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STUDIO: DarkSky Films
RATED: Not Rated
RUNNING TIME: 126 minutes
- New audio commentary track with actors Richard Foxworth and John Karlen
- 1973 Frankenstein promo, recap and preview
Mary Shelly’s monster meets Bufford Pusser and poor 70’s production design with…surprising results?
Robert Foxworth, Bo Svenson, Susan Strasberg, Heidi Vaughen, Phillip Bourneauf, John Karlen, Robert Gentry, Willie Aames.
Producer Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows, The Night Stalker) originally brought the classic tale of Doctor Frankenstein and his monster to ABC’s Wide World of Mystery in 1973, broken into two segments and featuring the same shoddy lighting, quick zoom shots, sets featuring lots of banisters, and soap opera scenes that always close in on the actor’s eyes that marked his other 70’s television work. Unlike the Universal monster movies, this Frankenstein is fairly faithful to the original Mary Shelly text, centering more on the monster’s sad progression into humanity rather than simply depicting him as a violent-minded, 19th century Hulk.
Yeah, it looks like Frankenstein, but it’s actually a live action version of Operation!
Anyone familiar with Dark Shadows, The Night Stalker and other 70’s television from the mind of writer/director/producer Dan Curtis knows what to expect. The acting is usually over-the-top and all around poor, the lighting under lit, the camera work strange and amateurish, and the sets look like a small gust could blow them off to Oz and back. Watching this version of Frankenstein, I counted off the Dan Curtis aesthetic like a checklist and chuckled each time I noticed a glaringly familiar artifact left over from cheap 70’s nighttime horror soap opera.
But then a strange thing happened. I started appreciating this lost art form. Sure, television is still around (or, is it? This strike doesn’t look like it’s ending anytime soon) but these days, primetime television is aspiring to be more like mainstream movies. In fact, some have argued that the artistry of television has surpassed that of motion pictures and the genre allows for more creativity and risk-taking. It’s a hard pill to swallow coming off of a great year of movies that was 2007, but at the same time I think about how many television shows I consistently watch (or, watched) now as compared to just a few years ago and I’m both a little embarrassed and pleasantly surprised.
But you’ll never see TV like Dan Curtis’ Frankenstein anymore. That’s not to say it’s good or worth your time or purchase. While watching it, I often wished I was accompanied by a couple of robot friends so we could trade sarcastic cracks at the production’s expense. But for all of its glaring flaws, there are some things to cherish in this interpretation of Frankenstein. Take a second and try to think of the last time network TV made a straight up, two-part mini-series of a classic work of fiction. These days, everything has to be given a modern twist, which is why the Sci-Fi network’s Tin Man is a gigantic post-modern mess rather than a faithful interpretation of Frank L. Baum’s original text, which to this date still has yet to be filmed.
"What do you MEAN I don’t know how to emote?"
Dan Curtis’ interpretation of Frankenstein isn’t unbelievably faithful, but it comes close and is probably the closest filmed version of the novel that truly represents all of the themes Shelly wrote into the original text. Don’t get me wrong, I still prefer the two James Whale Universal monster movie masterpieces to this, but I’d take this under produced, over acted version to Kenneth Branagh’s over directed, over acted monster opera. While probably the most literal of filmed versions in terms of the original text, Branagh clearly wanted to eat his cake and have it too, which is why that movie claims to be “Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein” and yet features wild, jilted camera angles that would make Whale blush and a slick, glossy appearance, sweaty as Branagh’s Victor Frankenstein’s ripped torso.
The mad doctor in this version is played by Richard Foxworth, who spends most of the time glowering like an evil Michael Landon. The troubling part about this production is after the monster’s creation, Frankenstein has little to do. Once he abandons his hideous creation, Foxworth spends the rest of his screen time trying to cover up the eight foot giant mistake he’s made, rushing in and out of scenes hiding a gun behind his back while telling the other actors that absolutely nothing suspicious is going on. Meanwhile, the body count keeps mounting up as the monster has a bad Lenny-like habit of squeezing the life out of everything he touches. Frankenstein is seen as an impotent, obsessed, scientist here. He both loves his creation and despises it, and he’s consistently torn about what to do with it. At first he thinks he can teach it. But then it kills, and he feels the need to destroy it. But then it disappears and he assumes everything is okay. But then it comes back and he needs to kill it again. But then he puts the killing plans on hold so he can marry his lovely Elizabeth (a truly awful Susan Strasburg) who he’s been mostly ignoring thanks to his monster making and killing. Ultimately, the monster demands a mate, and Frankenstein originally agrees only to deny the monster his bride on the operating table. Tragedy ensues.
Yes, it’s the same old tale, but the one major surprise in this version is Bo Svenson’s portrayal of the monster. The monster is probably the most difficult role, having to go through many stages of maturity throughout the film, from brain-dead zombie infant to sophisticated teenager dealing with those old standby issues of loneliness and abandonment. Svenson really sells the role, particularly in the sequences in which he hides in a shed and spies on a loving family, which is how he learns English and human compassion. After watching the family interact, Svenson, who’s been sitting amongst sacks of potatoes, constructs a friend of his own made out of a potato that he practices communicating with. And there’s a scene where a solo Svenson finally enters the household he’s been spying on and pretends to have a real conversation with the missing family that is absolutely heartbreaking. I was genuinely surprised at how involved I was in this character after seeing him rendered in countless stories, and in a scene that most actors would absolutely give-up on, Svenson acts his ass off and creates a truly sympathetic creature. When he finally glances in the mirror and discovers his awful appearance, he’s totally won you over and you’re actually rooting for him to go teach his awful creator a lesson. I’d take odds on anyone who claimed that Robert De Niro gives a better performance as the monster than Svenson. Who knew a guy who many only know as the second Buford Pusser from the Walking Tall series had it in him?
Ultimately, I can’t recommend Dan Curtis’ Frankenstein, but it was fun to watch. Every time the camera zoomed in from across the room or lovingly panned from one actor to the other in that fantastically cheesy 70’s TV style, I smiled. Just counting how many times the same special effects shot was used made me laugh. No, it’s not good television and it doesn’t make a good movie, but it’s faithful to the text and reminds me of an era long gone. If any of that sounds appealing to you, give this disc a spin. Otherwise, avoid it like a wild monster.
"Ya know what they outta invent? Some kind of device where a grave robbin’ guy like myself can have light like…all the time. Nothing darker then a cemetary, after all, and I can’t tell you how much of a bitch it is to be lighting a candle every damn minute. I mean, would you want to be surrounded by darkness in this place? Yeah, some kind of…light stick or something that I could operate with just a single switch. That’d be the bees knees, I tell ya what."
I’m not sure if they tried to spruce this up for the DVD cover or actually tried to represent the film within, but either way, you know what you’re paying for here. The cover is about as cheap and cheesy as the poorly lit banister shots contained within, and that’s just fine with me. The film looks and sounds cheap, but it’s not terrible and given how cheaply it was shot, that’s not a big surprise. The commentary track featuring Foxworth and Karlen is modest and amusing but also completely unnecessary. The only other extras include the hysterically cheesy ABC promos for the original two-part airing.
Bottom Line: Recommended for Frankenstein, Dan Curtis, or Bo Svenson enthusiasts only.
5.8 out of 10
Naturally, Frankenstein’s dream was to eventually create a whole NBA team. He called it "God’s Draft."