Frankenstein: The True Story. Film Review

Director: Jack Smight
Screenplay: Christopher Isherwood, Don Bachardy
Starring: Leonard Whiting, James Mason, Nicola Pagett, David McCallum
Running Time: 182 Mins
Format: DVD
Certificate: 15
Release Date: 10/03/14
Reviewed by Guy Adams

Remember when all classical adaptations began with the camera focused on a book? The heavy, leather cover would flip open and, like as not, a voice over would commence, offering the first few — usually rewritten — lines of the novel.  Partially this was to reassure audiences that what they were about to see was an honourable translation of source to screen. Partially, the message was one of legitimacy, that this story was once bound on paper and was therefore worthy. If nothing else, I hope that my career as an author may do its part to deflate that bubble of worthiness.

In Jack Smight’s three hour adaptation of Shelley’s Frankenstein there’s no voice over, just sepia-toned images of the notable cast accompanied by a theme that would suit a western set in a graveyard.

Is it an honourable translation? Is it Shelley’s ‘true’ story or that of the screenwriters? Thankfully the latter. Not that there’s anything wrong with Shelley’s original but as my viewing of Kevin Conner’s faithful 2004 version is so recent I can still smell the formaldehyde I’m relieved to be given a fresh spin.

The script is by Christopher Isherwood and his partner Don Bachardy and it’s no surprise that they bring a hint of homo-eroticism to things. The initial relationship between Frankenstein and his creation, a young man who they mutual agree to be ‘beautiful’, plays out as a romance that flounders once the creature begins to lose his looks, the process that has brought him to life degrading over time. Their relationship ends up on the rocks (of a beach in Dover in fact) and the young scientist returns to his wife, though likely not a pleasurable sex life. When discussing the creation of children, he makes his opinion of procreation only too clear: “Life out of life? There’s no miracle in that, any animal can do it.”

Such subtext is soon disposed of as the story moves into its second half but, along with the fact that the animation of dead matter requires the light of the sun rather than the traditional gothic lightning, provides a welcome twist.

James Mason, as the villainous Dr Polidori, is reliably horrid and David McCallum gives a very pleasing turn as Victor’s mentor. Jane Seymour, an actress so often relegated to roles as sweet as syrup, also adds a refreshingly sour quality as Prima.

The production does have its flaws, Smight’s direction is flat and some of the guest parts are brief and disposable, really only there to act as an audience draw.

More problematic, Leonard Whiting, much-feted after his performance as Romeo in Franco Zeffirelli’s ROMEO AND JULIET four years earlier, provides a surprisingly wet and uncharismatic Victor.

Originally broadcast in two episodes, Second Sight’s disc allows the viewer to watch in that format or in one fell swoop. It also includes the charmingly barmy introduction from James Mason wandering around a graveyard that doesn’t have a Mary Shelley in it (whatever he may say to the contrary) while making brave promises of what is to come, intercut with clips from the production that never quite live up to his huckstering.

Naturally, made for television in 1972, it may seem somewhat tame and delicate for modern audiences but FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY contains enough that is fresh and enjoyable to stand alongside more traditionally Gothic interpretations.