FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY /1973/
For a TV movie the film is well shot and photographed. While an American project the movie was shot at Pinewood Studio in England and for the most part cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson keeps the project from looking too much like a television production. The cast is noteworthy for a television production and a couple fleeting appearances are made by big British names like John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. No doubt the scene stealer of the picture is James Mason as Dr. Polidori who is a sort of variation on the character of Dr. Pretorius from James Whale’s 1935 classic Bride of Frankenstein. Here is one of the bits of liberty taken with the “true story’ since in the original novel (again which I never read but researched a little for this post) there is no Dr. Polidori. In fact John William Polidori was doctor/writer friend of Shelley’s who helped to inspire her to write the novel as part of a friendly competition initiated by Lord Byron at his villa by Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Polidori would produce the story Vampyre which predates Dracula as vampire literature. And from the challenge Mary Shelley, of course, produced Frankenstein. But Mason is simply great as the brilliant but slightly mad (madder than Victor Frankenstein in any case) former colleague in darkness of Dr. Henry Clerval who is played by David McCallum. Also appearing in the film is Jane Seymour as first peasant girl Agatha and then as the twisted Prima, “the bride’. Victor is played with sensitivity by Leonard Whiting. After more than a decade of Peter Cushing’s portrayal of a sociopathic Dr. Frankenstein Whiting’s performance is a little refreshing to be honest. Or it was when I was a kid watching all of this stuff on TV. I had seen most of the Hammer films several times on TV before this appeared. And while Mason hammed it up perfectly as Polidori the real star of the film is Michael Sarrazin as the monster. His transition from a angel faced and kind hearted creation into a decaying and mentally imbalanced monster was one of the best monsters ever in my opinion. I would go so far as to say maybe it was the best for me.
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It was a suddenly fresh, and closer to Shelley’s idea, interpretation of the monster that I had not yet seen done by Universal or Hammer. A creature that, after its creation, is in fact something that would make it creator truly proud. So proud in fact that the creator takes it out to operas even. One problem with the James Whale and Hammer creatures is that they were created as misshapen monsters to begin with. Things that would only generate fear and loathing. Take even the creature played by Christopher Lee in the wonderful Hammer film The Curse of Frankenstein. The things face is ruined and hideous from the start and one has to wonder about Frankenstein’s state of mind to consider its creation something that would challenge the power of God to be the sole creator of life in the Universe. The creature becomes something that Frankenstein hides away in a dungeon. Sarrazin’s creature is something that gives Frankenstein joy and whom he sees as a near mirror of himself. Nothing something he wants to hide away but something he wants to share with the world. This makes the story all the more tragic when things begin to go wrong with the creature.
What goes wrong is simple tissue rejection that Victor is unaware of and that Dr. Clerval knew of from earlier experiments but died before being able to let Victor know about. Victor continued with the experiments and put Clerval’s brain into their creation. As the creature begins to rot before Victor’s eyes Victor’s fatherly passion turns towards into vain disgust and repulsion and finally drives to creature to try and kill itself. But the creature cannot die so easily. The story is in many ways is familiar here to anyone who has seen various interpretations of the film. The creature befriends a blind man but is driven away by people who are repulsed by his face. He unintentionally kills a local peasant girl who he has fallen in love with and returns to Victor’s castle for help but instead finds Dr. Polidori. Polidori is soon back in Victor’s life with the monster in tow and blackmailing him for assistance with promises of staying out of his life if hew complies. Promises he breaks as he returns with the now resurrected Agatha as Prima. The monster shows up at a ball, a coming out party for Prima, and rips her head off in front of the terrified crowd and in the process ruins Victor’s palns for a normal life with his new wife Elizabeth (Nicola Paget).
The film ends with the creature stowing away on a ship with Frankenstein, Polidori and Elizabeth that is heading for America in an attempt to escape the impending investigations and problems after the appearance of the monster at the ball. There are great scenes of the monster tormenting Polidori and his deformed hands (caused by a chemical accident in his life giving process that does not employ electricity) and hoisting him up the mast of the ship as lighting, Polidori’s fear, erupts in a storm at sea. The monster kills Elizabeth after she insults him over and over and the ship winds up in the frozen Artic where a torments creator and his creation face each other for the last time. The film develops, I feel, one of the best relationships between monster and creator ever put to film. Neither is totally good or evil and Frankenstein himself is portrayed as more emotionally tormented than a man driven insane by blind ambition. While there is that aspect to Victor’s character there is also genuine remorse and sympathy. The monster wrecks vengeance on Victor but in the end still regards him as his creator/father and therefore of someone deserving of respect. The film looks great and while it is long it is never tedious or dreary. I had to watch it in the two parts in was intended to be watched in (stopping when the creature attempts suicide) and forgot how much I liked Michael Sarrazin. Jane Seymour is both wonderful and wicked as Agatha/Prima and Whiting is fine as a tortured Victor Frankenstein. The film moved the Frankenstein concept out of the days the Universal monster with bolts in his neck and the Hammer period of an unlikable Dr. Frankenstein into our times. Kenneth Branagh directed and starred in a good version of the story in 1994 with Robert De Niro as the monster and I feel he was very influenced in some way by this version more than any that came before it. Frankenstein: The True Story is an exceptional film version of the Frankenstein legend as far as my experience with the film’s history goes.