Frankenstein: the True Story (1973)

Being a dedicated Frankenstein fan from way back, I'd watch all the Universal and Hammer classics right down to Jesse James meets Frankenstein's Daughter, Frankenstein meets the Space Monster or Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks over the latest Hollywood formula muck any day. The scope of the story is so huge, you can run the gamut of sublime efforts studying the human condition to sheer exploitation and grindhouse fare. The seventies made-for-TV-movie Frankenstein: the True Story sits far more at the serious end of the man-made monster saga and is well worth tracking down if you're a fan of serious horror or even drama for that matter, and haven't seen it. Don't let the made-for-TV nature of the work put you off, this one's big budget and handsomely mounted. I've always remembered some incredibly vivid images from this film from childhood viewings - it left a big impact, and I'll touch on these scenes later. The claim of the title is a big one - the "true story", and in a way the film doesn't quite live up to this. Certain elements do bring it closely into line with Mary Shelley's original work, which is probably virtually unfilmable as a modern entertainment anyway. Let's take a closer look at a classic Frankenstein made available in DVD format quite recently.

Victor Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting) is an English 1800's medical student who loses his younger brother William to a drowning accident. Though grieving in the normal way with his fiance Elizabeth Fanschawe (Nicola Pagett), Victor vows to use his medical knowledge to bring life to the dead. Later, when he takes an assignment at a remote hospital, he meets eccentric doctor Henry Clerval (David McCallum) who assists him with the amputation of a man's arm. A fairly gory amputation with sawing, I might add. The anti-social Clerval whisks the arm away and later it's revealed that Henry Clerval is on the same crusade as Victor - to bring life to the dead. At first Clerval shows Victor the electrical process he's discovered can bring life to a dead beetle briefly. Then, Clerval reveals the amputated arm he's brought back to life - a life of it's own. After a coach accident claims the life of five young men, Victor agrees to work with Henry on bringing life to a man made of the parts of these corpses. Henry and Victor bemoan the fact that their "Adam" will have the brain of a peasant. Fate intervenes, though. Henry is horrified to discover that the 'living' arm is mutating and becoming monstrous - the shock giving his already weak heart a fatal attack. He attempts to indicate to Victor in a note that "the process is reversing itself" but can't complete the sentence.

Victor discovers his dead colleague and vows that "their Adam will no longer have the brain of a peasant". He transplants Clerval's brain into their creation and brings it to life using the solar-powered electrical equipment that Clerval had devised. During the process much of the equipment explodes and Frankenstein is knocked to the ground. The tall, re-animated man (Michael Sarrazin) approaches the semi-conscious Frankenstein and his creator removes his facial bandages. Instead of the horror we expect, the 'creature' is a handsome young man, which makes much more sense as really, why would Frankenstein bring life to a misshapen monster in the first place? Frankenstein calls him 'beautiful' and the creature repeats his word, smiling. Over the next weeks, Victor schools his Adam in how to dine, go to opera, dress well and introduces him to the cream of society as a friend from a distant land who speaks little english. Sadly though, the disembodied arm rears its ugly self again and this time Victor discovers the creeping, mutated thing. Now he can decipher Henry Clerval's last message for what is truly is. He destroys it with acid and hopes that his man will not suffer the same fate. To his horror and bitter dissapointment, the once handsome man begins mutating and deteriotating, beginning with lumps under his ears. As the transformation progresses, with the man's brows enlarging and lips thickening, Victor locks him away and smashes all the mirrors. The creature escapes and tries to go to an opera again - scaring to death the landlady in the process. Victor retrieves the creature and locks him up again in his laboratory. The creature finally begins to understand what's happening and finds a shard of smashed mirror, seeing his true visage, which gets slightly worse every scene. He begs Victor to help but Victor can do nothing. He tries to stab himself to death with the shard but it does nothing - I guess all parts of him are independently alive, just like the arm. He escapes and though Victor protests weakly - not enough to convince him otherwise - plunges off a cliff to his seeming death in the ocean.

That was part one of this three-hour extravaganza, as it was origininally presented way back then. We resume part two to find that the unfortunate creature had not drowned - was incapable of such a thing - and washed up on the beach to trudge away. Wandering into a forest, he meets Mister Lacey (Ralph Richardson) a blind man who lives in an isolated cottage. Although the creature still only has a few words, Lacey accepts him, dresses him, feeds him and plays him music. Lacey tells him about his niece Agatha (Jane Seymour) and son-in-law, who live with him. The creature hides whenever they show up, and wanting to meet Lacey's new "friend", they pretend to leave and wait for him to return. He does return, and Agatha faints at the sight of him. Rushing to help his wife, Agathas' husband ends up with his brain splattered on the cabin wall by the creature who doesn't know his own strength. Agatha revives and gives chase, ending up crushed to death by a passing carriage's wheels.

The heartbroken creature carries the broken body back to the lab, seeking help. Only this time, Frankenstein has gone, putting his life back together with Elizabeth. In his place is Dr. John Polidori (James Mason) a middle-aged man with crippled hands who worked with Clerval in the past, and whom Clerval abandoned as their theories diverged. Polidori believed in chemical reanimation, while Clerval beleived in the power of the sun. With his two "Chinese boys", Polidori has now set up lab in Frankenstein's absence. The sly doctor hypnotises the creature which reveals it's Clerval personality, begging his old colleague for help. Polidori will have none of it, waking the creature from the trance as it reverts to it's self of few words. Polidori visits Frankenstein on his wedding day, bringing the creature and blackmailing Victor into helping him sew the head of Agatha - all that was salvageable from her corpse - onto a new body in a tank. Frankenstein agrees to be rid of them all, and in a stunning scene, the new woman is brought to life in a tank of swirling lava-lamp like fluids. Frankenstein leaves, kissing the new woman, named "Prima" - still played by the gorgeous Seymour - goodbye and trusting that is the last he's see of his creature and Polidori.

As soon as he arrives home, he finds that Polidori has insinuated himself with his mother-in-law, claiming to be his friend and associate. Frankenstein is to introduce Prima to high society, culminating in a ball, and after that Polidori and Prima will leave, with Polidori gaining power behind the scenes through his amazing creation. Again Victor agrees, and Prima stays on. Polidori explains how he'll solve the problem of Victor's creature. He's been kept in a cell like a prisoner by Polidori, and the ruthless doctor offers to hypnotise the creature and destroy him in a bath of acid. Frankenstein almost goes through with it but relents at the last second, waking the creature up and one of the 'Chinese boys' ends up dissolved. Polidori tries to burn the creature to death by locking him in the castle and setting it on fire. Frankenstein weakly protests but Polidori points out his hypocrisy at abandoning his creation because it lost it's looks. Polidori, Frankenstein and the remaining boy escape the inferno. Back at Frankenstein's home, Elizabeth hates the sly new female guest, who often mocks her behind her back. Prima has either learned to be cruel from Polidori, or was innately so from her unnatural birth. Prima motions to strangle a cat before Elizabeth discovers the deed. The cat scratches her and Prima licks the blood from her hand. Later, while Prima sleeps, Elizabeth discovers the tell-tale scar on her neck, where her head was sewn on originally, usually hidden by a jewelled band. Polidori returns from London and the ball proceeds. Suddenly the monster invades the ball, having survived the burning but now charred as well as disfigured. He fight off several men and kills a few. He motions to Prima, looking for kindness but sensing only evil. Prima attacks him and they fight. In a fit of rage and jealousy, he rips her band off, showing the guests her scar. Then, he proceeds to rip her head off! I tell you, this scene has stayed with me my entire life. You don't see any gore, but sheesh! Polidori writhes around on the ground with the head, grieving for his lost Prima. The monster leaves, and as Victor pleads why, the monster just says ... 'beautiful".

Victor and Elizabeth vow to leave to America and escape the horror. They leave by ship but Polidori has smuggled himself on board to their anger. Elizabeth discovers the monster has joined them as well, and in a cunning move, locks Polidori in with the monster. The Monster, mocking Polidori with his version of his name, "Polly-Dolly" - which Clerval used to call him - removes Polidori's gloves to see the ruins left of his hands by chemical experimentation. One is a stump, the other barely more than a skeleton-hand. Polidori screams for help and Victor unlocks the cabin - letting the monster and Polidori out on to the main deck. In a terrific lightning storm, the monster hoists Polidori - who's terrified of lightning - high up on the mast and as the old doctor screams for help, he's hit by lightning and reduced to a skeleton. Another vivid scene! Victor's injured in the melee and the monster won't let anyone help, carrying him back to his cabin and tending his sickness. The crew abandons ship and only Victor, the creature and Elizabeth are left. The creature steers the ship towards the Antarctic and his own oblivion. Elizabeth taunts him with her pregnancy and his ugliness, and is strangled by the Clerval side of it's personality, referring to a re-animated butterfly she once squashed in the name of God when Clerval was alive.

Finally the ship runs aground on the ice. Victor, now recovered, finds it empty other than the frozen body of his wife. He spots the monster in the freezing distance and though he's lost everything that ever mattered to him, goes to confront it. Will it be a life-or-death battle or a meeting that could be suprisingly touching? I'd better not spoil the ending for you, but it's great they ended up on the icy wastes just as in the original novel, something no other Frankenstein film has done.

Though quite long at three hours, Frankenstein: the True Story is made with care, and well worth a view for folks who enjoy thought with their period-horror. The costumes and sets are amazing, particularly the laboratory sets, both the solar-powered versions and Polidori's chemical version. With a literate script from Don Bachardy and Christopher Isherwood, Shelley's story truly comes to life. Sure, it's not the original story, with in this case, Henry Clerval being the true inventor of the life-giving equipment rather than just a friend of Victor's, and the Polidori/Prima characters being more of an insert from Bride of Frankenstein, but it's still an effective concept. The new idea of the monster works well, starting off as a handsome young man, theoretically turning into a monster. Although, I must add, before his burning he never really looks that bad - just like a guy with a heavy face, and I can't really understand why anyone would be that terrified of him. Also, I do wish he'd learned more words to bring him up to Shelley or even Karloff's version in Bride. Acting is excellent throughout, with Whiting and Sarrazin suggesting almost fey lovers in their early scenes, and there is something of the spurned lover in Sarrazin's performance later on. Sarrazin conveys well the gentleness of the 'creature' in it's early days, it's growing misery, self-revulsion and learned evil later on. Elements of Clerval's persona erupt occasionally, especially right at the end, which was probably a mistake, as it makes the character a bit confusing - is he only semi-verbal or not? - but it's not too big a complaint. Whiting makes an intelligent, yet vain and weak - as he should be - Victor Frankenstein, and James Mason almost steals the show as the crafty, ruthless yet flamboyant and charming Polidori. Jane Seymour as Agatha/Prima is a revelation. This woman is both beautiful, and can act. As Agatha she was just a nice country girl,and does this well. Her Prima is perhaps based somewhat on the original Bride, with her hissing, mocking evil under the gorgeous surface. You have to feel sorry for her though, after what Sarrazin's monster does to her. Even if the nature of her chemical rebirth meant she was somehow born bad, did she ever really have a chance to be good under Polidori's influence?

I can't imagine made for television movies ever being this good again. There aren't many Frankenstein versions that are better, and it would make a great addition to any cult movie collection.

© Boris Lugosi, 2007.

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Review written: 01/31/2007 21:38:21