FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY
(1973, directed by Jack Smight, 183 minutes, U.S./U.K.)
There are well over a hundred films that have the word “Frankenstein” in their title but while every decade brings another generation of stitched together brutes very few actually wrestle with the ideas in Mary Shelley’s allegorical novel. Almost thirty-three years after it was broadcast on NBC, one of the most unusual and intriguing of the films to rework the legend, the two-part TV movie FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY, has finally arrived uncut on home video.
Here is a film I was particularly curious to revisit. I was eight years old in 1973 when it ran over two night’s on NBC’s prime time schedule. Its classy British veneer distracted my parents from the ghoulishness of the film’s amputations, self-mutilation, decapitations and kinky sensuality. Given the film’s atmosphere of morbid taboos it is little wonder it was so irresistible to a curious kid. I counted KING KONG and this television film as being my two favorite movies in the day and they both share the misunderstood monster character that also has always reverberated in my animal-loving heart.
As lush as any TV productions of its time, the film is shot by Arthur Ibbetson (WHERE EAGLES DARE, WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and 1984’s THE BOUNTY), whose work along with the production design creates a nicely realized vision of the 1800’s, from its Victorian parties to its charnel houses to Frankenstein’s wood and glass based machinery. As is usual for most made-for-TV films, there’s really not much to say about the direction. Jack Smight was a Hollywood veteran who alternated between TV and theatrical films, but even his big screen pictures (AIRPORT ‘75 and HARPER among them) have that stubbornly anonymous style that television demands. So instead of Smight’s personal stamp defining the film, it is the work of co-writer Christopher Isherwood that gives this Frankenstein its distinction.
Isherwood is the British born writer whose autobiographical short stories about sex and debauchery in Weimer-era Berlin formed the basis for the musical CABARET. Since 1939 Isherwood lived and worked in Hollywood, authoring numerous book and screenplays, including the 1965 cult satire THE LOVED ONE (co-written with Terry Southern). Isherwood’s script for FRANKENSTEIN, which is alternately thoughtful and lurid, was co-written with his longtime partner, portrait artist Don Bachardy. It incorporates not only characters and events from the Universal Frankenstein series but it also draws from the details of Mary Shelley’s personal life. Isherwood and Bachardy ultimately expressed dismay at their script’s treatment and published their own version as a novel under the title DR. FRANKENSTEIN.
FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY gives us a Victor Frankenstein (played by twenty-three year-old Leonard Whiting of Zefferelli’s ROMEO AND JULIET) much more like the character in Shelley’s book: an earnest and haunted soul, not the raving madman Colin Clive played in Universal’s 1931 version nor the cunning murderer Peter Cushing played in Hammer’s Frankenstein series. Whiting is a long-haired pretty boy, has a certain presence yet none of the intensity of a guy who digs up graves. There is a long tradition of stiff actors playing the lead in horror films and perhaps this blank quality allows us to easily project ourselves onto an actor while the rest of the cast turns ever more grotesque as the tale progresses.
Although this Victor blasphemously swears to his future bride Elizabeth that was would gladly become Satan’s pupil if he could resurrect his drowned brother, Isherwood’s script is not out to punish this Frankenstein for flying too close to the sun. Instead, FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY’s more curious moments concern Victor’s betrayal and abandonment of the creature.
Brought to life by solar energy (a nice eco-conscious 70’s touch), the creature here is not the suture-ridden disaster of previous tellings. Instead the gauze is unwrapped to reveal a handsome being of pure innocence, as played by doe-eyed actor Michael Sarrazin (star of THEY SHOOT HORSES DON’T THEY?). For a brief shining period Victor and the creature (who he calls “Adam”) frolic and horse around like a couple of school kids (a marked difference from the dour exchanges he shares with his fiancée Elizabeth). But as soon the creature’s brow begins thickening and he develops lesions, Victor abandons the creature like an aging boy toy and leaves him for dead.
Here, as in the novel, the creature continues to haunt Victor. In Shelley’s original the creature has been interpreted as a misshapen consequence of the industrial revolution; in Isherwood’s version the monster appears to be a more personal ghost, bringing guilt and shame and threatening Victor’s relationship with Elizabeth. The creature, once a worshipful student, is now a bitter son, and Victor his withholding father. The film’s black-hatted villain Polidoris (a game James Mason) smugly laughs at Victor’s hypocrisy: “What a model parent you’ve been! You loved your creature as long as it was pretty but when it lost its looks – ha! That was another matter! So much for your dainty conscience!”
Shot mainly at London’s Pinewood studios, and with bit parts by Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, the first half of the film has a bit of the elegance of British period productions of the day. During the second half, which includes the creation of the decaying monster’s mate (a kittenish young Jane Seymour, forged in a stream of psychedelic bubbles), the film begins to take on the hokey air of an episode of THE WILD WILD WEST. Mason returns as Polidoris, dressed in an Oriental smock and accompanied by a murderous pair of Chinese servants! The creature’s bride tries to strangle the castle’s cat and dances a crazy freeform frug at a formal ball! Actors hold their breath and pretend to be frozen in ice! All this is never less than entertaining but it is the film’s ending, set at the North Pole, where the film redeems itself from its campier moments.
With everything taken away from him, here in this icy no man’s land Victor can finally confront his failures, embrace his shunned creation and ask forgiveness. Despite the set-bound artifice, the finale remains surprisingly touching and satisfying. When else but during The “Me” Generation would a story traditionally about the larger issues of science and God become transformed into a parable about the emotional needs of the monster in all of us?