Dan Curtis’ Frankenstein

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Now available on DVD

Cast:

Robert Foxworth as Dr. Victor Frankenstein

Susan Strasberg as Elizabeth Lavenza

Bo Svenson as Monster

Heidi Vaughn as Agatha DeLacey

Philip Bourneuf as Alphonse Frankenstein

Robert Gentry as Henri Clerval

Directed by Glenn Jordan

Review:

Horror was a household mainstay in the ’70s, with the small screen hosting a deluge of original made-for-TV movies. The undisputed giant of TV terror during that era was producer Dan Curtis. Famous for his work as the producer behind the original “Night Stalker” (1972) TV movie and its sequel, “The Night Strangler” (1973), which introduced the world to reporter Carl Kolchak, and also for being the producer behind the supernatural soap opera “Dark Shadows” (1966-1971) as well as the classic made-for-TV anthology “Trilogy of Terror” (1975), which featured one of the most memorable movie monsters ever – the diminutive Zuni hunting fetish that declares a jihad on Karen Black – Curtis’ extensive work in bringing a number of adaptations of classic Gothic literature to television is lesser known.

Beginning in 1968 with “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” starring Jack Palance (who took over the lead for the originally cast Jason Robards, when scheduling conflicts forced Robards to bow out), and continuing on with adaptations of “Dracula” (also starring Palance) in 1973, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” in ’73 and this two-part production of “Frankenstein,” also from ’73, Curtis’ run of Gothic adaptations finished in ’74 with Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.”

“Frankenstein” was produced by ABC as part of its late-night anthology program “Wide World Mystery” (which ran from 1973 to 1976), a series that was meant to provide stiff competition against NBC’s The Tonight Show. “Frankenstein” was an ambitious attempt by Curtis to be more faithful to elements of Mary Shelley’s novel – such as portraying an articulate version of the monster – than previous adaptations had been. Unfortunately Curtis was limited from the start by the modest means of television. So while this new adaptation was handled intelligently by writers Sam Hall and Richard Landau (with input from Curtis), much of the scope and scale of the novel had to be minimized. That means there’s no framing segments set in the Artic; Captain Walton doesn’t exist in this adaptation to hear the cautionary tale of Victor Frankenstein and his Creature. And Curtis can’t even afford anything so spectacular as the climatic burning windmill that the 1931 film provided. Instead this adaptation focuses on character, an approach that pays off.

Familiar TV favorite Robert Foxworth stars as Victor Frankenstein and he gives a fine, if not quite stellar, performance. Whether due to the demands of television of that era or Curtis’ own artistic instincts, this is the first sympathetic portrayal of Dr. Frankenstein. He’s determined, yes, and he is responsible for much misery but yet he’s not the raving, manic character that Colin Clive portrayed in the original “Frankenstein” or the remorseless figure that Peter Cushing essayed in 1957’s “The Curse of Frankenstein.” I wonder if Curtis (or network executives) simply feared that the TV audiences of the time would be put off by a central character too deliberately callous and softened Victor accordingly.

As the monster (identified in the credits as ‘The Giant’), Bo Svenson holds his ground with any of the exceptional actors who have come before or after him in the role. Being most familiar with Svenson for taking over the role of Sheriff Buford Pusser (from actor Joe Don Baker) in the two theatrical sequels to 1973’s hit “Walking Tall” (as well as continuing the role in a short-lived early ’80s TV series), his sensitive performance here was a genuine surprise to me. Svenson is so good it’s regretful that he couldn’t join Foxworth and actor John Karlan – who plays the ill-fated lab assistant Otto – on this disc’s entertaining commentary track as I would’ve enjoyed hearing his thoughts on the role.

As the first articulate version of the creature on film, Svenson does an expert job of portraying the monster’s torment without over-selling it. As always in Frankenstein adaptations, we want the monster to succeed but know he can’t. Svenson’s monster may have a leg up on the Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee versions in that he learns to express himself through language but he’s just as destined to be rejected. Even if you speak the King’s English, if you’re something that was sewn together with dead body parts and jump-started by lightening, no one wants to take the time to look past that and get to know the real you.

On a visual level, seeing a Frankenstein’s monster that sports a shag cut and blonde hair (he looks like a Hulked-out version of actor Owen Wilson) takes some getting used to but Svenson’s performance quickly won me over. The make-up job of Mike Westmore remains a curious piece of work, however. The brilliance of make-up artist Jack Pierce’s iconic design in the original Frankenstein was its functionality. Everything on Karloff’s creature had a specific purpose. The scar across the top of the head was where the skull was cut open to insert the brain; the electrodes on the neck were obviously there to receive the life-giving electric current. But with all respect to Westmore’s talents, the look of the creature here is a big case of “huh?”

Granted, everyone who’s designed a version of Frankenstein’s monster since Pierce has been at a disadvantage because Pierce created such an indelible (and copyrighted by Universal studios) look but I couldn’t help but puzzle over Westmore’s decision to apply random scars to Svenson’s face. There’s scars across his cheeks, around his nose, on his forehead and not just scars or cuts but surgical stitches. It’s a look that doesn’t imply a man sewn together from the parts of the dead so much as it suggests someone who dove face first through a pane of glass.

As a whole, “Frankenstein” is an admirable accomplishment but it’s also unmistakably a work of its time with its shot on video, stage-bound look lending it the feel of a situation comedy or SNL sketch (Victor’s efforts to hide the Creature from uninvited visitors to his lab beg for the eruptive laughter of a studio audience). And with director Glenn Jordan holding single shots for long stretches of dialogue and laying a heavy hand on the dramatic zooms – and with the occasional community theater-level performance (keep an eye out for Edgar Daniels as the Innkeeper) – this really does seem like a long lost relic of an earlier era (composer Robert Cobert even lifts some of his own cues for this score from his work on Dark Shadows). But I found it to be an earnest, appealing reminder of a time when fans could appreciate something more low key without regarding it as a chore.