❉ Come up to the lab as Ken Shinn sees what’s on the slab…
‘Any fool with a sword or gun can give Death! Why can’t we give Life?’’
A Necessary Preamble: A Brief Celluloid History Of The Monster
In 1973, an ambitious plan was conjured to create the most faithful screen version yet of Mary Shelley’s literary creation. But where, truly, did the tale begin?…
Fittingly enough, it all began with Electricity, or one of Electricity’s great pioneers.
Thomas Alva Edison, via his Edison Studios, gave the first jolt of cinematic life to Creator and Creation in 1910. The Monster, portrayed by one Charles Henry Ogle, was a misshapen figure, more demon than man, brought to Life by unknown chemicals and ultimately laid low by the power of the Love of Frankenstein for Elizabeth.
James Whale and Carl Laemmle revived and transformed the Monster, as played with beautiful, near-mute emotion, by Boris Karloff for Universal’s still-renowned 1931 film, which spawned the even more marvellous sequel which introduced us, in near-fairy tale manner, to Elsa Lanchester’s every bit as iconic Bride Of Frankenstein.
His subsequent Universal incarnations, courtesy of a miscast Bela Lugosi and the workmanlike Glenn Strange, whose Monster was reduced to confronting Abbott and Costello in 1948, were not enough to overcome the sheer, elemental power of Shelley’s remarkable tale, and a decade later Hammer’s The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957) kick-started that studio’s renowned run of Horror films, made icons of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Even John Bloom’s undistinguished portrayal of the Creature in Al Adamson’s 1971 Dracula Vs Frankenstein has the minor distinction of the 7 foot 4 inches tall Bloom being the big screen’s tallest Monster to date.
In brief, both Man and Monster – not to mention their tragic tale of hubris and undeath – remained fascinating to Artist and Audience alike. However, prior to Jack Smight’s 1973 adaptation, none of the many versions really tackled the spirit of Shelley’s original head-on, preferring to tell straightforward, undeniably enjoyable, undeniably unsophisticated variants on the theme of the Modern Prometheus.
Frankenstein: The True Story
While there are considerable additions and excisions, perhaps fittingly for the sawed-up and stitched-together-again Creature, Frankenstein: The True Story was the first to approach Shelley’s tale with anything like real faithfulness. Some screen re-tellings of Shelley’s novel may be punchier, some more accurate, but this particular rendition comes much closer to recapturing the aesthetic and intellectual power of the tale than the likes of Karloff’s tender-hearted and heart-breaking Man/Monster – or, for that matter, the gory degradations of Cushing’s increasingly callous Victor for Hammer.
Frankenstein: The True Story opens in beguiling manner, with a red, gilded book being opened on the pages of the story – a statement of intent in regards to a true re-telling which gives way to the bloom of a beautiful rose… A rose which must, inevitably, decay. It’s an economical yet elegant portent of what is to come. Within three minutes, Victor’s brother William drowns, and the former storms from his funeral with his new mission statement in place.
His own father a loving foster parent, everywhere Victor is tempted to become himself an unnatural progenitor, a modern Prometheus. A subsequent encounter with the victim of an accident on route to London leads him to a fateful encounter…
‘That arm is beautiful.’
Doctor Clerval, who treats the wounded man, becomes pragmatic inspiration to Frankenstein, an aesthete-engineer of Human flesh. Obsessive and vain, he’s another father, the father to the man that Victor will become. In this telling of the tale, the stolid, idealistic Frankenstein becomes very much a Trilby figure, and in Clerval he meets his first Svengali. And their plans to bring Life from Death involve not even lightning, but that most Heavenly of fires: the Sun. Clerval dies, but his disciple struggles on: and, in an explosive lightshow, the Creature is reborn. He removes Victor’s smoked glasses gently, wanting to look on the face of his father. The latter, in return, carefully removes his bandages.
The Creature is a flawless, beautiful young Man.
And Prometheus becomes Pygmalion.
‘Seems to have frequent nightmares. The coldness of the flesh is noticeable at all times…’
Crafted from the bodies of crushed quarrymen and the brain of the now-dead Clerval, the Creature’s education raises him rapidly from monkey-see monkey-do mimicry to erudite, well-spoken intellect.
He charms high society, and frequently startles and impresses his Creator. But always, lurking in the background, is the true Svengali to this resurrected Trilby.
‘Come on! I’ve no use for delicacy, particularly in monsters…’
Polidori, an addition to the story courtesy of scriptwriters Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, has a name that pays respects to the origin of Shelley’s story, but a character reminiscent of the foppish but sly Doctor Pretorius of Bride Of Frankenstein. And, like Svengali, he’s an adept mesmerist, able to hypnotise most people with the swift flash of light from glass, plus his own inexorable will. Furthermore, the Creature seems to be displaying two things: a nascent paternal fondness towards children, and subsequent wish for a Mate; and, even more alarmingly, as Clerval had discovered but died before he could say, a tendency towards slow but inexorable putrefaction…
Both Michael Sarrazin’s Creature and Leonard Whiting’s Victor are beautiful, sensual young men, and the former’s despairing flight from the latter across the cliff tops that ends the first act of the tale feels as though it’s escaped from some bodice (or should that be crotch?) ripper of a lustful yet romantic yarn. There’s more than a touch of the Heathcliff and Cathy about the pair, although the roles switch back and forth throughout. Both Nicola Pagett as Victor’s fiancée Elizabeth and Jane Seymour as Agatha/Prima (a guileless peasant girl who becomes the second Creature) are undeniably beautiful and play their parts well (although the latter’s awful Mummerset accent as Agatha is a bit much – she’s obviously having much more fun as Prima), but they’re decidedly secondary to the men, and the story eventually despatches them both, brutally and – in the latter’s case – outright show-stoppingly. It’s somewhat surprising to find that both Isherwood and Bachardy were apparently disappointed that Smight’s direction toned down the homoeroticism of their original script – what remains in the finished film is hardly subtle!
It all runs the risk of feeling somewhat unfocussed and even vapid after its admirably economical and intense opening, an increasing reliance on stultifying style over succulent substance, and by the time that Polidori’s evincing proto-Bond villain tendencies and the film reaches its one point of marvellous Grand Guignol (or which should be: with the likes of The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre just around the corner, the moment is almost bathetically weak, even taking the production’s TV movie origins into account), you might be forgiven for wishing that the whole thing was a good hour or so shorter. It’s all very pretty, but so often it feels so vacant.
And yet…and yet. There’s still so much here to enjoy. Arthur Ibbetson’s cinematography makes the whole thing a feast for the eyes from first frame to last, aided by Elsa Fennell’s sumptuous costume designs and Fred Carter’s expert art direction. In addition, there are welcome connections to Hammer’s Frankenstein at least, with Roy Ashton supplying the marvellous disintegrating make-up for the Creature and Philip Martell supervising Gil Melle’s workmanlike but effective musical score. The definite sense is there of a production which was striving for something more than mere sensationalism or penny-dreadful shudders.
It’s also one of those films with a definite all-star cast. Of the really big names, only James Mason is really given time to shine as the smooth but dastardly Polidori, but Ralph Richardson is suitably touching as the blind man Lacey with whom the Creature finds temporary refuge, and Margaret Leighton on fine, dotty form as a somewhat pixilated society hostess. Whiting as Victor is bland but serviceable, as is Jane Seymour (until, as previously said, Prima lets her have some more fun). Nicola Pagett is excellent as ever, but a decidedly unimportant role pushes her into a bit of a quiet corner that she doesn’t really deserve. Two performances, though, really deserve praise: David McCallum as Clerval (an intense, arrogant yet self-doubting portrayal which makes me rather wish that he’d got the part of Victor), and Michael Sarrazin as the Creature – by turn hesitant, endearingly child-like, eager and joyous as his new education proceeds, to terrifying and tragic as the story nears its conclusion. Along the way, there are also memorable turns by such British and American reliables as Tom Baker, Agnes Moorehead, Peter Sallis and Yootha Joyce.
Previously released on Blu-Ray in North America by Scream Factory in 2020, this recent UK release courtesy of Fabulous Films is definitely one to acquire if you have any fondness at all for this film – as I hope that I’ve made it clear that I have. The feature is presented in beautifully crisp and colourful picture quality, definitely the best so far, and the extras include the American TV introduction speech from James Mason (complete with a certain, infamous geographical mistake!), and interviews with Jane Seymour, Leonard Whiting and Don Bachardy conducted by Sam Irvin, a cinema historian and filmmaker who also provides an audio commentary. Not to mention the beautiful new cover art courtesy of Graham Humphreys (of which you also get a fold-out poster)!
In the final analysis the film comes across as nothing less than an intelligent, sensitive and philosophical, highly homoerotic Horror story with echoes of George Bernard Shaw and George du Maurier that are at least as strong as the presence of Mary Shelley. Perhaps it’s best to sum up this version by invoking another near-contemporary of Shelley’s, when he told us..
‘The tale is the tragedy, “Man”, and its hero, the Conqueror Worm.’
The shadow of Frankenstein – the Creator and his Creation – stretches to remarkable, centuries-spanning length. The Frankenstein saga has never really gone away. The Creature will not be left dead and buried.
❉ Film Introduction from James Mason
❉ Off with Her Head – An Interview with Jane Seymour
❉ Victor’s Story- An Interview with Actor Leonard Whiting
❉ Frankenstein’s Diary- A Conversation with Writer Don Bachardy
❉ Double-Sided Fold Out Poster of the All New Graham Humphreys Artwork.
❉ ‘Frankenstein – The True Story’ was released 27 March 2023 on Blu-ray and DVD via Fabulous Films Ltd/Fremantle Media. Certificate: 12. Running Time: 186 mins. Click here to order Blu-ray, RRP £24.99. Click here to order DVD, £19.99. These are Amazon Affiliate links, which means we will receive a commission if you make a purchase, at no extra cost to you.
❉ Ken Shinn is a lifelong fan of all things cult and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. His 58 years have seen him contribute to works overseen by the likes of TV Cream and the British Horror Films Group, as well as a whole batch of short stories of the fantastic, with his first novel on the way. Whatever the field, he intends to enjoy Cult in all its forms for many years to come.
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