Be warned: the home video releases feature an opening that pretty much spoils the entire thing, much like I'm about to do in this review
Originally designed as a two-part, made-for-television event in 1973, Frankenstein: The True Story purports to be a more faithful adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel than previous film versions of the story. However, while that might technically be true--only because of how loosely the previous versions follow it--this is still pretty far from the "true" story of Frankenstein. It deviates in a lot of problematic ways from Shelley's story and, at over three hours long, it drags along in places where the pacing should be moving forward. That said, it's better than you'd probably expect, and it's hard not to appreciate how much it tries to play around with the mythos.
It's by no means a great film on the same level as the Universal classic. It was, after all, made for television in the seventies, and as such, it does have a bit of a dull veneer to it, a touch of sterility that derives from cheap film stock, a relatively low budget, less time for multiple takes and reshoots, and painfully conventional cinematography. Still, if you can look past the surface, it does quite well under its own constraints. The musical score, for instance--done by Gil Mellé--is surprisingly memorable, better than a lot of feature film scores from the same time period.
Also noteworthy is the acting. Leonard Whiting delivers an excellent performance as the tortured Dr. Frankenstein; James Mason is deliciously hammy as the bizarre and flamboyant Dr. Polidori; and Jane Seymour absolutely steals the show with relatively little screentime in the dual roles of Agatha and the reanimated Prima. Not all of the acting is brilliant, with the most notable problem being Michael Sarrazin's performance as the creature. Sarrazin does fine with what he's given, but the role as it is written is not particularly interesting; in this version of the tale, the creature is embued with childlike innocence until about twenty minutes before the end, with there being little in the way of a dynamic character arc to justify the sudden change.
The good doctor and his creation
While I applaud the plot for trying to put a unique spin on things, the over-emphasis on the creature's innocence is one of two major problems I have with it. The other is the fact that Frankenstein himself never really chooses his actions. The creation of the monster isn't his idea this time around--this time, it comes from a very different version of Henry Clerval--and as in Bride of Frankenstein, he essentially has to be forced to create the female, lacking even the courage of Shelley's version to deny this temptation regardless of the cost. Whiting is still excellent in the role, but for all his torment and guilt, the character isn't actually responsible for anything that happens. Sure, he is given a couple of chances to walk away, but it is obvious that, even if he had tried, the villainous characters--both Clerval and Polidori--would never have let him. Frankenstein is more passenger than protagonist, and his ultimate fate feels more cruel than justified.
Given that the two characters of Frankenstein and his creature are so integral to the story, it's hard to overlook the fact that the script manages to bungle both of them. It feels as though the writers started with a central idea--which is an interesting one--to have the creature emerge as a beautiful man, flawless in physical form, and then have him slowly degenerate into a hideous monster over time. While this is a great hook, the movie never quite follows through with it. Frankenstein is given time to endear himself to the creature when he is still handsome, and so when the doctor has to turn his back on his creation in order for the plot to happen, it doesn't make any sense, nor does Frankenstein ever truly commit to it. (There is one moment fairly late in the film where a slight change might have worked to solve both plot problems: if Frankenstein would actually let Polidori's goons push the creature into the vat of acid and the creature survive the attempt on his life--instead of Frankenstein crying out and blatantly saving his creature's life--then both Frankenstein's guilt and the creature's rage would feel more earned.)
Absurd, but amazing
On top of that, despite his physical transformation and several instances of persecution, the creature is never made intelligent enough to be anything but innocent. He spends months in relatively the same mental state--an innocent simpleton who only seeks affirmation--so again, when the plot requires him to change, it doesn't work. The monster of Shelley's novel is not a true innocent--in fact, he deliberately chooses to become evil after enduring the slings and arrows of humanity's persecution--and the Boris Karloff iteration of the monster never actually commits any unforgivable acts. This movie, on the other hand, tries to have it both ways: the creature is an innocent until--spoiler warning--he suddenly decides to rip Prima's head off and then murder a pregnant woman for no readily apparent reason.
The character of Polidori, however, is really interesting. James Mason is obviously having a blast playing this character, and he almost feels like he belongs in a different movie altogether. Whereas most of the film takes a somber, deathly serious tone, Polidori walks around in garish outfits, hypnotizing people, chewing the scenery, waxing poetic about his own brilliance, and barking orders at his Chinese manservants. He's obviously a riff on Dr. Pretorius from Bride of Frankenstein, and even though I think Polidori is even more ridiculous, I have to admit he's a bright spot.
Go on, give us a hiss
I also like the idea that the brain inside the creature is that of Henry Clerval, and I'm even fine with the silliness of Polidori accessing Clerval through hypnotism. I wish the writers had gone somewhere more interesting with this subplot--perhaps it could have figured in more with the creature's transformation into the monster--but I like it nonetheless. Then there's Prima--another hold-over from Bride of Frankenstein--who is creepy and terrifying in all the right ways, a perfect mimic with catlike mischieviousness behind the eyes who is capable of wooing a crowd as easily as she can suddenly decide to scratch your eyes out. Jane Seymour--who was pretty unknown as an actress at the time--demonstrates why she would become famous a few years later.
On the whole, then, I chose to review Frankenstein: The True Story over a couple of other, more well-known adaptations, because it is full of potential. It looks great for 1973 television--far better than most made-for-TV movies full stop--and it has a lot of great acting and wonderful set design that hides its low budget. The plot is stuffed with different takes on the source material--the use of solar energy, the slow deterioration of the creature, the twisted version of Clerval, etc.--and it goes to places no other adaptation of Frankenstein can go. Still, it has some significant problems that are disappointing at best. Perhaps, in that way, it has a lot in common with its subject.