The earliest nightmare I remember having was of being chased in the woods by Boris Karloff’s monster from Frankenstein . Karloff has given many film fans nightmares since 1931 with his brilliant performance and the amazing makeup by Jack Pierce. But director James Whale took a lot of liberties with Mary Shelley’s famous book and the Peggy Webling play, leaving the door open for a more faithful cinematic portrayal of the legend. Enter Frankenstein: The True Story, an interesting attempt at filming Shelley’s story, but pedestrian writing and directing undermines the films ambitious intentions.
With Karloff’s monster being so iconic, the producer’s of Frankenstein: The True Story, thought it was necessary to have James Mason, one of the films stars, explain their approach to the story, a clumsy and unintentionally funny start to the movie it doesn’t really recover from, not to mention the fact, that while Mason tries to convince the viewer that they’re in for a hell of a ride, most of the movie’s plot points are given away in the clips they show.
Leonard Whiting is Victor Frankenstein on this outing. Haunted by the drowning of his brother, Victor becomes obsessed with the idea of creating life from death. He tracks down Dr. Clerval (David McCallum) a reclusive, bitter, scientist that has already experimented with reanimating dead tissue. The two join forces and make their first attempt at bringing a dead man back to life. Clerval dies before the experiment can begin, and before he can tell Frankenstein he has discovered a flaw in the process. Unaware of the dangers that await him, Frankenstein proceeds with the experiment, and produces The Creature (Michael Sarrazin). This creature is the complete opposite of what film fans have come to expect from Frankenstein’s Monster.
This creature is a handsome man, with a mind that is quick at learning. Victor teaches his creation how to behave in society, and soon introduces him to the world as a foriegn prince traveling abroad. The Creature is fascinated with the world he is exposed to, especially with music, or anything that he finds beautiful, the first word he learned. He also has a possessive love for Victor, like a son to a father. Victor teaches his Creature that he is beauty, not only physically, but as a spiritual creation.
The Creature’s beauty doesn’t last however. His looks and mind begin to deteriorate. Victor searches for a cure, but fails, and The Creature gets worse and worse. In an attempt to keep The Creature from discovering what is happening to him, Victor destroys all the mirrors in his flat, and locks The Creature in his room. But he can’t hide his own disgust and contempt for The Creature, the uglier he becomes. Eventually The Creature discovers the truth about his condition, and horrified at what has happened to him, having been taught that he represents beauty, tries to kill himself in numerous ways, only to discover that his dead ass is already dead.
From this point on, Frankenstein: The True Story, takes on a more familiar plot line, as the creature, having survived the fall off the cliff, befriends a blind man that plays a violin, and later encourages the creation of another monster, this time a woman played by Jane Seymore.
But the film suffers from numerous mistakes in the script. The addition of Dr. Polidori (James Mason), distracts from the relationship between Frankenstein and The Creature. Making matters worse is a less than interesting Victor Frankenstein. This mad scientist is less insane and more of a dumb stooge, constantly being manipulated by everyone around him, including his wife, two other mad scientists, the creature and eventually The Creature’s bride. He’s simply too passive as a main character to hold a 3 hour long movie together. Director Jack Smight (Harper, No Way To Treat a Lady) is competent, but has no style.
Despite its ham fisted TV production values, Frankenstein: The True Story has a few things going for it. There are some shocking moments, the most memorable when The Creature rips the head off of Prima “The Bride” at a gala ball. Sarrizin’s portrayal of The Creature, although not as frightening or memorable as Karloff’s, is very interesting, and in the hands of a more talented director and larger budget, it may have rivaled his predecessor . As it stands, Sarrizin’s performance is fourth, behind Karloff, Lee and Boyle. (Yes, I consider “Young Frankenstein” as one of the better versions of the story). Fans of Hammer Horror will enjoy much of the production as make-up artist Roy Ashton had been involved in numerous Hammer films. Overall, unless you’re a big Frankenstein fan, Grumpy Guy can’t recommend the film, it’s too long and meandering. But for those into Hammer (even though it’s not a Hammer production, it feels like one) and those into early seventies trash cinema or obscure horror films, then Frankenstein: The True Story, is worth a look.