This little-known adaptation of Mary Shelley’s eternally popular horror story is a peculiar hybrid. The title implies that the made-for-television project is a faithful adaptation of Shelley’s original 1818 novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, but Frankenstein: The True Story takes as many liberties with the narrative as any other adaptation. (Never mind that the use of the word “true” with relation to any version of a wholly fictional story is bizarre.) That said, the story contrived by co-writers Dan Bachardy and Christopher Isherwood (the famous novelist whose work inspired the Cabaret stage shows and film) is filled with ambiguity, imagination, and pathos. Some basic elements, of course, remain the same. The protagonist is Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting), a brilliant surgeon driven to reckless extremes by grief. He builds a creature from the stolen body parts of corpses, but the creature becomes a murderer whose actions destroy Victor’s life, leading to a climactic showdown.
The Bachardy-Isherwood script adds and alters details at every stage, for instance transforming the relationship between Victor and his friend, Dr. Henry Clerval (David McCallum), so that Clerval is complicit in making the monster. Furthermore, Bachardy and Isherwood interject a major new character, Dr. Polidori (James Mason), and they offer a creepy new spin on the idea of a monster’s mate through the disturbing character of Prima (Jane Seymour). Both of these characters are riffs on embellishments that Universal Studios created for the classic 1931 horror movie The Bride of Frankenstein. By mixing and matching elements from Shelley’s novel with pieces borrowed from subsequent adaptations and sequels—in a sense, mimicking Victor’s unholy process—the writers contrive a three-hour epic that concludes, as Shelley’s novel does, in the North Pole. Most of Frankenstein: The True Story works on a story level, even though some of the acting (especially by Whiting) is quite flat, and even though Jack Smight’s direction is often perfunctory. (In his defense, the movie’s budget was clearly stretched quite thin by the abundance of costumes and locations.) Perhaps the most interesting addition to the Frankenstein mythos this project offers is the notion of the creature beginning his “life” as an example of physical perfection, only to suffer decay later as his body parts revert to their unnatural state.
Casting actor Michael Sarrazin as the creature was quite clever, not only because his looks are somewhat otherworldly but also because his signature as an actor was gentle sensitivity; the scenes where he demonstrates savagery are therefore especially harsh and surprising. Similarly, the gorgeous Seymour makes a fascinating Prima because the actress seems to relish contrasting her looks with Prima’s feral nature. Since Whiting is vapid at best, the more colorful actors McCallum and Mason dominate laboratory scenes (of which there are many), and Mason in particular renders many memorable moments because his character does so many grotesque things. Speaking of grotesque things, Frankenstein: The True Story features some of the ugliest events in all of ’70s TV—there’s a beheading, lots of dismemberment, and such—so even though it’s not especially gory, the film doesn’t shy away from horror.
Frankenstein: The True Story: GROOVY