DVD Review: Frankenstein – The True Story

Starring: Leonard Whiting, James Mason, Jane Seymour

Director: Jack Smight

Rating: 7/10

You might think you need another DVD of Frankenstein like you need a bolt through the neck, but tarry a while, because this TV adaptation from 1973 does interesting things with what can seem like an all too familiar story.

Shot on film and set in a plushly realized Regency England, with attractive locations and spacious sets, it also has a lengthy three hour running time, which it uses to good effect, fleshing out a number of interesting subsidiary characters. David McCallum’s Henry Clerval, the mentor who sets Victor (Leonard Whiting) on his path, is a twitchy nerd with a big brain and bad social skills; James Mason’s Polidori is a deliciously smiling villain, ever suave as he bounces back from endless setbacks; and his Prima, Frankenstein’s mate – played by a perfectly cast Jane Seymour – is a chip off the old block, flirty, sadistic and sharp as a whip. Even the usually dull Elizabeth, Victor’s wife, here has a distinct edge as she rages and plots like a jealous lover against the two shady scientists who keep on stealing him away from her.

It’s also an adaptation that abounds in unexpected subtexts. The script, co-written by Christopher Isherwood of Cabaret fame, treats Victor’s experiments like an elaborate metaphor for “experiments” of another kind – namely, experiments in homosexuality in a less enlightened age. Various parallels are drawn between the two: the criminality, the secrecy, the desire to get their hands on the strapping young bodies of ploughboys and miners, even the bitchiness and gossip, with Clerval christening Polidori with the very camp-sounding nickname Polly-dolly.

Victor’s whole relationship with the monster has the dynamic of an amour fou. “You’re beautiful,” he gasps when he first sees the living monster, who, as played by Michael Sarrazin, is sensitive, slender and has lovely teeth. But when the monster develops some unsightly lumps and bumps, Victor’s enthusiasm for his creation quickly cools, and the monster finds that he can’t do anything right. He goes from being the apple of Victor’s eye to being disowned, an embarrassment, a failed experiment.

Although never made up to appear that scary-looking (he’s the spitting image of indie rocker Nick Cave most of the time), Michael Sarrazin puts in a good performance as a kindly spirit who is eventually brutalized into being the monster everyone tells him he is. On top of that, the show delivers a few flashes of gore and some lurid weird science moments, including a splendid sequence where Polidori brings Prima to life in a brightly coloured bubble bath.  The picture quality is a little blurry but very bright on this transfer, and the production values are easily the equal of Hammer at its best. Given its age, this is an adaptation that stands up well, and it’s certainly one of the most interesting Frankensteins after the two original Universal films.

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