My Love Affair With Frankenstein: The True Story – Guest Blog by Sam Irvin
“The greatest fantasy film of all time.” That was the delirious declaration I wrote in 1974 about Frankenstein: The True Story (see here for info on Dread Central’s upcoming special screening in NYC) when I put the movie on the cover of my fanzine BIZARRE a few months after it first aired on NBC. A tad overwrought, I admit. In my defense, I was an impressionable 17-year-old horror film geek from North Carolina. But my searing emotional reaction was sincere at the time and ran much deeper than mere adolescent zeal. As a closeted gay teen who felt like an outsider and a freak of nature, the movie spoke to me in profound ways I would not fully comprehend until many years later.
In my travels to England in 1974-75 to meet and interview many of my horror film idols (Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, Diana Rigg, Ingrid Pitt, Terence Fisher, Freddie Francis, etc.), I managed to score several members of the Frankenstein: The True Story cast: Jane Seymour, Nicola Pagett, Margaret Leighton and Michael Wilding. I met the film’s editor Richard Marden. I corresponded with the associate producer Ian Lewis.
I also exchanged letters with the movie’s producer Hunt Stromberg Jr.—though, at the time, I was not fully aware just how deep his love of horror went nor how much we had in common. I didn’t know he had discovered Vampira, cast Yvonne De Carlo in “The Munsters,” got Boris Karloff to wear his Frankenstein’s Monster makeup again for an episode of “Route 66” (along with Lon Chaney Jr. and Peter Lorre) and produced a play with Bela Lugosi. At the age of just 11 in 1935, Stromberg started a lifelong friendship with Elsa Lanchester when she was simultaneously filming Bride of Frankenstein at Universal and his father’s production of Naughty Marietta at MGM (his father also produced The Thin Man, The Women and won a Best Picture Oscar for The Great Ziegfeld). I certainly had no idea that Stromberg was gay. Yet, instinctively, I knew we were kindred spirits.
In 1972, the very same year I started BIZARRE, Dick Klemensen founded Little Shoppe of Horrors magazine, and we quickly became pen pals over our shared passion for British horror. However, while Dick continued producing his magnificent magazine for the next 45 years-and-counting, I gave up BIZARRE after 1975 to pursue a career as a filmmaker, beginning as Brian De Palma’s assistant (on The Fury, Dressed to Kill, etc.) and eventually directing over 30 projects of my own, including Guilty as Charged (Rod Steiger and Heather Graham), Oblivion (George Takei and Julie Newmar), Elvira’s Haunted Hills (Cassandra Peterson and Richard O’Brien) and the gay horror series “Dante’s Cove” (Stephen Amell and Tracy Scoggins). My most recent thriller, The Wrong Neighbor (Michael Madsen and Andrea Bogart), premieres this June 11 on Lifetime.
One of my proudest achievements was co-executive producing Bill Condon’s Oscar-winning masterpiece Gods and Monsters starring Sir Ian McKellen as director James Whale. It was a dream come true to help recreate Frankenstein’s laboratory for a flashback sequence on the set of Bride of Frankenstein—my all-time favorite movie.
I was not surprised to learn that Bride of Frankenstein was also Hunt Stromberg Jr.’s favorite movie—and that James Mason’s Dr. Polidori character in Frankenstein: The True Story was directly based on Dr. Pretorius from Bride. It all made such perfect sense.
So, when Dick asked if I might be interested in spearheading an issue of Little Shoppe of Horrors magazine devoted to the making of Frankenstein: The True Story, I didn’t just leap at the chance. I jumped over the freakin’ moon!
But then reality hit me. How would I find enough new material to make such an endeavor worthy of the magazine’s stratospherically high standard? Luckily, I remembered something. When I was researching my biography book Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise (Simon & Schuster), USC Cinematic Arts Library archivist Ned Comstock casually mentioned that the Hunt Stromberg Jr. Papers were among the library’s Special Collections. I had no use for them at the time, but somehow I knew that one day they would come in handy.
Well, that day had come. There had to be at least a file or two on Frankenstein: The True Story. When I came upon three copies of BIZARRE—and several teenage fan letters I had written to Stromberg—the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. It felt like destiny. As I dug deeper, I not only found a treasure trove of Frankenstein: The True Story ephemera, I also came to the seemingly preordained conclusion that Stromberg was just the sort of complicated, colorful character I had been seeking for the subject of my next showbiz biography book—which is now in the works.
My 50,000-word investigation for the magazine has many facets. It is an eye-opening exposé on the movie industry of the early 1970s with an emphasis on Universal Pictures and the horror genre. But the chronicle also reveals the astonishing courage of a revolutionary group of LGBT artists securing their place at the table. Despite my own subjective point of view, I did not embark on this project with a “gay agenda” in mind. That agenda was baked in.
Even I was taken aback by how daring this whole enterprise was from its earliest inception. How the hell did they get away with it?! To answer that question fully, I had to dig deep into the movie’s queer sensibility and the “Lavender Hill Mob” that made it happen. Ultimately, though, the heart of this saga is a triumph of determination—against all odds—that is relatable to us all.
I was extremely fortunate to track down over 20 cast and crew members who very kindly agreed to share their memories of the production, including standalone sidebar interviews with Leonard Whiting (Dr. Frankenstein), Jane Seymour (Prima, the female creature), David McCallum (Dr. Clerval), Nicola Pagett (Elizabeth Frankenstein) and Don Bachardy (co-writer).
Famous fans of the film, Anne Rice (Interview With a Vampire) and Mark Gatiss (Sherlock), have contributed a foreword and an essay, respectively.
I unearthed a never-before-published 1973 essay by the late Christopher Isherwood and his partner Don Bachardy on the writing of their script—which appears in the issue for the first time anywhere.
I persuaded Alec Smight, son of Frankenstein: The True Story’s late director Jack Smight, to contribute a remembrance essay. At age 14, Alec traveled with his father to London for the duration of the production. He is now the three-time Emmy-nominated producer/director of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”
I invited James Duke Mason—grandson of actor James Mason; son of Morgan Mason and Belinda Carlisle (of The Go-Go’s); writer, LGBT activist and politician—to write, from his own unique perspective, an essay about his grandfather and his fierce portrayal of Dr. Polidori in Frankenstein: The True Story.
Then we commissioned breathtaking original art from some of the best talents in the business, including Bruce Timm, Paul Watts, Neil D. Vokes, Adrian Salmon and Brux. The cover had to be as epic as the film itself and Mark Maddox, 2017 Rondo Award winner for Artist of the Year, was just the man to do it. A diehard fan of the movie, he’d been bugging Dick for years to feature the film in LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS so he could paint the cover. The result is a magnificent mural that required an unprecedented wraparound three-panel triptych foldout that will blow you away.
And that’s just a sampling of the many highlights inside this special issue—expanded to 120-pages (16 in color) and lavishly illustrated with over 400 photographs (many courtesy of the David Del Valle Archive).
I cannot begin to thank Dick Klemensen enough for this incredible opportunity and his unwavering support. I want to also thank the magazine’s amazing staff for their tireless creativity, especially Nancy Emdia, Kris Mraz and Denis Meikle. Please pay special attention to the acknowledgments section of the contents page. I thank each and every one of you for your generosity and service to this great magazine and to the preservation of the history surrounding Frankenstein: The True Story.
Whether you are a fan or not, the adventure behind its creation is so astounding, it is an epic unto itself. Prepare to catch your jaw before it drops to the floor.
To help us celebrate the completion of this issue, events are being scheduled as though this were a book. Well, it pretty much is!
To kick things off on the West Coast, Creature Features—Taylor White’s amazing store and gallery in Burbank, California—is hosting a retrospective discussion and exhibit (of Frankenstein: The True Story memorabilia and all the original artwork in the magazine) on Sunday, June 18, 2:00-3:30 PM, with guest panelists James Duke Mason, Julian Barnes (supporting actor in the film), Denise Mellé (widow of the film’s composer Gil Mellé), artist Bruce Timm (“Batman: The Animated Series”) and yours truly. Limited edition prints, signed and numbered, of the cover mural artwork by Mark Maddox will be on sale exclusively at the Creature Features store/gallery and website.
On the weekend of June 23-25, Klemensen, cover Maddox, Vokes and I will be attending the Monster Bash Convention near Pittsburgh, PA, to meet, greet and drumbeat the issue.
Then, it’s on to Manhattan where Dread Central & Forbidden Planet are co-presenting a FREE screening and discussion of Frankenstein: The True Story at the Quad Cinema (34 West 13th Street) on Tuesday, June 27, 6:00-10:00 PM, hosted by legendary Tony Timpone (former editor of Fangoria and now a Dread contributor). A unique 16mm print will be projected with everything from the original telecast, plus extra seconds of censored footage only seen in the foreign theatrical release. Guest panelists will include Smight, Philippe Spurrell (founder of Cinéclub/Film Society of Montreal; curator of this unique 16mm print), James Anthony Phillips (who wrote the sidebar on Melle’s score for the issue) and, again, yours truly.
And, finally, on Thursday, June 29, from 6:00-8:00 PM, I will be signing copies of the magazine and chatting up a storm at NYC’s Forbidden Planet (832 Broadway), thanks to the store’s intrepid manager/gore guru Matt Desiderio.
I look forward to seeing you at these special events and/or communicating with you on my Facebook page. I hope you enjoy the issue! It has been the ultimate labor-of-love.