance to be alone. In contrast, Victor here actually cares for his creation for a while, teaching him and introducing him into society. Unfortunately, the flaws of the creation process lead to him slowly disfiguring and Victor eventually finds himself saddled with a brutish son who seems to be trapping him, a similar idea to that of a lone parent looking after a disabled child - at the conclusion of the first half of the film we see Victor weighing up whether or not to kill the creature, torn between love/pity and claustrophobia. Equally, emphasising another of Shelley's themes
, it is emphasised that Victor only comes to reject the creature when he is disfigured - the creature still retains the same mental faculties and physical abilities, but Victor loaths him because of his terrible appearance - leading to the feeling of rejection and general hatred that permeates him for the rest of the story.

The mysterious Dr. John Polidori, who appears extensively in the second half of the film, seems to be based on Dr. Pretorius from the classic
Bride of Frankenstein (1935), embodying the same alchemist style approach to the creation of life, compared to Victor's scientific attempts, and as per Pretorius, later encourages and helps Victor to create a female creature. There is a lot of symbolism on display, much of it religious - Elizabeth in her horror, uses a bible to squash a restored butterfly that earlier had been pressed and in a display cabinet, although unfortunately this science versus religion plot strand is not much further developed. Probably unintentionally, the film plays out much more like one of Hammer's Frankenstein sequels, than an original Frankenstein production, and it would be interesting to picture Peter Cushing's in place of James Mason with the movie's Frankenstein character being converted into another disciple, as per Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974).

The look and feel of the film is obviously inspired by the Hammer Horror productions that were still being filmed in the early 1970s - so bright colours, generic period atmosphere and a fair bit of blood are all here, although television regulations mean that sex and nudity is still rather taboo. Compared to similar BBC productions from the era, which were often very small scale, and shot on video, Frankenstein: The Ture Story looks very impressive with some large ballroom scenes and a very impressive laboratory (which soon finds itself ablaze in a very cinematic set-piece), as well as some good looking English locations. Director Jack Smight does a very good job building up the tension, and a lot of the film's shock moments come without any of the usual filmic tricks, that give away what is about to happen. Television composer Gil Melle provides the orchestral soundtrack, very much in keeping with the Hammer tone of the film, while the 'creature' make-up was provided by Roy Ashton, the original Hammer make-up man (responsible for turning Oliver Reed into a wolf in Curse of the Werewolf (1961)), and it looks amazingly effective and realistic.

Although not exactly an all star cast, the film boasts a good collection of British actors. Leonard Whiting is very wooden as Victor, and David McCallum (the blond one in Man from Uncle) not very impressive as Henry, but Canadian actor Michael Sarrazin gives a very strong performance as the creature, conveying the loneliness and desperation of his character. James Mason gives the best performance as the menacing Dr. Polidori, remaning suitably enigmatic during the opening half, before developing into the most interesting character. The stunningly beautiful Jane Seymour looks perfect as Polidori's crowning creation, while the equally attractive Nicola Pagett gives a good performance as the jealous and strong Elizabeth. A variety of familiar British faces crop up in the rest of the cast, including the 'soon to be Doctor Who' Tom Baker as a sea captain, 'Last of the Summer Wine' star Peter Sallis as a vicar, alongside John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson (not to be confused with George Zucco!).

Frankenstein: The True Story starts off poorly, let down by its titular promise and rather indifferent opening quarter. Fortunately from the 45 minute point, it evolves into a very interesting and well written twist on the Frankenstein mythos. Boosted by a cinematic appearance and big budget, that help to lift it above the cheap-looking curse of television movies, it resembles a lost Hammer series sequel, and should certainly prove of interest to Hammer and Frankenstein fans (who will find the considerably altered storyline to throw up a few interesting twists on Shelley's tale, and pose the question - what if the experiment had been sucessful?). Recommended.

In Brief

Anyone famous in it? James Mason - the British born actor, best known as Phillip Vandamm in North by Northwest (1959)
Directed by anyone interesting? Jack Smight - an American director, best known for his duo of films with Charlton Heston in the mid-1970s, Airport 1975 (1974) and Midway (1976).
Is it scary?A few jump scares, and some surprisingly shocking gory shots for a television movie.
Any violence/gore? Some violence and blood. 
Any sex? None.
Who is it for?
Recommended to Frankenstein and Hammer fans and of interest to all horror fans.

The DVD 

Visuals 1.33:1 fullscreen. Original aspect ratio. Colour
The print is of an acceptable quality, noticably grainy, there is some print damage throughout, far from unwatchable, and a lot better than most public domain DVDs, but certainly not as good looking as most film prints from the era. The digital transfer is strong though with no noticable artifacting.
Audio English mono - sounds fine, but is very quiet.
Subtitles English HOH.
Extras None.
Region Region 1 (USA, North America) - NTSC
Other versions available? None known.
Cuts? None known - this is the original American television version of the film including the spoiler filled James Mason proluge and 'end of part 1' titles, there was a theatrical version that played in Europe which was much shorter, but contained gorier versions of some scenes.
Additional notes:Although not usally something that viewers will notice or care about, the chapter markings on this disc are very annoying. The film begins, as per the original television broadcast, with a piece-to-camera by James Mason in London talking about Mary Shelley, and this includes some very spoiler filled clips from the film. Unfortunately there is no way to simply skip this, the next chapter stop being several minutes into the film (it would also have been very easy to make this an extra feature, or an optional 'watch before the film' setting). Combined with the lack of bonus features (despite the fact that most of the cast are still alive), it suggests a very lazily produced DVD.



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All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 2nd Feburary 2007.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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