❉ We Are Cult’s Nick Clement and filmmaker Sam Irvin on the 1973 all-star epic, new to Blu-ray.
Recently released in full-blown special edition format by Shout! Factory’s Scream genre line, Frankenstein: The True Story carries some serious pedigree both in front of and behind the camera, and when viewed as a complete 186 minute feature, this two-part, NBC TV movie of the week from 1973 takes a very unique approach to classic material. And it can’t be underestimated the impact that the production had on audiences at the time. “I was an impressionable, 17 year old horror film geek from North Carolina. But my searing emotional reaction was sincere at the time and ran much deeper than mere adolescent zeal,” says Sam Irvin, a cinema historian and filmmaker who supplied a passionate audio commentary for this new disc release.
During his formative years, Irvin created a fanzine called Bizarre, and a few months after Frankenstein: The True Story debuted on television, he put the film on the cover. Four decades later, Irvin won the Rondo Award for Best Article of the Year for The Epic Untold Saga Behind Frankenstein: The True Story published in Little Shoppe of Horrors Magazine #38. He guest-edited the entire 120-page issue devoted to the film. He even recruited Anne Rice to write the Foreword because the movie inspired her to write Interview with the Vampire. Aside from writing articles and books, Irvin served as Brian De Palma’s assistant on The Fury and Dressed to Kill, then became a director in his own right of over 40 movies, including cult favorite Elvira’s Haunted Hills.
Frankenstein: The True Story was directed by eclectic journeyman Jack Smight (The Illustrated Man, The Travelling Executioner, Harper, tons of television work; this man’s career is ripe for re-appraisal) and written by the team of Christopher Isherwood (Forever and a Day, The Great Sinner, A Single Man, and the novel on which Cabaret was based) and Don Bachardy (Isherwood’s longtime lover and chief creative consultant throughout the decades). Their ambitious production dialled back the overt horror elements in favor of a more thoughtful, talky-drama approach, and features an all-star cast where it seems everyone was having some fun with the reinterpreted material. It’s also extremely lavish as far as TV productions from this era go, with terrific sets and sumptuous art direction and costumes; the Blu-ray format allows these artistic merits to shine as much as possible.
“At the time, the Frankenstein: The True Story script was one of the hottest properties in show business. Major filmmakers at the top of their game, including Francis Ford Coppola immediately following The Godfather, and John Boorman right after Deliverance, begged Universal Pictures to let them direct this movie – but only if it would be a theatrical release. The powers-that-be insisted on keeping it as a made-for-television movie. Even so, the openly-gay producer Hunt Stromberg Jr. was entrusted with the highest budget ever given to a TV production up to that time – and he put every penny of it up on the screen, maximising the talents of his formidable cast and A-list crew. Stromberg wanted it to have the lavish feel of an epic feature film like Doctor Zhivago and he succeeded in his quest,” Irvin explains.
But it’s the story’s universal (if coded) messaging that hasn’t been lost over the years that keeps the film feeling vital, and when overlaid with Mary Shelley’s original story, this time-capsule endeavour offers up an even more compelling narrative hook, with emotional stakes that are ratcheted up further notches. After suffering the loss of a family member, Victor (Leonard Whiting) becomes obsessed with figuring out the key to life after death. He meets a teacher named Henry (David McCallum), who also happens to be a mad scientist who’s developed the ability to reanimate dead organisms. The duo then team up to construct their special Creature (Michael Sarrazin – brilliant here), with Victor attempting to find a place for their sexy beast in high society, an innovative plot turn inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Enter the duplicitous Dr. Polidori (James Mason), who becomes aware of the monster plans, and tries to do his own thing with the Creature by bringing a young woman named Agatha (Jane Seymour) back from the dead, which throws Victor for a loop.
“As a closeted gay teen who felt like an outsider and a freak of nature, the movie spoke to me in profound ways I would not fully comprehend until many years later,” says Irvin, who also co-produced Bill Condon’s Oscar-winning drama Gods and Monsters, starring Sir Ian McKellen as Frankenstein director James Whale. “The James Mason character Dr. Polidori in Frankenstein: The True Story was directly based on the gay arch villain Dr. Pretorius from Bride of Frankenstein. In fact, early drafts of the Isherwood-Bachardy script named him Dr. Pretorius. In my interviews with Bachardy, I was able to confirm my suspicion that they had laced all sorts of queer subtext into their version of the story, including a hinted-at sugar-daddy backstory between Dr. Polidori and Henry, plus the not-so-subtle attraction between Dr. Frankenstein and his beautiful Creature – which quickly sours after the Creature’s skin begins to decompose, an intentional indictment on society’s obsession with youth, beauty and perfection,” says Irvin.
This new Shout! Scream release is spiffy across the technical board, and as mentioned above, because the original production elements were so robust, the excellently chosen locations, massive sets, and striking color palette are all on full display in the Blu-ray format. The AVC encoded image retains the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and is featured in shiny 2K; colors are sharp and vivid, with all of the make-up based details popping like they probably never have before. The 2.0 DTS-HD MA sound mix does a solid job, placing an emphasis on the dialogue exchanges with a good balance of the musical score’s sound levels and ratios. The bevy of special features will certainly appease fans of this old-time production. As usual for Shout!, it’s another fabulous release for cult classic material.
❉ New 2K Scan Of The Original Film Elements To The 2-Part 3 Hour And 6 Minute Version Including The Introduction By Actor James Mason
❉ New Audio Commentary With Filmmaker/Film Historian Sam Irvin
❉ New Off With Her Head – An Interview With Actress Jane Seymour
❉ New Victor’s Story – An Interview With Actor Leonard Whiting
❉ New Frankenstein’s Diary – A Conversation With Writer Don Bachardy
❉ ‘Frankenstein: The True Story’ was released on Blu-Ray by Shout! Factory in US & Canada, 24 March 2020: Available in US & Canada, RRP $27.99 USD: https://www.shoutfactory.com/product/frankenstein-the-true-story
❉ Nick Clement is a journalist for Variety Magazine and motion picture screenplay consultant, as well as a critic for websites We Are Cult and Back to the Movies. He wrote the introduction to the book Double Features: Big Ideas in Film, which was published by The Great Books Foundation, and is currently working on a book about the life and work of filmmaker Tony Scott. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and son.
❉ ‘Little Shoppe of Horrors’ magazine #38 featuring The Epic Untold Saga Behind Frankenstein: The True Story by Sam Irvin: http://www.littleshoppeofhorrors.com/
❉ Sam Irvin’s credits on IMDB: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0006787/?ref_=nv_sr_srsg_0
❉ Website for Sam’s book Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise: www.KayThompsonWebsite.com