The title Frankenstein: The True Story makes for a very bold statement. So many other filmmakers have attempted an artistic impression of the Mary Shelley classic, and ended up with something which bears only a passing resemblance to the original text. It is a story that has inspired filmmakers practically since the dawn of cinema, dating as far back as 1910 with Edison’s Frankenstein, limited in that its 14 minute running time does not allow for much room to be faithful to anything more than a couple of pages. Despite this, it did represent a landmark in horror history all the same. 21 years later came James Whale and Universal with Boris Karloff’s iconic rendition which was followed by several other titles featuring elements of Frankenstein, including introducing other horror characters like The Wolfman and Dracula later on. From the 50s to the 70s, Hammer Horror produced a series of no less than 7 films, 6 of which featured Peter Cushing as various incarnations of the infamous Victor Frankenstein. Even up to the present day, films are still being made around the subject — Frankenstein’s Army in 2011, and this year has seen the release of I, Frankenstein. It is understandable that the story inspires so much inspiration, given that within the scope of man playing God, there would appear to be endless possibilities. It is also a story which provokes some very deep questions around the subject of morality, science, and creating life from death.
On to Frankenstein: The True Story, a made for television two-part miniseries, originally aired by NBC in 1973, and now brought to DVD in its entirety for the first time in the UK by Second Sight. From the title, and perhaps the three hour running time, you would think that this may be a concerted effort to produce a faithful adaptation of the original novel; especially when you consider the extremely solid cast associated, implying a serious tone. The DVD comes with an original introduction by James Mason, overlooking the apparent grave of Mary Shelley. Mason discusses her novel while showing snippets from the film, as if to convince the viewer that this is Shelley’s work alone, and not that of screenwriters, Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. However, if this being true is what you were hoping for, sadly just five minutes in you already will become aware that this is yet another version of the story which has taken huge chunks of artistic licence with the original text. You would think that this would overshadow the final feature, considering that the title and introduction attempt to set expectations high, but the fact is Frankenstein: The True Story is so inventive, and entertaining, it does not matter a bit that on at least one level, it fails to live up to its name.
Looking at this feature in terms of production, taking into account its age and distinct 70s feel, it is extremely well made for what it is. Given the scope of the format, director Jack Smight’s efforts are commendable, but he is given a lot to work with. Hammer Horror’s Roy Aston’s effects are favourably gruesome, there are some extravagant choices of set, locations, and costumes; all captured perfectly by cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson. Being an American-British co-production, this seems to provide the best of both worlds — in talent, settings, and finance — resulting in something that almost looks as if it was produced by the BBC when they were in their heyday of making standout genre pieces (for example, the Ghost Story for Christmas series), yet with a bit more money involved. It is an ambitious project, and one that seems to have been given a lot of thought, with a quality that defies its original viewing format in very much the same way Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot (1979) escaped the boundaries of ‘made-for-TV’ to become a firm favorite with genre fans. The fact that this title has remained somewhat elusive over the years probably explains its partial obscurity, at least in the UK, up until now. With this new release it would be reasonable to assume all that is set to change.
This Second Sight release presents the feature in its original two part formula; apparently this was whittled down into a two hour theatrical release previously, which left out key plot factors but has since had a full DVD release in America. Part one sets up the story of Doctor Frankenstein creating his ‘Adam’, then the second part tracks the consequences of this. Here, Frankenstein is a young and impressionable man (Leonard Whiting). Grieving the passing of his brother, he accidentally stumbles on Henry Clerval (David McCallum), an older mentor and medical man who has been laboriously conducting experiments to crack the mystery of resurrecting life after death. Collecting amputated body parts and the bodies of the recently deceased, he is on the point of breakthrough but in need of assistance, and young Victor comes to his aid. The two commit to perfect a new breed of human, their ‘Adam’, but in line with all good horrors this comes with some serious consequences. As mentioned, the story here is not actually true to the original text, but there are elements which fans of the Mary Shelley novel will notice, most importantly the inclusion of the Arctic which is a rare sight in a Frankenstein feature, although here it is presented in a different context to the book.
Without going into major plot details, the story twists and turns over a number of strands, none of which are predictable. We see elements of homoerotism not really seen before in an adaptation of Frankenstein, and the relationship between Victor and his creature is initially intense in some unspoken, unseen sort of way. Whiting’s Frankenstein is essentially a likeable character to some extent, and a far cry from many of the mad doctor type embodiments. We also see a strong element of sinister involved with some of the characters, especially James Mason as Dr. Polidori, who is gloriously villainous in contrast to Whiting’s misguided, but generally good hearted, Frankenstein. David McCallum makes for a strong character too, Clerval being someone who has apparently been blinded in his quest intent of getting what he wants at any cost. While Elizabeth (Nicola Pagett) is seen as a strong and protective force that will go to extreme lengths to protect Victor. For the Creature, Michael Sarrazin puts in a highly commendable performance, portraying the monster sensitively, cursed, and at least, capable of empathy and caring for others. This does show some bearing to the original text to a point, if not in action, at least in theme. This is a creature capable of intelligence, which so many other Frankenstein features have overlooked. Jane Seymour as Agatha/Prima gives an equally solid performance and provides some great moments of creepiness. While the wider supporting cast consists of some quality acting talent including Sir John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Tom Baker and Peter Sallis and this helps to give Frankenstein: The True Story a firm foundation.
The 4.3 ratio print is clear and undamaged but being a made-for-TV piece and therefore limited in terms of the master copy, it does still retain the feel that this was never a theatrical feature; with the colors especially appearing washed out and almost sepia at times. If you are a lover of retro/classic horror, it does manage to retain its appeal on this level, and it is also worth mentioning that the brownish tones actually aid the bloody scenes, offering a means to avoid that glaring orange effect that often happens when retro films get upgraded to digital. Those who like their horror slick may be put off by the distinct vintage look however.
The release provides adequate sound, Dolby Digital 2.0, which is slightly quiet compared to some modern releases. It also comes with the added option of subtitles for the hard of hearing.
Only one extra to mention, the aforementioned introduction by James Mason talking about Frankenstein: The True Story and Mary Shelley’s original text, while not particularly comprehensive and somewhat misleading in tone, it does provide a nice little curiosity bonus.
The Bottom Line
Frankenstein: The True Story provides a thoroughly entertaining take on Mary Shelley’s original novel. Although it is not explicitly true to the text, the interesting twists and turns make this a worthwhile release. The stand out performances and lavish production values give this film an edge over so many other contenders and with the distinct seventies feel, there is definite appeal here for those who enjoy quality classic horror.