Through the years, Frankenstein has proven to be a favorite subject for television anthology shows. Guest Blogger Marc Berezin reviews an intriguing and rarely-seen British adaptation from 1968.
It’s generally assumed that the first Frankenstein film attempting a fidelity to Mary Shelley’s original story was the 1973 Dan Curtis/ABC-TV version. However, that distinction ought to go to another small-screen version that preceded it by a few years.
Mystery and Imagination was a gothic horror anthology series broadcast on British ITV stations from 1966-68 and 1970 and produced (in black and white) first by the Associated British Corporation Television and then by Thames Television. The 71-minute November 11, 1968 episode was an adaptation of Frankenstein, written by Robert Muller and directed by “Voytek” (Voytek Roman).
For the first time, the doomed characters of Clerval (Neil Stacy), Justine (Meg Wynn Owen) and young William (Frank Barry, here called “Wilhelm”) were portrayed close to Shelley’s text, and Elizabeth (Sarah Badel) finally is really murdered by her husband’s creation. Nevertheless, as in the 1973 and 1984 telefilms, the low budget videotaped nature of the production precluded a trip to the North Pole.
This rendition is also noteworthy for its own distinctive take on the Frankenstein mythos. The close identification between Creator and Creation had already been touched on in previous adaptations, such as the 1910 Edison film where The Monster is a manifestation of Frankenstein’s baser nature; the mirror comparison scene in Son of Frankenstein (1939); Frankenstein 1970 (1958) in which the Monster is revealed at the end to resemble a younger version of the scientist, and Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) where the doctor becomes his creation. Further reflecting the popular confusion of the name "Frankenstein”, the 1927 Peggy Webling play had the creator intentionally share his name with his creation.
All this is now taken a step further: both Victor Frankenstein and “the Being” (so named in the credits) are portrayed throughout by one actor, Ian Holm. The Being’s facial makeup consists of a disfigured left side (resembling a bad skin condition) along with forehead stitches, but still he appears nearly identical to Victor.
The Being is assembled in a rather sparsely furnished lab with the aid of a hunchback named Fritz (Ron Pember, in a nod to the 1931 film). Victor is upfront in his challenge to God, whom he wishes to “meet on equal terms”. Indeed, he clearly usurps the role of Deity by fashioning his man in his own image.
When the bandaged being is hoisted upward with its arms spread apart, Victor stands opposite, mimicking this pose. The usual electric storm animates the Being, who is capable of halting speech from the first, asking (before Victor drives it away): “Who am I?”
Another distinction is the blind man sequence. Whereas all other versions depict encounters with a sightless person as idyllic until broken up by sighted intruders, here the Being itself sours the relationship when it asks, “Who is God?” Informed by the blind elder (Gerald Lawson) that “God gave each of us the gift of Life”, it recalls its own errant creator and declares: “God…bad!” This blasphemy so upsets the pious host that his returning son needs little provocation to drive the now unwelcome visitor away.
Following the murder of Wilhelm, the framing and execution of Justine, the aborted creation of the female companion, and the murders of Clerval and Elizabeth, Victor and his creation face each other one last time. The Being has disarmed Victor — “Fire your bullet – You will destroy yourself!” — and, with the pistol that Victor could not bring himself to use, kills its willing God/victim after prophesizing its own fate: “They will destroy me… Men born of women… And will themselves become murderers.”
The Being then walks into the shadows in an ambiguous fadeout.
On the whole, this version of Frankenstein is well-executed and enjoyable to watch. As noted earlier, it is hampered by the budget — there are few outdoor scenes — but makes successful use of split photography and body doubles to create an illusion of the two characters interacting with one another.
There is also an effective use of a heartbeat on the soundtrack, warning us of the Being’s approach. Holm, who would play the scientist’s father 26 years later in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), is a fine actor in both roles, but lacks the physically imposing stature that would make the Being more frightful. Since the light makeup is designed so that the creation be identical with the creator, it is difficult to imagine how the public at large would be terrified by what basically looks like a disfigured version of the diminutive Holm (the being is frequently filmed from the ground up to create an illusion of height). Furthermore, other than Frankenstein’s rejection and the disastrous encounter with the blind man, the audience is not shown how the Being becomes a vengeful killer — no irate villagers, not even having stones thrown.
Only about eight of the original 24 episodes of this well-crafted series survive. The few that do, including Frankenstein and the Denholm Elliot-starring Dracula, have circulated among collectors as grainy unauthorized videotapes and DVDs. It is well worth searching out reliable sources for these highly recommended items.
UPDATE: The surviving episodes of Mystery and Imagination, including the Ian Holm Frankenstein reviewed here, are to be officially released on DVD in the UK on March 23, 2009. Here’s the Amazon UK link.
Marc Berezin is our first returning Guest Blogger. He previously contributed The Patchwork People of Oz, a fascinating survey of Frankensteinian characters in the stories of L. Frank Baum.