1973 TV miniseries Frankenstein: The True Story is one of the most sophisticated and undervalued Gothic horror films of all time
A few weeks ago, we penned a piece citing a slew of the scariest and coolest made-for-TV horror movies ever made and, while it was a decent distraction, we failed to mention what might just be one the most intelligent and sophisticated small-screen shocker of the 1970s. It’s a film that treads well-trod ground in the genre and yet, because of its script, performances and production value and sheer scope and length, feels fresh and alive and might just be the best film of its kind.
We’re talking about director Jack Smight’s 1973’s elegant and unforgettable mini-series Frankenstein: The True Story, a bold title considering Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking novel is not a document of fact and that this adaptation takes great liberties with that source text. But what makes it “true” is that in distills the themes of Shelly’s “Modern Prometheus” and the motives of its titular character, propelling him on a quest to cheat death and better God at his own game. The other thing that makes it “true” is that it suggests that no matter how noble one’s intent to improve the world, vanity and ego level everything. And denying what and who you are might just be the greatest sin of all.
Long available on video (and via TV broadcasts) in a butchered 2 hour crushed cut, Frankenstein: The True Story was restored to its epic, full 2-part miniseries cut for DVD a few years back and this is the version we recommend you seek out. Oddly, it begins with a weird prologue featuring co-star and cinematic icon James Mason (who also graced another masterful horror miniseries, Tobe Hooper’s 1979 adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot) wandering around a graveyard teasing the movie we’re about to watch, complete with a spolier-heavy flurry of clips, while pontificating on the importance of Shelley’s novel. After we get that bit of prime time pandering out of the way, the film fades in to a gorgeous opening credits sequence with a blooming rose, the credits and cast rolling out while the flower opens and gets redder. Then we get to the film…
The familiar character of Victor Frankenstein, here beautifully played by Leonard Whiting, witnesses his brother William drowning and, while attending the funeral with his fiancee Elizabeth (Nicola Pagett) vows to fight to eradicate death, swearing that he’d happily make a deal with the Devil in order to do so. Venturing deeper into medical education and mad science, he meets the odd Henry Clerval (David McCallum) who swears he knows the secrets of bringing dead tissue to life. Frankenstein works with Clerval on his quest to create a master race of beautiful people made from the dead, much to the chagrin of Elizabeth who is not only distrustful of Clerval…but kind of jealous of the pair’s intimacy.
When Clerval dies of a heart attack on the cusp of finishing their first subject, Frankenstein places his brain in the body of the “creature” who rises as the beautiful Michael Sarrazin, who rises covered in strategically placed bandages and stares in pouty-lipped wonder at his creator. Initially, Victor is thrilled, a vindication over the death of his brother and validation of his genius. He begins spending all his time with his monster, introducing him into polite society as a distant relation and playing both father and, seemingly, partner to the gentle, attractive creature (who he names Figaro). But when Frankenstein notes that other test subjects – in particular a severed arm – are disintegrating, he is alarmed to learn that his beloved creature is starting to fall apart too.
As the creature begins to disintegrate, his utterances of “beauty” giving way to the horror of his increasingly syphilitic appearance, he loses his mind and flees. As Victor thinks his creation has died, he licks his wounds, learns his lessons about playing God and moves on. But the creature instead wanders into the woods, lost and afraid. Here, he meets a blind hermit (Ralph Richardson) who befriends the poor wretch until his family comes to call. When the Hermit’s niece Agatha (a stunning Jane Seymour) is accidentally killed, the monster brings her back to Frankenstein and Clerval’s lab, only to discover that the sinister Dr. Polidori (Mason), Clerval’s mentor has taken over the building and intends on continuing with the experiments. He and the monster blackmail Frankenstein into helping create a Bride out of Agatha’s corpse. They do. And then things really get twisted…
To say more about the rest of the serpentine story would be to spoil the 2nd half arc of its secret weapon, that of the resurrected Agatha, re-christened Prima. This was Seymour’s breakthrough role and she’s alarmingly good, a sexually-charged ghoul whose porcelain beauty betrays the madness and rot that swells in her zombie brain. She’s incredible and when the movie bends to her plight, it becomes the best Hammer Horror movie ever made. In fact the Hammer DNA is strong in other ways as Hammer legend Roy Ashton handled all the excellent make-up effects. Frankenstein: The True story also has a potent homoerotic subtext, first between Frankenstein and Clerval and then between Frankenstein and the monster. This might be due to the fact that the film was co-penned by openly Gay British writer Christopher Isherwood and artist Don Bachardy, who were lovers and partners for years. In fact, you can view Victor Frankenstein’s pre-wedding venture into mad science as a dalliance with his innate sexuality, one he chooses to “bury” when it complicates his life. But it returns to haunt him, the creature potentially representing that sexuality and closeted life that keeps returning endlessly to haunt him, until he finally makes peace with it.
But no matter your read on the film’s allegory, Frankenstein: The True Story is a masterpiece based on its craft alone, with allusions to the novel, the classic films (Polidori is a riff on Pretorious in The Bride of Frankenstein as well as allusion to Dr. Polidori who helped Shelley finish the original novel) and moments of alarming innovation. The birth of Prima in the lab, with its nude sequences (wild for a prime time network TV broadcast!) and phantasmagorical swirls of color and fluid, is one of the most breathtaking creations sequences in all of Frankenstein cinema.
Frankenstein: The True Story is a stunning work. One that needs to seen by anyone with a serious interest in Gothic horror. Pick it up here.
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