FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY

"Face it - you WANT me."(1973 - TV)
With Leonard Whiting, Michael Sarrazin, James Mason, David McCallum, Nicola Pagett, Michael Wilding, Clarissa Kaye, Agnes Moorehead
Directed by Jack Smight

    Frankenstein: The True Story, a film which will make you say "Holy crap, Jane Seymour was a major babe in the '70s!"

    Where was I?

    Oh, yes... Frankenstein: The True Story.  

    A "television event" back when television actually had events, Frankenstein: The True Story purported to tell the actual tale in Mary Shelley's classic novel, as opposed to the most famous film, 1931's FRANKENSTEIN directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff.  But don't let the title or James Mason's lengthy and unnecessary prologue fool you, though.  Frankenstein: The True Story is not the true story.  It is a lavish all-star film that takes elements of Shelley's novel and spins them into a three hour epic that, in the end, strays from the source about as much as James Whale's version did.

"Does this puffy shirt make my head look big?"    How far does it stray?  Consider this: it takes the real life John Polidori, one of the original participants in Shelley's private novel-writing contest from which the novel Frankenstein arose, and turns him into a fictional mad scientist who needs Victor Frankenstein's help in creating his own undead being.  The fictional Dr. Polidori (aka "Polly Dolly") is played by that master of underplaying, James Mason, who seemed to enjoy riding out the seventies in a variety of fun roles - he played a similar evil wackjob in the TV version of Steven King's Salem's Lot in 1979.  Mason dominates the second half of the film, where he creates the female Prima (played by the above-mentioned lovely Miss Jane Seymour), develops plans to rule all of Europe by exploiting her (yeah, he's that nuts!), and watches all his best laid plans go horribly awry courtesy of Frankenstein's Monster.  Along with Michael Sarrazin as The Monster, Mason is the best thing in the film (aside from the above-mentioned lovely Miss Jane Seymour).  Why?  Because he's James Mason, damn it!  

"No, don't go, Mick Jagger!"    Speaking of Michael Sarrazin, what a great decision it was to cast one of the best-looking men of his era as the monster.  Sarrazin begins the film not as a monster but as the perfect "man". However, Victor Frankenstein's method of creating life from death was not quite up to snuff, so the perfect man begins degenerating slowly but surely, and is rejected by his master for no longer being "beautiful".  Even then, he is still not a monster - in fact, in the entire film, he doesn't become a monster.  Much like Karloff's portrayal, he is just a frustrated child who winds up killing out of anger against the world he never asked for.  Oh, sure, you can shoot him point blank in the chest and he will just look annoyed at you, but does that make a man a monster? Yeah, his face is falling apart, but does that make somebody a monster?  Okay, he pulls somebody's head off at a fancy dress ball, but does that... well, yeah, maybe that one qualifies.  

    There are other performances, such as Leonard Whiting as Victor and Nicola Pagett as his bride Elizabeth, that fall flat.  Whiting never gets to the heart of the character of Dr. Frankenstein; it always seems to be just one step beyond him.  Pagett is okay, but unfortunately she is only called upon to portray only a handful of emotions, none of them happy, so her dour character tends to get irritating over the three hour running time.  The the film makes up for it with pros like David McCallum, Agnes Moorehead, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson making memorable appearances.  Dr. Who fans will be happy to know that Tom Baker has a small part near the end of the film.

    Originally shown over two nights and then a staple of late night TV, Frankenstein: The True Story has long been available only as a truncated two-hour film on VHS.  Thankfully, Universal has released the original three hour version on DVD, so if you're a fan of Frankenstein movies, '70s television or just want to see the gorgeous Jane Seymour licking blood off her hand after attempting to strangle a cat, it is worth renting or owning. 4 - JB

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