Frankenstein: The True Story

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Frankenstein: The True Story
DVD cover
Distributed by NBC
Directed by Jack Smight
Produced by Ian Lewis
Hunt Stromberg Jr.
Written by Don Bachardy
Christopher Isherwood
Mary Shelley (novel)
Based on Frankenstein 
by Mary Shelley
Starring Leonard Whiting
Jane Seymour
David McCallum
James Mason
Michael Sarrazin
Clarissa Kaye
Music by Gil Melle
Cinematography Arthur Ibbetson
Editing by Richard Marden
Country United Kingdom
United States
Language English
Original run November 28 – 30, 1973
Running time 182 minutes

Frankenstein: The True Story is a 1973 British and American made-for-television horror film loosely based on the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. It was directed by Jack Smight, and the screenplay was written by novelist Christopher Isherwood and his longtime partner Don Bachardy.

The film starred Leonard Whiting as Victor Frankenstein, Jane Seymour as Prima, David McCallum as Henry Clerval, James Mason as Dr Polidori and Michael Sarrazin as the Creature. James Mason's wife, Clarissa Kaye-Mason also appeared in the film.

The character of Dr Polidori, who did not appear in the original novel, was based on the character of Dr. Pretorius from Universal Pictures Bride of Frankenstein, but named after the real-life John Polidori, an acquaintance of author Mary Shelley who was part of the competition that produced her novel. Polidori's own contribution was the first modern vampire story The Vampyre (1819).

A notable feature of the production is that, instead of being ugly from the start, the Creature is portrayed as physically beautiful but increasingly hideous as the film progresses, similar to the plotline in Hammer Studios' The Revenge of Frankenstein. The make-up was by Hammer horror veteran artist Roy Ashton.

It was originally broadcast on NBC-TV in late 1973 in two 90-minute parts, but is often seen edited into a single film. Its DVD debut date was September 26, 2006. Included at the beginning is a short intro featuring James Mason wandering through St John's Wood churchyard, London. He suggests that this is where Mary Shelley is buried, which is incorrect (she is in fact buried in the family plot in Dorset), despite standing beside a gravestone bearing her name.

Plot Summary[edit]

Part one[edit]

Victor Frankenstein is a man training as a doctor, engaged to Elizabeth Fanshawe. After Victor's younger brother, William, drowns, Victor renounces his belief in God and declares that he would join forces with the Devil if he could learn how to restore his brother to life.

Shortly afterward, Victor leaves for London to train in anatomy. He immediately meets a scientist named Henry Clerval, who Victor later learns has discovered how to preserve dead matter and restore it to life. As Victor becomes fascinated by Clerval's experiments Clerval reveals his ultimate plan: creating a new race of invincible, physically perfect beings by using solar energy to animate "the Second Adam" constructed from parts of corpses. Clerval is unable to complete it on his own due to a worsening heart condition. Frankenstein volunteers to help and the lab is completed.

Word reaches the pair that several peasant lads have been killed in a mine collapse. After their burial the doctors quickly dig up the bodies and stitch together a physically perfect human. The night before the creation, Clerval discovers in a most disturbing way that a reanimated arm set aside for weeks during the construction of the lab and of "Adam", has become diseased, unsightly and deformed. Shocked and overcome, Clerval suffers what appears a heart attack and, unable to get his medication on time, dies in the middle of recording his horrible discovery in the journal.

The next morning, Victor finds Clerval's body and misreads the incomplete journal entry ("The process is r--") as meaning "the process is ready to begin" rather than the intended meaning of"reversing itself". Since neither of them wanted the perfect body to have the brain of a peasant, Victor transplants Clerval's brain into their creation and he is able to complete the experiment. Victor introduces his creation into high-class London society, passing him off as a friend from a far-off country with little grasp of English.

Victor's sweet and guileless creation wins the admiration of London's elite class, but Victor soon discovers the still-living but now repulsive arm in Clerval's cupboard. He realizes some flaw in the process causes it to reverse itself and destroys the deformed arm.

Victor destroys all mirrors in his rooms and laboratory while desperately searching for a way to correct the problem. He is unsuccessful, and the creature's degeneration accelerates. Victor finds himself beginning to reject the helpless creature while the creature is unable to understand Victor's change in attitude towards him.

Victor's landlady, Mrs. Blair, enters Victor's room and sees the still friendly but grossly degenerated creature and dies of shock. Victor is forced to take the creature back to the laboratory. At a loss for a remedy, Victor contemplates destroying the sleeping creature but cannot bring himself to do it.

The creature notices the changing structures of his own body. He searches for any reflective surface, and finally viewing his deformed face, he screams and wakes Victor. The creature weeps and pleads for help but Victor, exhausted and defeated, simply stares at him coldly. Flinging Victor aside, the creature repeatedly stabs himself in the heart with a shard of broken glass. Unharmed, he flees the laboratory and runs straight for the nearby White Cliffs of Dover, where he intends suicide by throwing himself into the sea. Victor chases him to the cliff's edge and briefly gets the creature to stop. Realizing that it actually would be better for them both if he dies, Victor again finds he has nothing to say. The creature nods slowly and leaps from the cliff, landing with crushing impact in the sea far below.

The next scene shows the creature's still form washed up on a beach. Slowly he rises, finding himself alive and unharmed, and slowly wanders down the shoreline.

Part two[edit]

The creature befriends an elderly blind peasant. The blind man is eager to introduce his new friend to his grandchildren Felix and Agatha, the latter of whom the creature becomes enamored by. For many days the creature hides from them when they return home, afraid of letting anyone see his face, a habit the blind man attributes only to shyness. Felix and Agatha choose to surprise their grandfather's friend by turning up unexpectedly, but upon seeing the creature, Agatha flees into the woods in terror while Felix attacks. In self-defense, the creature reflexively flings Felix away, smashing Felix's skull. He then pursues Agatha into the woods, but as she runs from him she stumbles into the path of a horse-drawn carriage. Agatha is run over and killed.

The creature takes the body and carries it back to Frankenstein's laboratory, intent on asking his creator to restore her to life. He arrives to find that Victor has long since left and that the laboratory is now occupied by Dr. Polidori, the crippled former mentor of Clerval. Having become aware of Victor's failed experiment and discovering that Henry Clerval's brain resides in the creature's body, Polidori agrees to help the creature's beloved Agatha.

Victor, having abandoned his experiments after the creature's apparent suicide, has now returned to his country house to marry Elizabeth. On the day of his wedding he is visited by Polidori, who uses the fact of the creature's existence to blackmail Victor into helping him create a female being. In exchange, Polidori promises that Victor will be forever free of them all once the experiment is complete. Victor reluctantly agrees, and much to Elizabeth's dismay leaves her alone on their wedding night to join Polidori in his laboratory.

Polidori reveals that it was he who perfected the preservation and reanimation of dead flesh. He scoffs at the use of solar power and blames the procedure as the reason for the Creature's degeneration. Clerval had apparently stolen Polidori's secrets and left the helpless Polidori without assistance. Desiring fame and racing against his own increasing weakness, Clerval came to believe the solar route would be a quicker and simpler way to accomplish the same goal. Keeping the creature locked away like an animal, Polidori employs Victor in attaching Agatha's head to a new body. Together, they bring to life a beautiful female creature whom Polidori names Prima. Victor believes himself forever free of both his creature and Polidori and leaves for a several months-long honeymoon with Elizabeth.

Polidori insinuates his "ward" Prima and himself into the Fanshawe household. Enraged at seeing Polidori, Frankenstein reluctantly complies with his wishes and decides not to interfere with Polidori's plan. It becomes evident that Prima is evil, and Elizabeth grows increasingly wary of the young woman after she catches her deliberately trying to strangle a household cat. Suspicious about the decorative neck choker which Prima insists on wearing, Elizabeth spies on Prima as she sleeps and sees with horror the stitches on her neck where her head has been attached. She begs Victor to dismiss her from the house.

At the laboratory Victor confronts Polidori, who tells him that he and Prima will be moving on shortly. As a show of good faith that he now really means to set Victor free, Polidori hypnotizes the creature and puts him to sleep at the edge of a vat of acid. The servants are about to push him in but, at the last moment, Victor cries out for the creature to wake up. He does so, hurling one of the servants into the acid as Polidori locks him in the basement. Polidori has his remaining servant set fire to the building with the creature trapped inside and chastises Victor for his hypocrisy, telling him that he loved his creature "so long as it was pretty, but when it lost its looks that was a different matter!" The volatile chemicals still stored in the building explode, leveling the chateau.

Later on, a ball to present Prima to society is held at the Fanshawe mansion. Prima performs a delightful ballet routine which impresses all the guests. Beaming with pride, Polidori finally explains to a drunken Victor his true plan: to use the stunning Prima as a courtesan to the rich and powerful, with the ultimate plan of gaining international political influence.

At that moment, Frankenstein's badly burned creature bursts into the ballroom. Scattering the guests, he makes his way towards Prima. He rips away the now savage Prima's neckband, revealing her neck scar to the horrified crowd. After a tussle, where the guests try to keep a crazed Prima from reaching the monster, he succeeds in literally pulling off her head, dropping it at Polidori's feet. The ballroom is left in chaos and destruction.

The next day a police investigation begins and Victor attempts to confess. Elizabeth intervenes, convincing the inspector in charge that Victor has been suffering from mental strain and that Polidori is responsible for everything. Elizabeth and Victor choose to leave England and voyage to America to begin life anew.

Victor and Elizabeth board the ship but find that Polidori is also on board. He insists that Victor and he will continue their experiments in America and will not accept their refusal. Elizabeth witnesses the creature hiding in Polidori's cabin. She locks Polidori in the cabin with the creature and takes the key. When she tells Victor what she has done, his sense of morality urges him to set Polidori free. He does, but the creature pursues Polidori onto the deck. The creature ties a rope around Polidori and hoists him high into the lightning storm above. In an attempt to stop Polidori's murder, Victor is struck by a swinging plank and falls to the deck unconscious. Polidori is struck by lightning and killed, leaving only a skeleton.

The ship's crew flee in a lifeboat, leaving only Victor, Elizabeth and the creature on board. Elizabeth cruelly and rather unwisely taunts the creature with the knowledge of her pregnancy. Enraged, the mind of Clerval surfaces, and the creature kills her. The Clerval part of the creature carefully observes and treats Victor's condition, after having lashed the wheel of the ship on a heading straight for the uncharted wilderness of the North Pole.

When Victor finally awakens, he finds the frozen body of Elizabeth on deck and the ship itself locked in ice. Victor sees the creature's footprints leading away from the ship, making their way across the ice plain to what appears to be a cavern at the base of a large iceberg. Victor follows him, overcome by remorse, realizing that this whole tragedy was caused by his rejection of the helpless, deteriorating creature, who upon Victor's death will be utterly alone, cursed with an "iron body" that, even here, will keep him alive against his will. Victor begs the Creature's forgiveness; the sound of his shouts sets off an ice avalanche. As tons of ice begin to fall upon them both, the Creature (in Clerval's voice) forgives his creator.


Paperback tie-in[edit]

The script for the film, by Don Bachardy and Christopher Isherwood, was published in paperback as a tie-in. The script contains a prologue in which Mary Shelley is telling her tale of horror to Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, as Dr. Polidori sulks nearby. As she reaches their parts in the tale, they rush to join the main action and the story proper begins. Some shots in the film indicate that at least part of this prologue may have been filmed. If this segment had been included, it would have featured Nicola Pagett as Mary, Leonard Whiting as Shelley, David McCallum as Byron, and James Mason as Polidori.

The script also contains an epilogue, following the avalanche: the season changes and the northern ice begins to break apart. The Creature's body, still entombed in the remainder of the berg, begins to float south into warmer waters. As the ice melts, one of his hands is exposed. Absorbing the rays of the sun, the hand responds, flower-like, and slowly begins to open.

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