Film review by Jason Day of Frankenstein: The True Story, the 1973 version of the classic horror story about a scientist who creates a living being from the body parts of the dead. Starring Leonard Whiting and Jane Seymour and directed by Jack Smight.
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After his brother tragically dies while swimming, ambitious and enraged young scientist Dr Victor Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting) renounces God. He vows to work so that such a fate never befalls anyone else, much to the consternation of his shocked fiancée Elizabeth (Nicola Pagett).
He teams up with solitary peer Henry (David McCallum) who is experimenting with reviving dead body parts, with the hope of doing the same for a complete person. Henry dies shortly before completing a journal entry that reveals his methods are flawed and the reanimated flesh decomposes rather than dazzles.
Victor progresses their work and creates the handsome male creature nicknamed Beautiful (Michael Sarrazin) but loses interest when the creature starts to degrade. Victor’s work is picked up by Henry’s embittered former mentor Polidori (James Mason) who manipulates Victor into going one step further and producing a super creation, a female named Prima (Jane Seymour) which precipitates tragedy for all.
Review, by @Reelreviewer
I love little kitty, his coat is so warm.Prima (Jane Seymour) sings a lullaby to her mistress’ cat before throttling it.
And if I don’t hurt him he’ll do me no harm.
For the ‘true’ in this movie’s title read instead ‘writers’ interpretation’ rather than faithful. From locations to character relationships, quite a lot has been altered or amended.
‘Fake news’ for some, but this is actually one of the most imaginative and intelligent takes on what is the umpteenth take on Mary Shelley’s classic horror/scientific ethics tale.
The writers are none other than Christopher Isherwood – darling of the Weimar-era and the author of Goodbye to Berlin which formed the basis for Cabaret – and his partner Don Bachardy. It’s no wonder their Victor is an aesthete whose admiration of male beauty sees him tightrope walk between sexual orientations.
Victor and his monster Beautiful (Victor doesn’t bother to give him a proper name) adore looking at each other when first they meet, so it’s heartbreaking to see how Beautiful is crushed by Victor’s subsequent rejection of him.
Bewilderment, despair and anger rush across his face as his looks ebb away and the vapid homosexual in Victor rapidly loses interest.
It’s understandable Victor’s head would be turned by such a strapping guy in the first place, when the alternative is his miserable, religious fundamentalist girlfriend Elizabeth, who is pretty and well-dressed but cold and wet as a fish.
Tellingly then as Victor wades out to rescue his flailing brother William on the lake, we see Elizabeth in close up, hardly batting an eye-lid at the horror playing out in front of her.
Later, she visits Victor at the lodgings he shares with Henry. Henry must sense the temperature of the room has dropped several degrees because he quickly runs out on them. Elizabeth then talks to Victor in the most patronising and passive aggressive way, asking him to explain his scientific endeavours “…in simple language…suitable to my sex.”
Pagett plays Elizabeth quite masterfully, making you cringe wonderfully with her ‘pass-ag’ – a difficult state to convey on camera – but also because, despite her frequent berating of the other characters for their actions, she is a key player in everyone’s downfall as well.
To explain, Elizabeth is selected by Dr Polidori as the ‘ideal’ for his immature creation Prima to study and imitate to become a graceful and self-possessed young woman with impeccable lady-like credentials for her planned entrance to high society.
But Elizabeth’s chilly, imperious, mocking and sarcastic personality grafts too easily onto the young woman who merely has to see a ballet once to become a Prima ballerina.
She bests her ‘ideal’ Elizabeth at every turn and also sees the love Elizabeth has for Victor. During her coming out ball, makes her own sexual interest in the young man known.
Poor Prima. Polidori notes before her ‘birth’ that Victor, as he sews on her head – upcycled from the remains of a peasant girl Beautiful is taken with – onto a new body, is a master surgeon. But praise in haste, repent at leisure as the good doctor clearly hasn’t wired the girl correctly.
Prima, absorbing Elizabeth’s subconsciously, is delectable to look at but clinically deranged. She mimics, mocks and masters Elizabeth and exhibits signs of psychopathy by strangling her cat (“Just playing a game!”).
Kitty Constantine proves to be the final, deadly influence for Prima. Her inaugural society ball, arranged by Polidori as a stepping stone toward world domination (she’ll become a courtesan for the wealthy, with Polidori pulling the strings in the background), is gatecrashed by the now not-so-Beautiful.
The crowd scream and scatter, but not Prima. Full of hatred – is her former self Agatha aroused by how he inadvertently led to her death? – she hisses and claws at him as Constantine did to her during their ‘game’.
The event all ends in a ‘heady’ way. The ladies pass out, the men leap out and Polidori’s dreams are left out on the ballroom floor, in a bundle of bloody, disembodied curls at his feet.
I love Seymour in this movie. I associate her, at this point in her career, as a lovely, well-spoken but rather vacuous m’lady (Live and Let Die, also 1973 and The Onedin Line) or, during her Dr Quinn years as a self-sacrificing and rather boring sort.
Here, given free reign to be bat-shit crazy and unleash cattish hell on all around her, she is scary fun. It’s a shame Prima’s ambitions are ‘lopped off’ just as she is getting interesting.
The delightful, star cast performances are topped by James Mason as the insouciantly witty, Mephistopheles character. Loosely based on the John William Polidori who was present at the stormy-night gathering that inspired Shelley to pen her infamous novel, Mason easily owns the scenes he is in, helped by the best dialogue:
“I can’t abide delicacy, especially in monsters.”
“He not only made you, he made a mess of you.”
“What a model parent you’ve been! You loved your creature so long as it was pretty but when it lost its looks, Hah! That was another matter! So much for your dainty conscience.”
Frankenstein: The True Story was originally made as a TV movie, an artform still in its infancy in 1973. Back then, TV movies of sufficient quality could get a theatrical release, which was the case here.
Just as the good doctor chopped up humans to create his perfect, final human ‘cut’, so the original two-part TV version was hacked about to make it a suitable length for cinemas.
The latter version is as messy and lumbering a lump as anything Victor turned out on the slab. Be careful what you purchase people because this is still available to buy online as an ‘official’ edit of the final production – you will soon find the sound quality to be atrocious and whole scenes to be excised, leading to a nonsensical, disjointed viewing experience.
Search around for the two-part cut and settle down for a spellbinding, perverse, enthralling and genuinely unsettling version of Shelley’s tome.
Cast & credits
Director: Jack Smight. 3hr 5 mins/185 mins (original, two-part edit). Universal Television. (12).
Producer: Hunt Stromberg.
Writers: Christopher Isherwood, Don Bachardy.
Camera: Arthur Ibbetson.
Music: Gil Mellé.
Sets: Wilfred Shingleton.
James Mason, Leonard Whiting, David McCallum, Nicola Pagett, Jane Seymour, Michael Sarrazin, Michael Wilding, Clarissa Kaye-Mason, Agnes Moorehead, Margaret Leighton, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Tom Baker.