Studio: Fox Lorber
Director: Calvin Floyd
Writer: Yvonne Floyd, Calvin Floyd
Producer: Calvin Floyd
Stars: Leon Vitali, Per Oscarsson, Nicholas Clay, Stacey Dorning, Jan Ohlsson, Olof Bergstrom, Mathias Henriksson, Archie O’Sullivan, Harry Brogan
Victor Frankenstein’s search for the secret of life leads to the creation of a monster that consumes his life and family.
Frankenstein films have their work cut out for them when it comes to raising a bolted neck and towering tall as noteworthy against a glut of competition. Achieving such status only grows more difficult with time’s passage as outstanding reasons to remember unremarkable, underwhelming, or otherwise unexceptional entries dwindle in the face of fresher takes and popularly acclaimed versions. That is the challenge dogging the 1977 Swedish-Irish production “Terror of Frankenstein,” a film whose most distinguishing characteristic, sincere faithfulness to Mary Shelley’s text, is also what maintains its largely ignored contemporary status.
Standouts in the manmade monster subgenre can be described succinctly, usually by simply identifying the men behind the monster, e.g. the black and white classic with Boris Karloff and Colin Clive, the Hammer reboot featuring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, or the 1990s adaptation starring Kenneth Branagh and Robert De Niro. Others are easily identified by some other meaningful mention, e.g. the last project helmed by Roger Corman in the director’s chair (“Frankenstein Unbound”), the “found footage” flick that takes place in the snow (“The Frankenstein Theory” - review here), or even “that Aaron Eckhart one” most people panned (“I, Frankenstein” - review here).
How is “Terror of Frankenstein” best singled out in summary? Without recognizable stars, flashy effects, significant setpieces, or anything else constituting a definitively unique hook, “safe” is perhaps the most fitting adjective. After all, Leonard Maltin lauded the film as a “literate, well-made adaptation of the classic story, definitely worth a look for horror buffs” and “the most faithful of all film versions of the novel.”
True as Maltin’s past praise may be, the promise of reverentially treating the source novel is not enticement enough to inspire horror fans or random Netflix surfers to put effort into giving the movie a go. While that might not be fair to an earnest effort production that is indeed well-made, it is an unfortunate reality that age has dulled any edge “Terror of Frankenstein” might have to separate it as a leader of the congested pack.
Once titled “Victor Frankenstein,” the movie makes good on its original moniker by focusing chiefly on the character of the creator. Of interest to Frankenstein enthusiasts is Kubrick cohort Leon Vitali’s performance as a Victor Frankenstein more classically tragic than Colin Clive’s arrogant madman persona. Astonishment washes over Vitali’s face upon confronting the horror that his macabre experiment actually succeeds, as though never expecting it would and now mentally burdened by myriad consequences in a split instant. It is a far cry from Clive’s victorious “I know what it feels like to be God” ego stroke, making Vitali’s Frankenstein a more humble figure.
This version of Frankenstein’s Monster is also more articulate than the one Karloff popularized. “Terror of Frankenstein” is a movie of few words, lingering overlong on moments of quiet observation and silent experimenting, but its monster speaks with frequent eloquence. While Frankenstein’s creation is still meant to be repulsive, the makeup on actor Per Oscarsson is minimal, making the monster more human at the expense of belief that virtually everyone finds him hideous.
A POV shot through the monster’s eyes while spying on the blind man’s family is novel, although the majority of the movie plays as outdated in a charmless manner. “Terror of Frankenstein” bears the same release year as “Star Wars,” yet feels strangely tied to a filmmaking era predating 1977, and not because it is a 19th-century period piece.
Various sequences of trotting about with top hats and tipped canes offer too relaxed of a pace, despite the film being such a condensed 90-minute retelling of the familiar tale. And director Calvin Floyd curiously times story beats in ways that impact how well the audience can relate to events depicted.
From the time of the creature’s creation to the monster’s monologue about loneliness, only some 10 minutes of screen time elapses. Being on the side of sympathy for his ongoing despair is a tough task given such a compressed timeframe. That lengthy span of the monster’s life is basically allotted the same amount of screen time as a montage of spying on the blind man’s family. With the film glossing over important chapters so speedily, only to devote more minutes to countryside ambling, things like Victor’s relationship with Elizabeth and his reactions over various deaths don’t have enough space to resonate emotionally.
Undeniably one of the most faithful silver screen translations of Mary Shelley’s novel, “Terror of Frankenstein” cannot help but be understated in 21st-century eyes. Well-intentioned and well-executed for its time, “Terror of Frankenstein” is nonetheless a non-essential entry in the modern Frankenstein pantheon, of interest chiefly to students looking to score a C+ on a book report with a Cliff’s Notes cinema shortcut, where Universal and Hammer can only promise a failing grade.
Review Score: 60