THE BOOTLEG FILES: “FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY”

Whenever you see “Frankenstein” in a movie title, there is a 99.9% chance that the film is going to be terrible. For every “Bride of Frankenstein” or “Young Frankenstein,” there are at least 30 films along the lines of “Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter” or “Frankenstein Island” (which has a mad scientist named Sheila Frankenstein!). But no one goes into those awful movies expecting great art, and usually some wonderfully guilty laughs can be squeezed from their clueless excess.

But the 1973 made-for-television “Frankenstein: The True Story” is another matter. This production had something resembling pedigree: a screenplay co-written by Christopher Isherwood, direction by Jack Smight (who helmed the well-regarded “Harper” and “No Way to Treat a Lady”) and an all-star cast. The result, however, was perhaps the most astonishing atrocity based on the Mary Shelley novel. Unlike “Frankenstein Island,” which was never meant to be taken as high art, “Frankenstein: The True Story” was positioned as a serious work – but it turned out to be a serious mess.

In this version, Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting, best known for the 1968 “Romeo and Juliet”) is a sensitive young British surgeon grief-stricken over the death of his brother. We know he is a sensitive man because he has long, flowing Farrah Fawcett-style hair. A chance meeting with a weirdo named Dr. Henry Clerval (David McCallum) in a charity hospital changes his life. Cherval has been tinkering with reanimation and managed to bring a severed arm back to life. In the original book, Clerval is Frankenstein’s ethical best friend – why he was made into his evil tempter is not clear.

Clerval and Frankenstein steal the corpses of local peasants killed in a quarry accident and sew their undamaged pieces into a new body they hope to bring to life via solar energy (hey, it was the early 1970s – save the Earth and that shit, you know). The night before the big experiment, Clerval has a seizure and dies. Frankenstein pays tribute to his dead colleague by removing his brain and putting it into their sewn-together corpse. When the sun starts to shine, the reanimation process begins and a monster is born.

But unlike the other Frankenstein monsters, this one isn’t ugly. In fact, he’s rather cute (Michael Sarrazin, a pretty boy actor popular during this era). Frankenstein can’t get over how lovely the monster is and he takes him home to his apartment. While the monster’s vocabulary is somewhat limited (all he says is “Beautiful,” “Rest” and “Victor”), Frankenstein is very happy with his creation. Perhaps a bit too happy: when Frankenstein returns home with a gift for the monster, his creation sneaks up from behind and locks him in a playful bear hug, causing both of them to break into uncontrollable giggles.

But before Frankenstein and the monster grab their fishing poles and head to Brokeback Mountain, things get ugly. Actually, the monster gets ugly: his features begin to deteriorate and his appearance becomes misshapen. Frankenstein tries to hide the truth by breaking all of the mirrors in their apartment, but the monster discovers what’s up and becomes depressed. He attempts suicide by stabbing himself, but he doesn’t die. Then he runs off one of the White Cliffs of Dover and falls into the waves below, but he doesn’t drown. Frankenstein believes his monster is gone, and he runs off to marry Elizabeth, the vapid daughter of local gentry.

At this point, all remaining logic goes out the window. The monster falls into the possession of Dr. Polidori (James Mason), who seems to come out of nowhere (he’s not in the original Shelley novel, for starters). Polidori is given to sardonic insults and belittles the monster endlessly with lines like “I have no use for delicacy – even in monsters” and “It’s a wise monster who knows his own father” and “He not only made you, he made a mess of you.” Inexplicably, Clerval’s brain channels its owner’s original voice and Polidori is delighted to discover this. It seems Clerval stole Polidori’s formulas for reanimation, but did not take all of the notes. Polidori expresses glee that Clerval got such weird comeuppance by having his brain trapped in a freakish being that can never die.

Polidori tracks down Frankenstein on his wedding day and forces the groom to leave his reception. Polidori is planning to bring another sewn-together body back to life and needs Frankenstein’s surgical help. The monster even lends a hand, providing the body of a peasant girl who fled from him and ran smack into an oncoming stagecoach. When the work is done, Polidori and Frankenstein imprison the monster in an abandoned building and set it on fire.

The new female monster is dubbed Prima and she is quite the dish (Jane Seymour, fresh from her “Live and Let Die” breakthrough). But Prima has issues: she tries to strangle a cat and breaks into balletic dance without warning. Frankenstein’s in-laws hold a party for Prima (don’t ask why) but the monster crashes the ball. Still smoking from his fiery imprisonment, he tears Prima’s head from her body.

Frankenstein and his wife get passage on a ship out of England. Unknown to them, Polidori is on the ship. Unknown to Polidori and the Frankensteins, the monster is also on board. The monster kills Polidori and Elizabeth and the ship’s crew abandons their vessel. Frankenstein is knocked unconscious and the monster, suddenly possessing maritime skills, sails the ship to the Arctic.

Frankenstein comes to and finds himself at the North Pole. He follows the monster to a crevice within a giant ice formation and loudly begs forgiveness. Due to his shouting, an avalanche begins. The monster and Frankenstein embrace as they are buried in the avalanche (which appears to have been scissored in from a National Geographic special on polar mishaps, but by now who really cares?).

If you’ve ever read Mary Shelley’s book, you will know the people who made this film never read that book. Everything that the book stood for is totally ruined by the topsy-turvy storyline. It is surprising Sheila Frankenstein didn’t turn up, considering who arrives here.

And the acting has to be seen to be believed. Whiting’s Frankenstein and Sarrazin’s monster are tepid to the point of being inconsequential. Sarrazin in particular lacks the acting chops to essay the deterioriating monster’s pathetic fate – he just comes across as a dull man in bad make-up. Whiting, at least, has lovely hair and it is impossible not to wonder what shampoo and conditioner he uses to keep it so bouncy.

But the rest of the cast can’t stop hamming it up. James Mason is particularly hilarious, sneering and chuckling in a droll imitation of Vincent Price, while David McCallum seems to be paying tribute to Peter Lorre’s performance in “M” with his eye-rolling, twitching angst. Also worth noting are Agnes Moorehead as a raucous landlady, John Gielgud as a vain police constable, Ralph Richardson as the fiddle-playing blind hermit, Margaret Leighton as a clueless society dame, and Michael Wilding as Frankenstein’s father-in-law. One imagines the set dresser on this film worked overtime filling in the teeth marks left by this scenery-chomping ensemble.

“Frankenstein: The True Story” debuted on NBC in a two-part presentation stretching November 30 and December 1, 1973. It was not popular. Universal Pictures, which produced this mess, chopped the production (roughly 200 minutes) into a two-hour movie, added some gratuitous gore that could not make it into the TV broadcast, and dumped it in European theaters.

The shorter European version was released on home video in 1995 by a label called Gaiam Americas, which presented the less noteworthy films from Universal (including “Bedtime for Bonzo”). But that release is no longer in print; the full mini-series was never made available on video.

Bootlegs for “Frankenstein: The True Story” are easy to find, and at least one has Frankenstein-worthy creativity. There is an enterprising fanboy on the Internet Movie Database hawking his own home-stitched DVD consisting of the 16mm version of the U.S. mini-series with the European gore moments attached. He calls it “the best of both worlds.” Yeah, right!

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on January 27, 2006 in Features by
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