FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY /1973/

FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY
1973/Director: Jack Smight/Writers: Don Bachardy, Christopher Isherwood
Cast: Michael Sarrazin, James Mason, Leonard Whiting, David McCallum, Jane Seymour, Nicola Pagett, Agnes Moorehead, John Gielgud, Tom Baker
I was lucky enough to actually see this fine film when it first aired on NBC as a two part movie back in 1973. I had not been able to see it again until only recently when I got a hold of the restored and full length, about three hours or more I guess, Universal Presents Frankenstein: The True Story DVD version. I read that there was an edited VHS version that was based more on the shortened European version of the film but never saw it. Now while the title claims it to be the “true version” I understand that a few liberties were made with the original Mary Shelley story, which I have never read, and we will touch on at least one of those later in the review. I guess to get the final word one may have to go visit the Frankensteinia blog, which I did earlier when doing some research for this post but I actually did not find a n article there on this most excellent Frankentstein film and hope one appears soon. If there is a post there I apologize in advance and if not beg that one be made someday. The same year that Frankenstein: The True Story came out another made for TV film was released that was written and produced by Dan Curtis that starred Robert Foxworth as Dr. Victor Frankenstein and Bo Svenson. I also saw that version though I would need to see it again to refresh my memory on the story but it too made some claims to being mostly true to the original story. I am not a Frankenstein movie scholar (I am no sort of movie scholar to be quite frank) but I know that 1974 saw the last of the Hammer Frankenstein films the fairly decent Terence Fisher film Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell which I reviewed here some time ago. Throughout the sixties Hammer had taken the Frankenstein story and did several new things with it and whether those were always great is debatable but it did pump life back into the legend as it also did with Dracula. There is, in my opinion, visual influence on this film version by director Jack Smight from Hammer and even veteran Hammer make up artist Roy Ashton did the effective make up for the monster. After all the fantastic stories and interpretations by Hammer it seemed time to reign the monster back in and recreate him yet once again.

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.

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2 Responses to “FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY /1973/”

  1. I remember seeing this one as a kid on television. The scene that stayed with me was, of course, when the monster crashes the ball and beheads Prima. I hope this DVD gets a stateside release, I'd love to see it again.

  2. PaxYea was a great scene. And she was a wicked "bide" anyway, tormenting little kitty cats. I liked many scenes in this one and always liked Michael Sarrazin during this period. James Mason was great in this as well. Just a good movie. I got the film from online somewhere as an AVI, and while a good file of course a DVD would be better with better image and extras.

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