"I have all the hurt of the world inside me!. . .you cannot give me any more." - The Giant (Bo Svenson)
In the early 70's, the late writer/producer/director Dan Curtis took his passion for the classics of Gothic literature and turned them into a number of made for TV movies. Among them were The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Turn of the Screw, The Picture Of Dorian Gray, and Dracula. Curtis was also the man responsible for The Night Stalker, a classic of 70's TV that introduced the world at large to the great Carl Kolchak; you may also have heard of his successful marriage of the Gothic and the soap opera, Dark Shadows, or perhaps the infamous Trilogy of Terror, starring Karen Black from a script by genre legend Richard Matheson. In 1973, Curtis decided to tackle the great granddaddy of horror tales, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and adapt it with an eye for staying closer to the source material than Karloff's famous 1932 version had.
Suffice it to say that if any reader of this site doesn't know at least the bare bones of Shelley's tale, you've got some required homework ahead of you, my friend - but here's a brief synopsis all the same. Young, driven and brilliant, Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Robert Foxworth) is convinced that through the use of medicine and science, we have the ability to create life from the remains of the dead. His colleagues and peers think him mad, yet he persists in his experiments. One dark and stormy night, Victor succeeds in reanimating a Giant (Bo Svenson) with the strength of ten men and the mind of a infant. After some unfortunate accidents and deaths, the Giant escapes from Victor's laboratory into the forest beyond Castle Frankenstein, where he struggles to understand who and what he is. Meanwhile, Victor must contend with the knowledge that he has created a monster, all the while keeping his guilty secret from his curious fiancee Elizabeth (Susan Strasberg) and others close to him. Of course, the Giant will return and tragedy shall befall them all.
Dan Curtis' Frankenstein is a fine adaptation of the classic tale, well acted and strongly written. While Curtis was seemingly too busy to direct himself, he produced and had a hand in the writing, and the willingness to go back to the source material and dramatize elements that hadn't been previously used in the earlier versions really helps to flesh out the tale. For example, the Giant speaks here, quite unlike the Karloff version that was merely a hostile, lumbering monster whose main form of expression was rage and violence. The segment from the novel, where the Giant hides out in the back room of the DeLacey family's country home and learns to speak as young Agatha teaches her brother's Spanish wife the English language, works well and is welcome. Such a simple addition as the ability to speak adds a great deal to the character of the Giant, and goes a long way towards making him a truly pitiful creature worthy of our empathy; he is truly a fully-formed child thrust into a world he doesn't understand, left to feast or famine, scared and alone. That, I think, is one of the keys to the success of this adaptation; it's honestly a tragedy more than anything, and quite sad in parts. The monster that Frankenstein created stirs more feelings of sympathy within us than fear - although his frustration and temper, coupled with his extraordinary power, cannot help but make us afraid of him.
All of the actors here do solid work, but Foxworth and Svenson are particularly strong. Foxworth's Frankenstein is arrogant in the belief of his genius and the notion that his experiments are ultimately for the greater good. Yet as the tale goes on, his remorse (and the knowledge that he may have lost some of his humanity as well in his singleminded pursuit of playing God) comes to the forefront. As the Giant, Svenson gives a remarkably assured performance and it's no stretch to say that he may have the finest portrayal of Frankenstein's monster yet commited to film; lost and confused, angry and frustrated - the scene where he tells Victor that he has all the world's hurt inside him (as quoted above) is played perfectly, expecially considering how many ways it's possible to go wrong with such a line.
Much like Dark Shadows was, the picture is shot on video with great use of soundstages; viewers of a certain age can't help but think of many PBS productions from the 70's. Most times it feels like we're watching a theater production that's been filmed, yet the staginess of it all doesn't diminish the performances or the writing at all. It's not very violent, but there is some blood and one scene where the Giant rips some poor bastard's arm off (free of any gore, to be sure, but still), but the story doesn't demand any gratuitous bloodletting anyway, so ultimately doesn't adversely affect the movie. The film clocks in at right around two hours, and as the action is mostly dialogue-driven, it does lag from time to time, but isn't a true detriment thanks to the quality of the writing and acting.
Dark Sky's DVD is presented in fullscreen with 2.0 mono sound, and looks and sounds as good as a made-for-TV flick from '73 possibly can. As far as extras go, there's some promos, recaps (it aired on ABC's World Wide Mystery in two parts), and previews for the original broadcast. Other than those, there's a commentary with an unnamed mediator, Foxworth, and actor John Karlen (who plays Victor's ill-fated assistant Otto); it's an informative piece with plenty of recollections of Curtis and the shoot, as well as some catching up, as the two actors haven't seen each other in close to thirty years.
Dan Curtis' Frankenstein is a superb adaptation of Mary Shelley's classic novel, one in which the themes and ideas may play even better now than they did back when it was shown on TV, as advancements like cloning and stem-cell research are an accepted reality of science now, and the questions of whether or not we have the right to play God are more relevant than ever. What with the novel seeming more prescient than ever - after all, she didn't subtitle her novel The Modern Prometheus for nothing - this version is particularly thought-provoking in our present climate. Anyone who can deal with the technical limitations of an early 70's production and has a decent appreciation for good theater should have an excellent time with this strongly-told redux of a legendary tale.