While there’s little better in life than movies from the past that take a shot of what life will be like in the future, there’s really nothing better than when they get brazen enough to tack the futuristic year at the end of their title. This traps the movie or TV show into a path where it can’t escape feeling dated, and, quite often, this leads future viewers to see the work as nothing more than a campy projection, like how incredibly behind the times Disney’s “Futureworld” looks next to the ’80s era exhibits at Epcot center. Today’s film definitely falls into that trap, unless there’s been a catalog with home nuclear reactors available for purchase in the past forty three years. However, it does hit on some things that were surely 70s, interest in the occult, rampant narcissism, the dominance of TV, and the fact that no matter what era it is Boris Karloff is the man. Some twenty seven years after Karloff portrayed the monster in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein, he returned to the laboratory, but not with a bolted neck. Instead, he portrayed a descendant of the creature’s creator in the 1958 film that imagines mad science at work twenty two years into the future. This is Frankenstein 1970.
Baron Victor Von Frankenstein (Boris Karloff), the unimaginatively named descendant of the more famous Baron Richard Von Frankenstein (For real? Richard? Not even Henry?), is strapped for cash to continue a series of experiments. In order to finance his work, and purchase the aforementioned home nuclear reactor, the Baron invites a television crew into his house to film a special celebrating the 230th anniversary of the original Frankenstein’s monster. Naturally, the Baron’s work involves creating a new life, a service the Nazis tried to obtain by performing disfiguring torture on Victor, however he resisted. Now, using parts from his butler, and eventually the film crew, he attempts to bring to life a man in his own image, at least his image before all the torture. It stands to reason that when people start disappearing in the Baron’s castle that suspicious eyes turn to the man who is descended from the man who used dead bodies to make a monster.
The original title of Frankenstein 1970 was Frankenstein 1960, but that was deemed too soon for the feasibility of an at home nuclear reactor. Strangely, by 1970, that didn’t come to pass. So if there were to be an accurate title for the film as to when the technology would be viable, it would be called Frankenstein Oh My a God, Hopefully Never, That Sounds Like An Incredibly Terrible Idea. Yet, as I mentioned earlier, there were quite a few things that the film did get right. Sadly, there was no flower power, but Victor’s desire to make the monster look like he did thirty years ago smacks of the ‘ME’ decade egoism for sure. It also made television look like it was loosely and easily made for the mass consumption of millions of people, a staggering figure considering by the mid-1950s televisions were still moderately rare in homes. It also was interesting to me that the show the plot revolved around seemed very akin to many specials and series that aired in the 70s. I couldn’t ever shake the idea of “In Search of” out of my brain and longed for a young Leonard Nimoy to show up on the scene.
The main attraction here, beyond the ludicrous look at available power sources, is Boris Karloff. Having played the monster on four separate occasions, Frankenstein 1970 was the first, and only, time he played a certifiable Frankenstein. (Any horror nerd will tell you that Frankenstein is the Doctor, not the monster, despite the colloquial connotations. If disagreed with, the horror nerd will palpitate with nerd rage like any solid fanboy should.) Huddled under makeup, padding, and a severe crew cut, Karloff nearly disappears into the role. It’s an interesting part as well. Sure, he suffers from Godlike delusions, but he also has a forlorn side. Having been tortured during the war, he never found a wife and has no one to carry on the Frankenstein legacy. Through the production of a man with his own unblemished visage, he intended to give himself an avatar for a second chance. If it wasn’t for all the murdering people to make the creature, his Victor Frankenstein could be seen as a sympathetic character, although he does lament before killing his butler, “if only it hadn’t been you, anyone but you.” In the history of crazed Victor Frankenstiens, Karloff portrayed one whole flaws seemed human and relatable despite the fact he is obviously a madman. This is part of Boris’ charm. From the monster to the creator, he knew how to play the most villainous in a way that makes the viewer wonder if he’s really all that bad. Nine times out of ten, his characters positively are, but the seed of doubt that Karloff managed to sow so often in his roles is always compelling.
I really haven’t talked at all about the rest of the cast, but there’s not really anything to say. The screwball, horn dog director, his spurned wife, the pretty, young ingénue, and the rest are all stock characters with a few funny lines sprinkled throughout Frankenstein 1970. While Karloff brings pathos to his role, the others bring out patience in the viewers who make it through the. Boris-less seems. Shot in 8 days, the entire production is pretty slipshod, but there’s something almost quaint about it. My only other complaint is the “monster” is only shown as a gauze wrapped giant until the final frames when, spoiler alert, the face is torn open and it looks like Baron Victor Von Frankenstein which is not really a shocking twist considering he’s been saying it would be. “In his own image” over and over and admiring a bust of his younger self. Cheap, raw, and campy, Frankenstein 1970 would have had a hard time garnering a terrifying response in 1870, and those people thought that the train was coming out of the screen. (Ok, that was 1896, but you know what I mean.). Yet it is charming in a Saturday matinee sort of way. For fans of Karloff, I’d say Frankenstein 1970 is a must, and because of the combination classic horror tropes and atomic age science, it stands as a bridge between the supernatural films of the 30s and 40s and the science fiction of the 50s.