Monday, October 22, 2012

The "Never Got Made" Files #88: BYRON'S EVIL (1972)

I’ve been doing so many of these multi-part “never got made” entries that it feels almost odd going back to the one film format.  However, this entry is rather special in my opinion so it deserves this treatment.  This is the furthest back I’ve gone to research a film (40 years!) and it is a project that I’m sure would have made an impact had it been made. Not only did it center on the Frankenstein mythos, one of the most enduring scenarios in the horror genre (see our look at other unmade Frankenstein projects here), but it was to feature one of the most captivating actors of that era.

Director-writer-historian Andrew Sinclair is a name that most horror fans won’t immediately recognize.  Born in 1935, Sinclair is more known for his dramatic efforts in literature, on stage and on the screen.  He authored over a dozen books – both fiction and non-fiction – before he made his film directorial debut with THE BREAKING OF BUMBO (1970), a semi-autobiographical comedy regarding National Service based on his novel of the same name.  As a follower of Welsh poet and author Dylan Thomas, Sinclair brought the writer’s acclaimed ADVENTURES IN THE SKIN TRADE to life on the English stage in the 1960s and later adapted Thomas’ dramatic play UNDER MILK WOOD into a feature film starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O’Toole in 1972.  With two diverse films to his credit, Sinclair opted to venture into the horror genre with his third feature, BYRON’S EVIL.

Literally all the press one can find on BYRON’S EVIL is this mention in the summer 1972 issue of Cinefantastique.

Okay, a film about the Frankenstein legend featuring Oliver Reed as both Lord Byron and Frankenstein’s monster?  This I have to know more about.  Thankfully, Sinclair is still with us and he was not only open to talking about the unmade film project from four decades ago, but maintained a sharp recollection of the events surrounding it.  A confessed digital Luddite, Sinclair generously corresponded over a series of letters to help fill in the gaps and save this intriguing project from disappearing from horror cinema history.

Like many filmgoers, Sinclair was exposed to the Universal adaptation of Mary Shelley’s literary classic and he was particularly impressed by the sequel.  “THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN by James Whale is the superlative early horror movie,” he writes, “the only one to approach Mary Shelley’s original fantasy.  The laboratory and the Karloff/Bride appearances have always haunted me.”  And while the Universal variation proved to be a worldwide success, its closeness to the source novel is arguable at best. And, up until this point, no one had done a cinematic biography regarding Mary Shelley and the writing of her novel.  It is here that Sinclair found the inspiration for his planned third film as he set about to write the screenplay for BYRON’S EVIL in the early 1970s. His idea was to juxtapose the real lives of the individuals associated with the novel in the early 19th century and scenes from the actual book.  “The plot was good,” he explains.  “All those around Lake Geneva – Byron, Shelley, Mary Shelley, Polidori – also played roles in Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN.  So we had little bits of scenes up to Byron’s and Shelley’s death, intercut with parallel Frankenstein scenes.  The script and the idea worked.”

Having finished his screenplay, Sinclair set about looking for a cast capable of filling the roles.  A journey to a film festival in Italy proved to be the right move in helping locate someone capable of bringing to life the title character/monster.  “I opened the Venice Film Festival in 1971 with my classic UNDER MILK WOOD,” he reveals, “and THE DEVILS caused a scandal.  I met Oliver Reed on the Lido and interested him in BYRON’S EVIL.”  Ken Russell’s religious horror film indeed caused controversy across the world and, as a result, lead Oliver Reed saw his stock rise considerably. Despite a growing reputation for his off screen antics, Reed was a consummate professional and, at the time, still had the handsome profile to pull a performance of George Gordon Byron off.  And as evidenced by his werewolf turn in Hammer’s THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961), he was more than capable of unleashing his inner beast.

With Reed attached, Sinclair set out to surround him with equally compelling supporting players.  For the dual role of Percy Shelley and Dr. Frankenstein, Sinclair sought a young actor he had worked with in the aforementioned SKIN TRADE stage adaptation in 1964. “David Hemmings was to play Shelley/Dr. Frankenstein,” he explains of his casting.  “I got his big role in BLOW-UP (1966) when he starred in my Dylan Thomas play ADVENTURES IN THE SKIN TRADE.”  In the pivotal role of Mary Shelley, Sinclair again chose someone he had worked with previously in a J. Lee Thompson film. “Anna Karina was to play Mary Shelley,” he discloses.  “She appeared through me with David Niven and Topol in my screen-written BEFORE WINTER COMES (1969).”

Despite having such a recognizable (and in-demand) cast, the production had trouble securing funding to move forward. Contrary to the Cinefantastique piece, filming never actually began.  Sinclair logically took the property to the home of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster.  “I took it to Danny Selznick at Universal,” he explains of his funding attempts, “but he backed off and turned the idea over to Christopher Isherwood, who did a bad television version. One is endlessly betrayed in this film business.” Indeed, Universal then produced FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY through its MCA Television line and it premiered in November 1973.*  While the telefilm doesn’t retain Sinclair’s idea of juxtaposition, it does decidedly mix fact with fiction regarding Mary Shelley and the events at Lake Geneva during the summer of 1816.

As a result, Sinclair abandoned the project and began concentrating on other films. He still managed to work with Reed as he quickly began his third feature as writer-director with BLUE BLOOD (1973), an adaptation of the novel by Alexander Thynne. Interestingly, Sinclair would later reunite with Reed and new co-star Orson Welles for another film project RIDER (1974), which would collapse after a week of actually filming in Athens, Greece.  (He promises to tell more on that story in the upcoming third volume on Orson Welles by Simon Callow.) Amusingly, Sinclair’s idea of filming the tale behind the Frankenstein story has proven to be popular over the years as the subject of several films.  One such film, GOTHIC (1986), was directed by Ken Russell, whose earlier film THE DEVILS brought Sinclair and Reed together on their Byron and Shelley project.  To quote Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, “Learn from my miseries, and do not seek to increase your own.”

*Note: Film director/historian Sam Irvin has done an incredibly detailed history of FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY in Little Shoppe of Horrors #38. In his exhaustive research, he shows that Hunt Stromberg, Jr., the miniseries' producer, had begun developing his Frankenstein project as early as 1970. So these projects were being developed concurrently.

2 Reactions:

  1. I loved this post - I had the pleasure of speaking with Andrew Sinclair but had not heard of "Byron's Evil". Perhaps you should ask Mr Sinclair about his never made 1974 project "Rider" - which got as far as 2nd unit footage shot, sets constructed and cast assembled before tyne (Greek) financing fell through.
    You can find video footage of cinematographer Walter Lassally talking about the film online but here is a transcript of what he says:
    "When I did go back it was for a film that was planned that was called "Rider", which was going to- It's all about the people who do the circle of death in this circular arena. You know, ride the motor bike up the side of the thing, and it's quite a good script, which was a Mephistopheles, it was a "Faust" subject, Mephistopheles subject. Orson Wells again was in and Oliver Reed, and it was a co-production between Finos and quite a respectable English company, which was actually funded by, I think, the Daily Mail. It had connections with a major newspaper. Anyway, a lot of discussions evolved where the Greek side was so suspicious of the English side, they kept saying, yes, we're giving 40%, you're giving 60%, but how do we know that your 60% isn't really 100%, and- you know, and there was no reason for it."

    "So this film called "Rider" was being prepared and it was going to be directed by Andrew Sinclair, with whom I'd worked indirectly on "Malachi's Cove". He was the producer of that and Henry Herbert was the director. So I knew Andrew and he was a very nice man and preparations were going well until a major difficulty developed because the Greek side, represented by Mike Damalas who was standing in for Finos at that time, Finos was, was sort of getting ready to retire, so he left things to Damalas who became a sort of General Manager. But he was so suspicious that eventually the film collapsed. And the, and the- Because they talked so much about how the pudding was to be divided that they forgot to bake the pudding in the first place. Orson Welles had arrived and Oliver Reed had arrived and somebody else had arrived, we'd shot some second unit footage with a, a tiny, diminutive girl doubling for Oliver Reed in the stunt sequences because they'd brought this, this wall of death arena and put it up outside the new Finos studio, which is near where the new airport is. We shot for about a week on this- all the motor cycle riding bits with this tiny girl doubling, because on the motor cycle you can't tell. Then they all arrived and it turned out that the film wasn't going to be made. And, sets had been built and quite a lot of money had been spent. Orson Welles invited everybody to a great banquet, a great dinner, and then handed the production the bill and left. But he had every- you know, he was right. That was a great shame because it could've been, it could've been a very commercial film. It had a commercial script, it had a good idea, the "Faust" idea, you know, the Mephistopheles/Faust thing. It should've been- It's a great shame that it collapsed because it could've been a very commercial film, and a very good film. No reason why it shouldn't have been."

    Mr Sinclair told me that he had a script for "Rider" still kicking around somewhere...

    Love the blog.

    Best wishes,
    Julian Grainger

  2. Julian,

    Thanks for the kind words. Mr. Sinclair actually did mention RIDER to me in his letters and said it was a very big disappointment to come so close only to have it shut down. I recall he said that he gave quite a bit of info about it to an upcoming Orson Welles book (the author's name escapes me). Thanks for the other info from the cinematographer.



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