‘Frankenstein: The True Story’ (1973): Mary Shelley’s classic monster comes alive on TV

It’s Shock-tober, everyone! That’s right—time to take out a second mortgage to pay for your groceries this week. So, let’s lighten our loads by doing what I’ve been since I was in a playpen: escaping reality by obsessively watching TV. And what better way to block out the possibility of six more years of the Didy-in-Chief, than to watch one terrifying horror movie after another until one’s senses are completely numb.

By Paul Mavis

Recently released on Blu-ray by Shout! Factory‘s label, Scream Factory, 1973’s NBC “major movie event,” Frankenstein: The True Story, is a fascinating, rewarding take on the much-reworked Mary Shelley literary classic. Written by Christopher Isherwood (mostly) and Don Bachardy, and directed by Jack Smight, Universal Studios went all out for this epic TV movie/mini, snagging a stellar cast including James Mason, Leonard Whiting, David McCallum, Jane Seymour, Nicola Pagett, Michael Wilding, Clarissa Kaye, Agnes Moorehead, Margaret Leighton, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Tom Baker, and Michael Sarrazin (as the Creature), and spending lots of dough for expensive European location shooting and lush sets.

Click to order Frankenstein: The True Story on Blu-ray:

England in the first years of the 19th century. Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting), filled with “blasphemy” against the religious and moral times he lives in (a rage aggravated by the senseless drowning death of his brother), single-mindedly pursues his desire to compete with God, by not just creating life from whole cloth, but by actually bringing the dead back to life. He essentially abandons his fiancé Elizabeth (Nicola Pagett) to take up with dissipated, anti-religious, brilliant Henry Clerval (David McCallum) in his experiments to bring life to dead flesh. After seeing Clerval’s successful experiments (such as an amputated arm kept alive for over a month, and a dead beetle resurrected), he aids Clerval in assembling body parts to make a complete human creature.

On the eve of the creature’s rebirth, Clerval discovers that the process has not been perfected. Henry, fatally stricken with an unnamed illness, tries to send a message to Victor that the process is flawed, but death takes him before he can succeed. Victor, failing to decipher Henry’s message, decides that Henry’s brain is the perfect, final puzzle piece for his creation. In a departure from previous movies (but true to the novel), the Creature (Michael Sarrazin, quite affecting here) comes to life in full Byronic beauty.

He is also a blank slate and perfect mimic; he is gradually trained to appreciate beauty and culture. But before he can finish his training, the inevitable decay of the flawed process begins, and Victor, disgusted by what he has wrought, rejects his creation, and by his example, teaches the Creature hatred, shame, and violence. Filled with feelings of self-loathing he cannot understand, The Creature tries to commit suicide…but finds he is immortal.

At this point, the shadowy figure of Polidori (James Mason, brilliant as usual, in a role created specifically for this version) takes the place of the departed Henry. Seeking vengeance against Henry (Polidori knows the Creature has his brain), who worked with Polidori and who, according to Polidori, stole his secrets of resurrecting the dead, Polidori enlists the aid of the Creature to help blackmail newly married Victor, into helping create his own female monster, Prima (Jane Seymour). Events go disastrously wrong, and eventually, Victor and the Creature must work out their fate at the top of the globe.

I distinctly remember watching Frankenstein: The True Story when Part One premiered on November 30th, 1973. NBC made a big deal out of promoting it for its November “sweeps,” and looking back at its competition (thank you Google newspaper), it’s not hard to see why it handily won its time slot. Part One on Friday night followed the number 3 show on the air at that time (Sanford and Son)…well, to be honest, it followed failed Sally Field sitcom, The Girl With Something Extra, which followed Sanford and Son, but close enough. Direct competition was a movie on CBS (a rerun of In Cold Blood) and ABC sitcoms Room 222, Adam’s Rib, and Love, American Style. In other words: no competition.

Saturday night’s conclusion to Frankenstein: The True Story certainly had stiffer competition from CBS’s killer family night line-up: All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Carol Burnett Show (ABC ran a special on China…to snores). But a conclusion to a 2-parter or mini usually brings in extra eyeballs, and NBC lead-in Emergency! always scored good demos, so Frankenstein: The True Story proved a success for NBC.   

Despite the title, Frankenstein: The True Story is not a literal translation of Shelley’s classic (although many feel it’s still the most faithful to her novel). Basic themes of Shelley are included in the story (as they were in other earlier Frankenstein movies, particularly the 1931 version), with some Shelley plot elements (such as the Creature created beautiful, and the climax occurring in the Arctic) appearing for the first time in a Frankenstein outing. Taking the basic framework of the Shelley novel, scripters Isherwood and Bachardy fashioned a tense dialogue of science versus religion, ego versus love, passion versus duty, and most importantly, beauty versus ugliness. As students of the book know, its impetus came during a sojourn near Lake Geneva, Switzerland, in 1816, when Mary Wollstonecraft, her finance, poet Percy Byshe Shelley, and fellow poet Lord Byron, suggested a competition for all to write a horror story. Eventually, the most famous result of that dare became Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein. Revolutionary at the time for a woman writer questioning the relationship between God and his creation, her story has continued to intrigue the imaginations of readers to this day, and has been adapted, borrowed (and often mangled) by countless other authors, stage producers, and moviemakers.

Isherwood and Bachardy, both movie enthusiasts, felt that no big-screen version had really done justice to the original source material. In particular, the writers felt the relationship between Creator and Creation, and the various levels of interaction between the two (including themes of implied homosexuality, incest, and androgyny) that Shelley suggested, needed to “come out,” so to speak, in their version.

Isherwood, an openly gay writer, placed particular emphasis in the script (which partner and co-writer Bachardy readily admitted was largely written by Isherwood) on the gay subtext which Isherwood felt was inherent in the novel. Victor abandons Elizabeth three times to be in the company of other men—the third time the night of his unconsummated honeymoon, no less.

First, finding no comfort in Elizabeth (who represents strict religion and moral conformity) when his brother drowns, he runs to Henry, who mirrors his doubts in religion, and allows him to pursue his true goals of playing God—without the stringent disapproval of Elizabeth. With Henry, who, significantly, demands that the monster be beautiful, Victor finds a true counterpart to his passions, and builds a satisfying relationship with Henry. Elizabeth, when she visits Victor, sees the depth to which Henry and Victor have bonded.

Rejecting their efforts as blasphemous (she is sickened by their resurrected butterfly), she demands he chooses her or Henry. Victor chooses Henry. She reacts as any man would be expected to, wishing she could get back at Victor for his emotional betrayal, by killing her rival, Henry.

Second, once Victor has placed Henry’s brain in the Creature’s body, he utterly forgets about Elizabeth as he enjoys a relationship with his Creature that is, in almost every way, a “marriage” (which also brings up elements of incest as well, since Victor is also “father” to the creature). When the Creature is born, both he and Victor comment on how beautiful they both are (Sarrazin’s clingy little gauze bandage number only emphasizes the sexual nature of his relationship with Victor—perhaps an influence on The Rocky Horror Picture Show?). After the solar conflagration that brings the Creature to life, they both move towards each other, to remove the coverings from each other’s eyes, so that they may see each other for what they really are—soulmates.

Later, the sophisticated Victor takes particular pleasure in exposing his gorgeous, naive student/creation to all the cultured delights of romantic London, culminating in a date at the opera where Victor can show off his love—a Pygmalion theme found over and over again in romantic texts. They live in close quarters, obviously enjoying each other’s sole company immensely. Indeed, Elizabeth doesn’t even factor into this particular section of the story.

And third, on his honeymoon night, before he can even consummate his marriage to Elizabeth, Victor leaves Elizabeth to join Polidori. He may cry blackmail, but obviously, he does little to fight his desire to “get it right” this time in creating a perfect specimen. Without spoiling the end of Frankenstein: The True Story, it’s quite apparent in the denouement what Isherwood wanted to say about Victor’s and the Creature’s feelings for each other.

This is not to say that Frankenstein: The True Story abandons its horror roots to give the audience a thinly disguised political tract. Thankfully, Isherwood’s emphasis on the sexual underpinnings of the story don’t overshadow the horror elements of the movie. There’s a suitably gothic feel to the proceedings, courtesy of cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson’s moody, naturalistic lighting, and production designer Wilfrid Shingleton’s opulent sets. The music by Gil Melle strikes the proper grand manner, while the special effects by Roy Whybrow are more than up-to-par for a television production in 1973 (other sources, including the DVD case, list Hammer legend Roy Ashton as doing the makeup, but his name does not appear in the credits).

And while the action may seem tame by today’s standards, there’s some impressive moments of special effects, particularly the disembodied, crawling arm, and Prima’s reincarnation scene, complete with her decapitated nude body—Seymour insists it’s a body double, goddamit—in a giant vat of colored water and Fizzies (I suspect, due to some choppy editing, that some extra shots of gore were filmed for international audiences, but excised from the American television showing…particularly a notorious scene with Jane Seymour).

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The pace is somewhat stately (the producer, Hunt Stomberg, Jr., reportedly wanted a Doctor Zhivago feel), and the director, Jack Smight (Harper, The Illustrated Man, Midway) doesn’t do much in the way of interesting compositions (limited by shooting for the television screen, perhaps). However, Frankenstein: The True Story still manages to hold our interest over its three hour length.

The acting is first-rate for a television production; particularly noteworthy is the magnificently snotty James Mason as Polidori. Mason’s every line reading is an indictment against the mere mortals who act alongside him; he’s a delight, playing the nasty, effete kind of role he came to specialize in later in his career. The modern day prologue, with Mason addressing the audience, is hysterical. Who else but Mason could give the audience a brief, helpful introduction to the movie…while simultaneously talking down to them?

Also affecting is Michael Sarrazin as the Creature; he’s uncommonly good at getting across the Creature’s innocent, pathetic nature, as well as his growing, inevitable homicidal tendencies (he’s an actor I never warmed to, but this is certainly his best performance). As always, it’s nice to see lady-like Jane Seymour as a vicious, catty tramp—watch her try to strangle that cat! She should have played more villains in her career (catch her in another memorably erotic, evil role, in the standout ABC mini, East of Eden).

And just a heads-up: a major change to Frankenstein: The True Story came after it was shot, which undercut the carefully integrated themes of Isherwood’s script. Originally, there was a prologue filmed that had Mary Shelley telling her story of Frankenstein, with Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and Polidori, acting out the characters of Victor, Henry and the Creature, and Polidori (who was a real person—he was Lord Byron’s doctor and actually the author of the first vampire story in English, although Isherwood said he based the character on the “Dr. Pretorious” character from the movie, The Bride of Frankenstein).

All the themes of the screenplay were introduced in this prologue, including the prevalent use of mirrors to illustrate dual natures, and the butterfly motif that would be crucial later in the story. For whatever reason, NBC decided to cut this prologue from the final print, and quickly film a modern day introduction/preview, with James Mason, in modern London and at Shelley’s grave site (which turns out isn’t her real grave), addressing the audience. This new prologue is disastrously included at the front of Frankenstein: The True Story, amounting to little more than a commercial for the movie, basically retelling the entire plot, with crucial scenes spoiled. Make sure you skip it until the end.


Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

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