Friday, April 3, 2020


Frankenstein: The True Story (1973) d. Jack Smight (UK) (186 min)

Following the tragic drowning of his beloved brother William, the brilliant young surgeon/student Victor Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting) becomes obsessed with unlocking the mysteries of resurrecting life from dead tissue. While traveling to London to resume his studies, a chance encounter with a wounded man on the highway causes Victor’s path to cross with that of the drunken and unconventional maverick Dr. Henri Clerval (David McCallum). Finding kindred spirits in one another, Clerval takes Victor under his wing, showing him the results of his unconventional solar/electrical experiments, first reviving insects, then animals, and finally severed limbs. Their next step? To bring a human body back from the dead, an opportunity that arrives in the form of a bizarre quarry accident that leaves seven men badly mangled. Assembling the healthiest pieces of each, they create a piecemeal creature (Michael Sarrazin) that, sure enough, is able to walk, talk, and pass for a member of polite society. But when the process begins to reverse itself, Victor can only stand helplessly by as his “beautiful” creation turns monstrous.

So begins this curiously titled (um, true story????) but undeniably impressive adaptation of Mary Shelley’s acclaimed 1818 novel, produced by Universal Television and unveiled by NBC in the US over two nights in November of 1973. Armed with a stellar cast, gorgeous production values, sprightly and elegant direction by veteran Smight (The Illustrated Man, Airport 1975, Midway, Demolition Alley), and a unique yet faithful in spirit (if not in letter) script by novelist Christopher Isherwood (Goodbye to Berlin, which was later adapted as Cabaret, and A Single Man) with Don Bachardy, there is a great deal to enjoy here. But only, and this is the big ask the filmmakers make of their audience, if you’re not going to be preoccupied with the fact that it deviates wildly from its source material in terms of actual plot points.

For example, top-billed James Mason pops in as a Dr. Pretorius-type mentor called Dr. Polidori, which is a fun little Easter egg for those familiar with the genesis of Shelley’s literary creation. For those not in the know, John Polidori was Lord Byron’s personal physician and was on hand that fateful June weekend when Byron and the Shelleys (Mary and her famous poet husband Percy) came up with the novel (haha) idea of contest for conjuring the most terrifying literary nightmare. (Polidori’s own short story, “The Vampyre,” would also meet with success, the first modern vampire story published in English.)

There are many such elements that Isherwood and Barchardy weave throughout their screenplay, and although they deviate from Shelley’s narrative, fans of the novel should identify and appreciate their inclusion. Clerval is indeed a character in the novel, but as Victor’s childhood friend as opposed to his demented mentor. The literary Creature is indeed hideous, despite his creator’s careful selection of “beautiful” body parts, but the regression from handsome leading man to deteriorating monster is pure invention for the mini-series.

The Creature does insist that Victor devise a mate for it, but here it is Polidori that adopts the female monster Prima – derived from the corpse of a blind hermit’s daughter Agatha (both played by Jane Seymour) – and plans to insinuate her into high society (a plot point that would later be echoed in 1985’s The Bride). Dozens of these references appear throughout, making for a clever and intellectually stimulating game for sharp-eyed fans that never proves distracting.

With a budget of $3.5 million (the highest ever devoted to a made-for-television project at the time) and its impeccable roster of stars that also included John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Nicola Pagett, Agnes Moorehead, Margaret Leighton, and Tom Baker (the original choice to play the monster), it was hard to argue with the artistic significance of the project at the time (despite being a mere horror film), and that sense of classiness endures nearly 50 years on.

From the score by Night Gallery’s tunemeister Gil Melle to lauded cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson’s (Where Eagles Dare, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Medusa Touch) seasoned eye to the expert shears of editor Richard Marden (Bedazzled, Hellraiser, Nightbreed) to a curiously unbilled Roy Ashton providing the stellar makeup effects, there is nary a wrong step and the epic three-hour running time clips along with the efficiency of a well-crafted page-turner. (Plus, there’s a built-in intermission for the faint of heart and weak of bladder.)

The special features are curated by Sam Irvin, who recently was awarded the Rondo Award for “Best Article” for his coverage of Frankenstein: The True Story for Little Shoppe of Horrors, and I’d like to express my deepest admiration to Shout! Factory for getting the right man for the job. Irvin’s commentary is equal parts education and adulation, and his interviews with Seymour, Whiting, and Bachardy have an informed yet informal air about them. It’s refreshing to see S!F venture outside their comfort zone of hiring established genre experts like Tom Weaver, Steve Haberman, Constantine Nasr, David Del Valle, etc. to recruit an authority specific to the subject matter at hand. Well done all.


NEW 2K scan of the original film elements including the six-minute introduction by James Mason

NEW Audio commentary with filmmaker/film historian Sam Irvin

NEW “Off with Her Head” with actress Jane Seymour (24 min)

NEW “Victor’s Story” with actor Leonard Whiting (18 min)

NEW “Frankenstein’s Diary” with co-writer Don Bachardy (41 min)

Frankenstein: The True Story is available now on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE:


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