Frankenstein: The True Story (1973) ***½
There were two different made-for-TV adaptations of Frankenstein released in 1973. The more famous of the pair is the one written and produced by Dan Curtis, of Trilogy of Terror fame, as part of a whole series of classic horror adaptations which began with the Jack Palance version of Dracula in 1972. Then there’s this one. Frankenstein: The True Story exists in three distinct versions. There’s the original edit, running somewhere between three and four hours long, which aired in two parts on NBC; there’s the shorter version that played in theaters in Europe; and then there’s a relatively new version that adds the handful of too-explicit-for-broadcast gore scenes from the European theatrical edit to NBC’s cut. Honestly, I’m not quite sure which of the three I saw, but to my great surprise, it ended up being one of the most engrossing Frankenstein films I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching.
Doctors Victor Frankenstein (Leonard Whitting) and Henry Clerval (David McCallum, from Around the World Under the Sea and The Watcher in the Woods) are men with a grand ambition— or more to the point, Clerval has a grand ambition, and has infected Frankenstein with it. Using a combination of chemistry and electrical impulses, Clerval has found a way to restore life to dead tissue, and with Frankenstein’s help, he hopes to put his process to the ultimate test and create a living man from a composite of corpses. Normally the mad scientist union rules demand that those engaged in such research work either alone or solely in the company of a retarded hunchback, but we’ll make an exception in Clerval’s case because the very serious heart condition he suffers from precludes him Tampering in God’s Domain without a partner at least as competent as he is. Clerval has constructed a lab in the big-ass house he rents from the widowed Mrs. Blair (Agnes Moorehead, from Dear Dead Delilah and Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte), where the reputation for hauntedness should keep any unwanted visitors away. The one problem he hasn’t quite solved is whence to procure the raw materials for his and Frankenstein’s project. Fate lends a helping hand, though, when a carriage full of strapping young lads runs off the road and into a ravine not far from the town where the two doctors make their homes. On the pretext of attempting to save such of the seven crash victims as might still be alive, Clerval and Frankenstein take them all into their custody, and are ultimately able to salvage enough usable parts to build a single workable body.
This is when matters start to get complicated. For one thing, Frankenstein was not the first doctor Clerval hit up for a partnership. His former colleague, Dr. Polidori (James Mason, of The Boys from Brazil and Journey to the Center of the Earth), wants back in on the project, and he begins snooping around, trying to figure out what the other two scientists are up to. Frankenstein is also engaged to be married to a girl named Elizabeth Fanshawe (The Viking Queen’s Nicola Pagett), daughter of the fattest of local fat cats. She too starts hanging around Mrs. Blair’s house, and Frankenstein is foolish enough to let her in on the big secret, demonstrating the resurrection technique on a swallowtail butterfly. Elizabeth is predictably horrified, and makes a big speech about her fiance having to choose between working with Clerval and marrying her. Victor has just about decided to give up his research when a tragic mishap changes his mind. On the night before Clerval’s new Adam was to be given life, Henry discovers a major flaw in his technique— the living severed arm he keeps in a cabinet in the lab has gone all gnarled and lumpy, almost as if its tissues have become cancerous. Clerval’s dismay over this setback is so severe that he has a fatal heart attack right there in the lab. When Frankenstein comes by the next day and finds his partner’s body, he vows to carry on Clerval’s work even despite Elizabeth’s objections to it. It seems only fitting that he should install Clerval’s own brain in the creature’s skull while he’s at it.
This is when we first realize just how totally unlike a run-of-the mill Frankenstein flick this version is. When Victor peels the bandages off his creation’s face after giving it life, the “monster” turns out to be an extremely handsome (if also a bit fey) young man (Michael Sarazin, from Eye of the Cat and FearDotCom). Frankenstein is understandably very proud of his creature, and immediately sets about socializing him, employing the cover story that the creature is an old friend of his from a faraway country, who speaks no English and is entirely unfamiliar with the customs of the land. The synthetic man is a tremendous success, both in learning how a proper gentleman acts, and in charming the socks off of all the prim society ladies. But Frankenstein’s optimism regarding the creature is premature. Remember that arm Clerval had locked in the cupboard? Well the same set of changes starts overtaking Victor’s homemade buddy, giving him a distinctly Karloffian appearance by the time the transformation has run its course. The monster (as we may now properly call him) takes the change even worse than his creator does, and tries to commit suicide by diving head-first from the White Cliffs of Dover. (Something tells me this is where episode one ended when Frankenstein: The True Story originally aired.) But we all know it would be much too easy on everybody if this story were to end like that...
The monster isn't very happy to see that he’s still alive, but since leaping off of a cliff didn’t hurt him, there’s probably not a whole lot he can do about that. So instead, he just wanders off into the countryside, trying to keep his ugly self out of sight. Eventually, he runs across an old man who doesn't seem troubled by his appearance at all. That’s ‘cause old man Lacey (Ralph Richardson, from Rollerball and Dragonslayer) is blind, and the monster immediately realizes this is the best shot he’s had at a real friendship since he lost his looks. Lacey doesn’t live alone, however, and (just the monster’s luck) his granddaughter, Agatha (Jane Seymour, from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger and "Battlestar Galactica"), and her boyfriend, Felix (Dallas Adams, of The Abominable Dr. Phibes and From Beyond the Grave), can both see perfectly well. The monster is able to get around the problem by fleeing the house every time Agatha and Felix come in, but the two young people are determined to meet Lacey’s shy new pal, and go so far as to lay a trap for him. They briefly leave the cottage, loudly announcing that they won't be back for some time, and then sneak around to the back door. When the sound of Lacey’s violin alerts them to the monster’s presence in the living room, Felix and Agatha fan out to surprise the unseen guest by bursting in through both doors simultaneously. Needless to say, neither one is quite prepared for the monster. Agatha faints when she sees him, and when the creature goes to see if she’s okay, Felix misinterprets his actions and attacks. He winds up with his brains plastered all over the doorjamb— evidently the monster doesn’t know his own strength. The creature flees, but is pursued by Agatha, who accidentally gets herself run over by a passing carriage when she tries to flag it down for assistance. Overcome with guilt, the monster does what seems the only sensible thing. He bundles up the girl’s mangled body, and carries it all the way to the house where Frankenstein had his lab. Hey, if Victor could create the monster, surely he ought to be able to restore Agatha to life, right?
But Frankenstein doesn’t live there anymore. Instead, in an ironic twist, the monster finds the place occupied by Clerval’s previous partner, Dr. Polidori. Polidori takes one look at the creature, and knows exactly what he’s dealing with. Apparently the doctor knew that Clerval’s resurrection process would have such results. That’s why the two of them split up, in fact— over Polidori’s insistence that electricity must not be used as a shortcut to jump-start the dead heart and nervous system. Polidori has his own strictly chemical technique, but he can do nothing by himself, as he lost both his hands in an accident during the experimentation whereby he discovered it. He does want to continue his old experiments, however, and now that the monster has brought him a potentially useful body, it looks as though an opportunity has finally arisen— assuming, that is, that he can persuade someone else to do the hands-on work. Somebody like Victor Frankenstein, perhaps.
Now it’s been a good long while since Victor has had any contact with his creation, and in the meantime, he’s renounced his mad scientist’s ways and patched things up with Elizabeth. In fact, the two of them are soon to be married. Polidori and his two Chinese servants crash the wedding reception, bringing the monster with them, and Frankenstein is astonished to see his creation alive when the other doctor persuades him to come outside and meet the “someone in [his] carriage who strongly desires to see” Victor. And for all Frankenstein’s protestations that he no longer gets involved in that sort of thing, Polidori knows he won’t be able to resist the idea of resuming his old work and getting it right this time. Besides, Polidori argues, once Frankenstein helps him demonstrate that his non-electrical resuscitation process works, he’ll never have to see either Polidori or the two creatures again. That’s just what Victor wants to hear, and so eager is he to get the work finished and behind him so that he can move on with his life that he goes over to Polidori’s place on his wedding night, which he then spends reanimating Agatha Lacey— or at least a body containing as much of her as could be saved. (Incidentally, I’m pretty sure it’s this creation scene that Richard O’Brien and company were ripping off in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.)
I’m sure you already suspected this, but Polidori was lying when he said he’d leave Frankenstein alone after Prima the synthetic girl (also Jane Seymour) had been brought successfully to life. As a matter of fact, he sends Prima to live with Frankenstein after befriending his mother-in-law, on the pretext that she’s a foreign girl under his guardianship, whom he’d like Elizabeth to instruct in the ways of high society! Polidori’s thinking is that Prima (who is an uncanny copycat) will use what she learns from Elizabeth to become a sort of international femme fatale, giving him (through her) access to and influence over all of the crowned heads of Europe. And because Prima is obviously severely twisted and utterly without conscience, it looks as though the doctor’s plan just might work. Where Polidori goes wrong is in attempting to destroy Frankenstein’s original creation, which he has kept locked up under extremely inhumane conditions ever since Prima’s “birth.” The monster escapes from the conflagration that destroys the lab where he was built, and in a foul mood indeed, he gate-crashes a ball at Frankenstein’s chateau, where Victor, Elizabeth, Prima, and Polidori are all in attendance. It causes a big enough stir when a brutish, misshapen, and horribly burned man barges into the ballroom, but that’s nothing compared to what happens when the monster, enraged by jealousy and disgust at what Polidori has turned Agatha into, seizes Prima and rips off her head. Any scrupulous police investigation into the incident is bound to raise questions no one really wants answered, and Frankenstein and Elizabeth understandably book passage for themselves aboard a ship bound for America; it’s just their bad luck that Polidori has finagled his way onto the same vessel. Polldori's luck is even worse, however— the monster has snuck aboard, too.
It’s rather ironic that a movie called Frankenstein: The True Story would diverge even more than is usually the case from the plotline of Mary Shelley’s novel. But with a book like that one, divergence of plot is a good thing, and this film makes its divergence in an especially fascinating way. In essence, Frankenstein: The True Story synthesizes virtually every idea yet used in previous adaptations, while adding a few new wrinkles of its own. The intelligent, articulate monster is essentially as Shelley wrote him, as are the blind man who befriends him and the arctic setting of the movie’s climax. The notion that the monster was created from dead bodies comes from James Whale's 1931 film version (or at least that was the first time it was stated explicitly), but is presented in a way that more closely resembles a cross between The Curse of Frankenstein and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein. Dr. Polidori (note the inside joke), meanwhile, is like a non-camp version of Bride of Frankenstein’s Dr. Pretorius. What’s completely new to this version is the reversal of the usual relationship between Victor Frankenstein and Henry Clerval, the much more active role played by Elizabeth, and the idea that the monster only becomes monstrous gradually. The latter point is probably the smartest move screenwriters Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy made. One of the aspects of the original novel that has always seemed ridiculous to me is that Frankenstein, who sets out to create the perfect man, could fail to notice how far short of the mark his handiwork has fallen until after the creature comes to life. Seriously, how fucking unobservant would you have to be not to pick up on the fact that your artificial person is not only nine feet tall, but also doesn’t have enough skin to cover his entire body?! By having the creature start out perfectly normal— indeed even handsome— but then become hideous as a consequence of a botched resurrection and subsequent abuse, Frankenstein: The True Story gets around that problem while making both Frankenstein and his creature far more sympathetic than is usually the case. Furthermore, by giving Frankenstein an extended period in which to train and educate the monster before its flight from the lab, this version allows for a characterization of the latter that is very close to Shelley’s without stooping to her hysterically contrived explanation for its enviable learning and cultivation. (For those of you who’ve never read Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, Shelley has the creature learn to read and speak German by eavesdropping on the tutoring given by the son of an impoverished peasant family to the daughter of a Turkish merchant whom they have inexplicably acquired as a boarder. It later stumbles upon a mislaid package that just happens to contain several classic works of literature and philosophy.)
The casting is another major point in this movie’s favor. Particularly by television standards, Frankenstein: The True Story features some impressive performances. Michael Sarazin’s monster is the most believable I’ve yet seen, Leonard Whitting hits just the right combination of drive and naivety as Frankenstein himself, Ralph Richardson invests Lacey with a humble species of dignity that only British actors seem to be able to pull off, and even daffy old Agnes Moorehead does a good job as daffy old Mrs. Blair. But even with so much competition, James Mason threatens to steal the entire show. His Dr. Polidori is smooth, smarmy, ruthless, and genteel all at the same time, and he gets many of the best lines in the whole film. My own personal favorite comes when the monster first brings him Agatha’s battered corpse. Polidori wants to see just how badly damaged she is, but the creature’s sense of propriety makes it hesitate to remove her dress. “Go on— lift it up!” the exasperated Polidori orders. “I have no patience for delicacy, especially from monsters.” I’m surprised that a TV studio would have been willing to spend the money on this much star power in the early 1970’s, but it's a good thing they did. Frankenstein: The True Story really is much longer than it needs to be, but with acting and writing of this caliber, it can get away with some overindulgence in that department.