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Director: Jack Smight

Originally broadcast in two parts as a television mini series, FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY was shortened from its three hour+ running time to a two hour feature for theatrical release in the U.K., the place where it was shot. The film was a critical success and a ratings winner for NBC, and despite it being a much desired title for collectors over the years, only the abridged version was issued on VHS by Goodtimes (licensed from Universal) back in the 1990s. Now, Universal has finally unleashed the full-length edition on DVD of what is not in actuality the totally “true story” but a damn fine rendering of Mary Shelley’s immortal literary creation.

Young Victor Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting) departs from his fiancée Elizabeth (Nicola Pagett) to study medicine at a university. On route, he meets Dr. Henry Clerval (David McCallum), an oddball recluse obsessed with and successful at bringing dead things back to like. Frustrated with the unprogressive teachers at the university, he concentrates on his scientific collaborations with Clerval, and ultimately they piece together a man made from victims of a tragic accident. When Frankenstein discovers Clerval dead one morning, he transplants his brain into their creation, which successfully rises as a handsome young man (Michael Sarrazin) whom he is able to groom suitably at first. But the creature’s skin soon begins to deteriorate, and its creator increasingly loathes it for its repulsive appearance. The creature runs away, jumping off a cliff in a suicide attempt, but Frankenstein has not heard the last from him yet.

In the meantime, the elder and crippled Dr. John Polidori (James Mason), a former colleague of Clerval, blackmails Frankenstein on his wedding night in aiding him to construct a new female being. Opposed to and afraid of electricity, Polidori uses a chemical technique to animate the female which Frankenstein has sewn together, resulting in a beauty christened Prima (Jane Seymour). Polidori charms his way into the Frankenstein family estate while Victor and Elizabeth are on honeymoon, passing off Prima as his ward. Prima looks prim and proper enough, but has truly odd animal like tendencies, and during a fancy ball in honor of her, Frankenstein’s original creation (he just can’t rid himself of him) crashes through the door as an utter monstrosity and an angry and bitter one at that.

FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY attempted to elude the more traditional or exploitive ways of Frankenstein-themed films did in the past, and did succeed at reinventing the classic story for a new generation. At times the film does owe up to others before it (BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN especially) but stays more true to the Shelley novel in its depiction of Victor as a young medical student and having the monster as intellect rather than just a dim brute. The script by Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy takes many liberties with the original novel, but injects the film with some wonderfully radical ideas and some very tender moments between the characters, including Frankenstein proclaiming to his newly born creation that he will take the place of his dearly departed brother. The relationship between creator and creation is what binds the lengthy telefilm together, with the creature learning about love, hate, beauty, and ugliness while the narcissistic Frankenstein grows increasingly repulsed and withdrawn by what he originally saw as a reflection of himself fall apart before his eyes.

Director Jack Smight (THE ILLUSTRATED MAN) had the benefit of not being trapped by conventional TV movie limitations, and was able to shoot the film at Pinewood Studios and various nearby locations that were more than well suited for this handsome period piece. The cast is truly top notch, from Mason’s sinister and conniving Polidori, McCallum’s all too brief turn as the sickly introvert Clerval, Seymour as the lovely yet monstrous Prima (she also doubles for Agatha, the accidentally killed basis for Prima’s formation), and best of all Sarrazin, who’s absolutely fabulous as the creature, changing drastically from beginning to end and showcasing a array of tarnished emotions. The supporting cast also boasts such names as Sir Ralph Richardson (as the blind woodsmen), Sir John Gielgud, Agnes Moorehead, Margaret Leighton, Michael Wilding, Tom Baker and Peter Sallis. Hammer Films veteran Roy Ashton did the creature’s effective make-up, which increasingly becomes more hideous throughout the story.

Staying true to its original television format, Universal presents FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY in a full frame transfer. Although the image definitely looks like it was intended for theatrical matting, it was probably a safe bet to release it this way to keep pure to how most people originally saw it. Presented fully uncut with the original James Mason-hosted introduction/prologue, this is probably the best it's ever looked, but the transfer is inconsistent. Colors look fine for the most part, muted and brownish in others, and some scenes suffer from excessive grain or speckling on the print source. The picture is very watchable overall, but don’t expect anything close to a sparkling remastered transfer. The mono audio track is absolutely fine, and optional English subtitles are included. No extras on the disc except for some “sneak peeks” for other Universal titles on DVD. (George R. Reis)