TITLE: Frankenstein: The True Story
YEAR RELEASED: 1973
DIRECTOR: Jack Smight
CAST: James Mason; Leonard Whiting; David McCallum, Jane Seymour, Nicola Pagett, Michael Sarrazin
STEPHEN JACOBS reviews the television mini-series Frankenstein: The True Story, now newly-released on DVD in UK format for the first time
Frankenstein: The True Story was a Universal NBC co-production, which was shot in England and featured a mainly British cast, (Sarazzin and Moorehead were American, and James Mason’s wife, Clarissa Kaye, was Australian).
It aired on NBC in the US on two consecutive nights starting on Friday, 30 November 1973. The following September 1974, the film opened in London at the Paramount cinema on Lower Regent Street where it played for a month in an edited 123 minute version.
I vividly remember when the full three-hour version was first shown on British TV. I had been allowed to stay up (I was almost eight years old) to watch the program and enthusiastically looked forward to this new version of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel.
The programme aired at 8:20 p.m. on Saturday, 27th December 1975 and I settled down for an evening of horrific entertainment.
I lasted about 11 minutes.
When the severed arm was revealed in the Gladstone bag of Dr. Clerval (David McCallum) my nerves failed and I snuck, quite quickly, off to bed.
I had to wait until the next screening the following year (on the 21st December 1976) to try again, although I am not sure I made it to the end (it finished after midnight).
Even so, certain scenes have stayed with me: the dismembered arm (now animated and ‘alive’ and locked in a cupboard) banging on the door, its subsequent (and rather gruesome) destruction by acid, and Jane Seymour’s character coming to a terrible end – twice!
The plot differs from Shelley’s novel.
After the death of his brother Victor Frankenstein (Whiting) returns to London to continue his studies at the hospital. There he meets Dr. Clerval (McCallum) and together they continue the doctor’s work which has, so far, resulted in the reanimation of an amputated arm. Together they build a human being. However, when Clerval discovers that the process used to re-animate the arm is reversing he dies before he can warn his colleague. Frankenstein transplants Clerval’s brain into their creation.
The resultant creature (Sarrazin) is unlike previous incarnations, bearing no signs of surgery. Instead, he looks like a normal man – until the process begins to reverse…
Although Frankenstein: The True Story has been available on DVD in the U.S. since 2006, this release by Second Sight is the first time the TV movie has been released in the UK in any format. The DVD presents the series in its original two-part format. While the picture quality may be a little soft, and dirt is evident at places throughout the film, the picture is certainly watchable.
The film is in its original aspect ratio of 4:3 with a running time of 175:50. There is an English Dolby Digital 2.0 Dual Mono track, and English subtitles.
The only extra is a curious 5:30 long introduction from James Mason. Most of this intro comprises of clips (and many spoilers) from the forthcoming feature, however, a portion of it was Mason standing by, what purported to be, Mary Shelley’s gravestone in the disused cemetery at St. John’s Wood Church Grounds. This is odd as Mary Shelley was never buried there. She was originally interred in the graveyard of St. Pancras Old Church but later moved to St. Peter’s Church in Bournemouth.
While Frankenstein: The True Story may not be the literal adaptation of Shelley’s novel that it claims to be it is, nevertheless, a worthy addition to the collection of any fan of the Frankenstein myth or, indeed, a good (if somewhat gruesome) drama. It has a literate script (by Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy and is, for me at a least, one of the two defining TV horror movies– the other being Salem’s Lot (1979) which, co-incidentally, also featured James Mason and his wife, Clarissa Kaye. Now, what a double bill that would make!
Award-winning Boris Karloff historian STEPHEN JACOBS is the author of Karloff: More than a Monster. You can buy his book here from Amazon and read his interview with The Spooky Isles here. He also wrote an Spooky Isles article Karloff’s London, a location guide including Boris Karloff’s childhood homes and filming locations around the English capital.