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After the Fall of the Hammer:
Frankenstein films from the early 1970s to the 1990s

Frankenstein: The True Story (1972)

          The made-for-TV movie Frankenstein: The True Story (USA, 1972) ranks among the better efforts from the early 70s.

After his brother's tragic death by drowning, Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting) leaves for London to continue his medical studies. There he meets Dr. Henry Clerval (David McCallum), who is obsessed by the idea to create a living man from dead body parts. Clerval shows Frankenstein that he has already achieved reanimation in dead insects and the induction of life into human limbs using electricity and solar power. Frankenstein is enthusiastic and decides to assist Clerval in his experiments. But shortly before the two scientists are able to bring their creature to life, Clerval dies from a heart attack. Frankenstein transplants Clerval's brain into his creature (Michael Sarrazin) and successfully reanimates the creature, a handsome, intelligent man. Victor introduces him into society, but after a short time the Monster's skin and face begin to decay, rendering him increasingly disfigured. In order to hide this process of decay from the Monster, Frankenstein destroys all mirrors in the laboratory and attempts to reverse the process, but is unsuccessful. When the Monster eventually discovers his ugly facial features, the vain creature attempts suicide by throwing himself off a cliff. 
Thanks to his extraordinarily strong body the Monster survives the plunge and flees into the woods, where he befriends a blind man. The Monster falls in love with the blind man's daughter Agatha (Jane Seymour), but he is chased away by her brother Felix. Agatha, fleeing into the forest in panic, is run over by a carriage and dies.

Definitely a case for the beauty parlour:
Michael Sarrazin as the Monster,
slowly falling apart
Later the Monster runs into scientist Dr. Polidori, who blackmails Frankenstein into helping him make a companion for the Monster. Using Agatha's head, they create the beautiful, yet truly evil Prima. Frankenstein falls in love with his new creation and introduces her to the upper circles of society on a ball. Unfortunately, the Monster also turns up at the event and, envious of Prima's extraordinary beauty, brutally kills her by knocking off her head.
The Monster later boards a ship, where he kills Dr. Polidori and Frankenstein's wife Elizabeth. Without a crew the ship reaches arctic regions, where Frankenstein finally confronts his creation. In a final attempt to kill the Monster, Frankenstein sets off an avalanche that buries both him and the Monster.

Trust them - they are doctors: Leonard Whiting and James
Mason as Frankenstein and Polidori
         Directed by Jack Smight, written by Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy and starring James Mason, John Gielgud and Jane Seymour, this 3-hour adaptation is truly above average. Renown film critic Leonard Maltin described it as the "thinking man's horror movie" as it concentrates more on the psychological aspects of the story than on pure horror effects.

Although called "The True Story", this movie is surely not a 100% adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel, but in fact only contains elements from it. This is true for the basic story of Frankenstein creating a monster, who is finally  responsible for his creator's demise. But many other aspects from Shelley's original novel have been changed or were even mixed with elements from previous Frankenstein movies. 

This time the Monster is not the brutish creature from many Hammer and Universal films, but an intelligent, handsome man, who is educated and changes his attitude in the course of the story. This makes Sarrazin's Monster a lot like the Monster in the novel and distinguishes The True Story from most of its cinematic predecessors. But when the Monster begins to degenerate, he becomes quite the opposite of what he was intended to be: no longer the perfect, flawless male human, but a caveman-like abomination with putrefying skin. In some way his fate reverses that of another Frankenstein monster: In Frankenstein Created Woman Christina Kleve transforms "from scarred and limping freak to ravishingly beautiful woman." (1)

The Screenplay also tries to increase the viewer's sympathy for Victor Frankenstein.
Initially his wish to overcome death is triggered by his brother's tragic death. Unlike in most other films, later the driving force behind Frankenstein's work is not the wish to create artificial life, but the attempt to preserve his friend Clerval by transplanting his brain into the body of the creature. 
It is also important to note that Frankenstein does not immediately reject and desert his creation - unlike in the novel and many other movies. This time he attempts to educate the monster and even introduces him into the upper circles of society. Of course one could argue that Frankenstein keeps his creation only as long as he thinks he has created a seemingly perfect man. And indeed, at first Frankenstein's experiment seems to be successful and only later turns out to be a failure when the Monster decays and consequently turns into a murderous fiend. Here the film differs substantially from the novel, where  Frankenstein realizes from the first moment that he has failed when he describes his creation: 

"Oh! no mortal could support the horror of that countenance. 
A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as
that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly
then; but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable
of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have
conceived." (Shelley 1992: 57)

Here Clerval is a completely different from the character in the novel. In fact, in The True Story it is Clerval who convinces Frankenstein to work with him, not the other way round. Clerval is driven by the desire to "create a new man" and to "create a new race". He is like Mephistopheles in Faust when he asks Frankenstein if he wants to challenge the Gods. Early on in the movie there is a scene where Victor admits to his fiancée Elizabeth, that he would even join forces with devil if he could bring back his dead brother. At that moment he does not yet know that he would soon meet his own devilish temptation, his own Mephistopheles: Dr. Henry Clerval.

However, the actual villain in The True Story is not the Monster, but Dr. Polidori, a typical mad scientist figure analogous to Bride of Frankenstein's Pretorius. After Clerval's death it is him, who is responsible for Frankenstein continuing his work. Of course he only achieves this because he has control over others by using either old-fashioned blackmail or his special hypnosis techniques. In the end Polidori meets his just fate when the Monster hangs him from the mast of the ship, where Polidori is vaporized by a flash of lightning, ironically the natural force he feared most all his life. 

The movie's ending, while inspired by the Artic setting of the novel, is surely taken from Brinsley Peake's theater play Presumption: or the Fate of Frankenstein, where the Monster also dies in an avalanche.

The Monster before everything went wrong

In the end it was up to two comedies to revive the Frankenstein genre and provide new impulses. Both Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein and The Rocky Horror Picture Show were parodies of older Frankenstein films and also brought new ideas into the genre.

Cast & Crew:  
Victor Frankenstein Leonard Whiting
Dr. John Polidori James Mason
Henry Clerval David McCallum
Agatha Jane Seymour
Monster Michael Sarrazin
Elizabeth Nicola Pagett
Policeman John Gielgud
Screenplay Don Bachardy
Christopher Isherwood
Music Gil Melle
Cinematography Arthur Ibbetson
Producers Ian Smith
Hunt Stromberg jr
Director Jack Smight



1 cf. Picart,Caroline Joan. "Visualizing the Monstrous in Frankenstein Films." Pacific Coast Philology 35.1 (2000): 17-34.

Jess Franco Addy Warhol's Flesh for Frankenstein

© 1999-2005 Andreas Rohrmoser