The often-derided 1973 two-part TV adaptation of the classic story is more interesting than critics give it credit for.
When Universal’s ambitious 1973 retelling of the Frankenstein story first hit British cinemas, it was widely ridiculed, mostly by the sort of pompous critics who would never say anything good about a horror film anyway. That edited version, which loses about an hour of footage, is admittedly not the version to see – the original two-part, three-hour television version is the definitive version and – while hardly flawless by any stretch of the imagination – is a much more coherent telling of the story.
Of course, calling a film Frankenstein – The True Story is frankly asking for trouble. After all, not only is Frankenstein clearly not a true story, but this epic version is not a faithful rendition of the original novel either. Instead, it’s something of a reboot of the original Universal films, mixed in with elements of Mary Shelly and Hammer Horror, and deliberately takes familiar moments from other movies (and the novel) and then adds a new twist to them. This is sometimes successful, sometimes not, but certainly results in a film that at once seems familiar and fresh.
In this version of the story, Victor Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting) is a fresh-faced youth who is haunted by the death of his younger brother (shown in a rather too abrupt opening scene) and who returns to medical school where he soon falls under the spell of Dr Henry Clervel (David McCallum), who has discovered how to return life to the dead through electricity. So far, his experiments have been restricted to insects and limbs, but with Frankenstein’s help, he’s soon crafted a whole man from body parts. Unfortunately, a dodgy ticker does for Clervel and so Frankenstein does what any good friend would – he whips out Clervel’s brain, adds it to his new creature and carries on. At first, the experiment seems a great success – the Creature (Michael Sarrazin) is good looking and personable, a man-child who Frankenstein eagerly teaches to speak and to appreciate the finer things in life. But, as Clervel had found just before dying, there is a problem – the process begins to reverse after a while, and soon his handsome creation has developed a neanderthal brow and assorted facial lumps. Frankenstein – unable to face his own failure – begins to reject his Creature, who first attempts suicide and then comes under the control of Dr Polidori (James Mason), a former colleague and rival of Clervel’s, who manipulates the creature to help him force Frankenstein into assisting with further experiments – notably the creation of a woman, Prima (Jane Seymour). Using a chemical technique rather than electricity, this is more effective than Frankenstein’s method – the girl seems both perfect and personable, but is hiding a psychotic nature, one ideal for Polidori’s plans to use her to gain international power. But the original Creature is still around, and now determined to take his revenge on both Polidori and Frankenstein for the misery of his life…
Written by Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, the film takes Shelly’s novel as its template – while the title is a touch disingenuous, this was certainly the most faithful adaptation to date and features a number of scenes, including the finale at the North Pole, that had been ignored by previous adaptations. But ‘most faithful’ doesn’t translate to ‘faithful’ by any means. Polidori, who plays a major part in the second half of the story, is an entirely new character, obviously based on Dr Pretorious from The Bride of Frankenstein but using the name of Mary Shelly’s real-life friend who played a part in the creation of the original novel. In fact, much of the second part of the film seems to be a reinvention of The Bride of Frankenstein – the creation of Prima and her reaction to encountering the Creature are both very much reminiscent of that film, though both scenes have their own style here. Other moments also seem to take an influence from the films – the creation of the original Creature of course brings to mind both the 1931 film and The Curse of Frankenstein, while the idea of a seemingly successful Creature slowly disintegrating had been explored by Hammer in The Revenge of Frankenstein.
But the film also plays with our expectations from familiar scenes. You almost want to groan whenever you see the Creature befriending a blind man (Ralph Richardson), simply because it’s the classic Frankenstein cliché, but here it’s given a twist when he is discovered by the old man’s family – once again, you feel that the Creature is not really grotesque enough for them to react as if he is a monster, but here the issue is fudged, as he throws his hands over his face and then lashes out violently before we really see their reactions – they could’ve been simply startled by him. This scene also leads directly to the creation of Prima, as the Creature takes the body of the girl – killed while fleeing from him – to the remote ruins where he was created, and where Polidori is now in residence.
Little touches like this help keep the film fresh, as it plays on our familiarity with the story (a familiarity that for most is entirely based on cinematic adaptations rather than the novel itself) and then pulls the rug from under us. Even the Creature himself is ambiguous – he’s vengeful, murderous and increasingly deranged, yet you still feel that he has a love for his creator; similarly, Frankenstein seems torn, hating his creation yet unwilling to destroy it when he has the chance. It seems that his own guilt about both creating the Creature and then rejecting it is tormenting him, as well it might. There’s a strange sense of respect that they develop for each other, and that’s something we rarely see in a Frankenstein film, at least not convincingly.
The film is directed by Jack Smight, who seems more the safe pair of hands than creative visionary, but who had made the rather extraordinary The Illustrated Man a few years earlier, and there are several moments of imagination and innovation mixed in with others of a fairly banal nature. It’s notable that even at three hours long, the film sometimes seems to be rushing, and some scenes seem very sloppily edited (the fades to black for commercials don’t help with that either). The result is a film that is handsomely mounted but not especially visually impressive – better than most TV movies of the time but oddly flat.
The cast – which includes sometimes distracting big-name cameos like John Gielgud and Tom Baker – certainly give it their all. Whiting initially seems a bit too much of a pretty boy to work as Frankenstein, but he grows on you as he becomes more tortured, and Sarrazin is excellent as the Creature, both a figure of pity and fear as he becomes more and more decayed and more and more bitter. Mason – who would return to TV gothic a few years later with Salem’s Lot – is on top oily form as the smoothly sinister Polidori, while Jane Seymour is remarkable as the beautiful but corrupted Prima. Nicola Pagett, as Frankenstein’s bride Elizabeth, shows a steel not usually found in the character, turning what is usually a fairly disposable character who exists to simply be terrorised by the monster into an integral part of the story.
Frankenstein – The True Story is far from perfect, but as two-part TV movie adaptations of the story go, it’s vastly superior to the 2004 version, as well as most other adaptations of the story. Frankenstein has always been a difficult novel to film without throwing away everything but the general theme, and there are plenty of disastrous versions – including several TV movies – to choose from. One of the problems that this film faced when originally broadcast was that the world was awash with Frankensteins – as well as this version, 1973 saw another TV adaptation by Dan Curtis, Hammer’s Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein and Blackenstein – with Young Frankenstein also in production. By any standards, it was a story that must’ve seemed done to death. Seen now, distanced from the rest of the films, it’s a lot easier to appreciate the film on its own merits.
And you know what? Despite the length and the familiarity of the tale, never becomes boring and there is enough here that is excellent to help compensate for the weaker parts. Certainly, as a curious hybrid of Hammer, Universal and Shelly, it’s a fairly unique version of the story and has held up remarkably well. Far from being the disaster that it has long been dismissed as, I think that this version of the story is probably one of the great Frankenstein adaptations and deserves more appreciation than it generally gets.
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