A BBC Christmas favourite for a couple of years running back in the 1970s when I was a lad (I never got the chance to see it back then, though) Jack Smight’s epic three hour mini-series in the days before such things had become properly established is, of course, anything but a faithful adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel. However, seeing as it was first broadcast when cinema versions ranged from Andy Warhol’s over the top FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN (marvellous) to Terence Fisher's ambitious FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (also marvellous) to BLACKENSTEIN (not marvellous at all) one can appreciate the desire to do something that got back to basics.
Despite its 180 minute running time, FRANKENSTEIN THE TRUE STORY begins (and ends, for that matter) abruptly. In a series of rapid cuts that make us feel we’ve already missed an episode, we learn how Victor Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting) lost his brother William (blink and you'll miss him Karl Howman) to drowning, offering this as his subsequent obsession with the desire to create life.
Travelling from his home to London on the York to London coach (did Frankenstein truly come from Yorkshire?) he bumps into local surgeon Henry Clerval (David McCallum) who has made a machine that can reanimate the kind of beetle never native to these shores. A room-sized machine and some appropriate body parts, plus the action of sunlight (a nice touch) results in perfect ‘Creature’ Michael Sarrazin. Henry’s brain has gone into the creature's skull after Henry’s health gave out, leaving Frankenstein to rent some rooms and move in with his creation so they can have a lovely time going to the opera and playing in the park. But oh no! The creature starts to ‘regress’ and Frankenstein has to break up with him...er...send him away.
But who’s that lurking in the shadows? It’s none other than James Mason with no hands and the gift for hypnosis. James is Dr Polidori, and he’s kitted out Frankenstein’s old lab so it looks like something from THE MASK OF FU MANCHU with Chinese servants to match. He wants to make a girl, not for sensible naughty doctor reasons but to rule the world, or something. The creature, who has survived his 400 foot plunge off the white cliffs of Dover, brings him the body of Jane Seymour, which no doctor, naughty or otherwise, could possibly object to for their experiments. Pretty soon Polidori’s convinced Frankenstein to help him and Prima is born, only to lose her head in a splendid bit at a ball.
We’re two and a half hours in and Tom Baker, toplined in the credits, still hasn’t appeared! There he is at last, as the captain of the ship intended to transport Victor and his bride Elizabeth (a bit of an unsympathetic performance here from Nicola Pagett). Unfortunately everything goes pear-shaped and Victor and his creation end up at the North Pole, where they laugh and get buried in an avalanche. The End.
FRANKENSTEIN THE TRUE STORY always felt very much to me like something made for an undemanding mainstream television audiences rather than horror fans. Indeed, if your mum fancied watching a version of Frankenstein, this would be a good one to suggest. Jack Smight’s direction is workmanlike and undistinguished, Gil Melle’s music feels like it’s accompanying a Barbara Taylor Bradford adaptation, and while the locations are very pretty there’s very little sense of the gothic evinced by the best versions of this story. James Mason camps it up (possibly a bit too much) while David McCallum is excellent as the grumpy and obsessive Clerval. They should have got him to play Frankenstein. Michael Sarrazin does a good job of doing something different with the creature, and Jane Seymour makes the most of her role as Frankenstein’s second creation. In the lead role, Leonard Whiting is pretty but ineffectual, an individual who is swept along by events rather than the driven scientist horror fans had by this time become used to. Ultimately, any adaptation of Frankenstein is going to stand on fall on its central performance, and, more than its lack of gothic trappings or unimaginative direction, it was Whiting’s performance that had me yearning to watch James Whale’s and Terence Fisher’s versions again.
Fabulous Films have done an excellent job bringing FRANKENSTEIN THE TRUE STORY to a UK audience on Blu-ray. The transfer is superb and there are a wealth of extras as well. You get the option to run through the whole thing in one go, or with the added infamous introduction by James Mason where he wanders through a London cemetery to come across the grave of Mary Shelley, despite the fact she was actually buried in Dorset.
Sam Irvin provides a superb commentary that's thoroughly deserving of its Rondo Award win, tells you everything you could possibly want to know about the production and really could not be improved upon. Mr Irvin returns to conduct three interviews with Jane Seymour (24 minutes), Leonard Whiting (18 minutes) and co-screenwriter Don Bachardy (41 minutes), meaning that Fabulous Films' disc is the equivalent of Shout Factory's Region A Blu-ray. Except we also get a Graham Humphreys cover so that definitely makes the Fabulous disc better and the one to buy.
FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY was due out on Blu-ray and DVD from Fabulous Films on Monday 27th March 2023 but this has now been pushed back to 10th April 2023