GORE IN THE STORE
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FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY ***
Directed by Jack Smight.
Starring James Mason, David McCallum, Leonard Whiting, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Yootha Joyce,
Tom Baker, Jane Seymour, Michael Sarrazin.
Horror/Drama, UK, 186 mins, cert 12.
Released in the UK on DVD & Blu-ray via Fabulous Films on 27th March 2023.
FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY is not actually what it says it is, because FRANKENSTEIN was not real – just putting that out there. In fact, this so-called ‘true story’ is an adapted version of Mary Woolstonecraft Shelley’s original novel, made into a TV movie and split into two halves, originally broadcast in 1973 on the BBC and highly praised it was at the time.
As was the norm back then, the producers put together a stellar cast and no expense was spared in the costumes and set designs, recreating Victorian London (remember, this is an adaptation) fairly convincingly for an early ‘70s production – in other words, it didn’t look like they borrowed the sets from DOCTOR WHO – and generally telling their story in a manner that would ensure that once the first half was over, viewers would definitely tune in the next night, just like producers did with SALEM’S LOT and IT many years later. However, unlike those productions, most viewers would have had an idea how it all ended if they’d read the book or seen one of the previous movie versions; yes, this was an adaptation that took liberties but it still hit similar beats to what had gone before.
In this version, Victor Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting) witnesses the death of his younger brother William, who falls out of a boat and drowns in what is possibly the quickest drowning accident ever, and this tragedy spurs the earnest Victor on to try and discover the secrets of life and how to create it. Cue his travels to London to work with the ever-so-slightly deranged Dr. Henri Clerval (David McCallum), who shares the same passions as Victor, and together they start to work out how they can create life.
But disaster strikes when Clerval dies of a heart attack, forcing Victor to finish the experiment alone, getting it slightly wrong and ending up with a very handsome creature in the shape of Michael Sarrazin, who may be a good-looking man but he has the brain of Dr. Clerval and after a while his appearance starts to degenerate, causing his creator to reject him and turn him into an ugly savage, inside and out. The thing is, all this messing with nature has caught the attention of the dastardly Dr. John Polidori (James Mason), who isn’t going to let Frankenstein walk away from his experiments just yet as he needs Victor’s knowledge to make his own female creature.
So the basics of the book are there, only the events happen in a slightly different order and with a few new characters thrown in. Some of the events are passed over quickly, such as William’s death and getting Victor to London, and others are forcibly drawn out to the point of exhaustion, like how many times is James Mason going to pop up and speak to Victor in a condescending manner? Quite a lot but it is Mason’s appearances that lift the movie out of the doldrums of a TV period drama and into the realms of camp, making the second half move along at a bit of a clip. Add to that the fun scenes of Polidori, Frankenstein and their two assistants creating their female creature in a bath full of colourful acids and chemicals, and a mixture of special effects that cover the spectrum of convincing severed limbs to comical thunderbolts turning men to skeletons in an instant, and the movie turns into a bizarre mixture of Hammer horror and the BATMAN TV series as it quickly tries to cram in every plot point mentioned in the book that hadn’t been written in by that point. That is roughly the time Tom Baker turns up as a ship’s captain, in scenes that are rushed through far too quickly to make much of an impact.
But pacing issues aside, FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY does hold up reasonably well fifty years later. The sets and costumes look terrific, the focus on the creature and his fate forces your sympathies away from Victor towards the doomed creation – which is just as well because Leonard Whiting is quite dull as the main character, and is easily overshadowed by James Mason and David McCallum – which adds a little more depth and when it does escape the confines of a TV costume drama and tries to be a horror movie it works well enough; maybe not quite up there with Hammer’s FRANKENSTEIN series but it certainly towers over most of the other adaptations that followed it.
Featuring a very odd introduction from James Mason – which may not be entirely accurate when it comes to the correct location of Mary Woolstonecraft Shelley’s grave – and interviews with Jane Seymour, Leonard Whiting and writer Don Bachardy, FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY may not be the most accurate, goriest or exciting adaptation of FRANKENSTEIN but neither is it the worst, sitting comfortably somewhere in the middle.
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