• Laura Mayne

Frankenstein Reimagined: The Mind of Mr Soames (Alan Cooke, 1970)

The Mind of Mr Soames uses the premise of scientific progress to explore some unpleasant aspects of contemporary society. Terence Stamp plays John Soames, a man who has been in a coma since birth as a result of congenital brain damage. He is awoken, aged 30, following a highly experimental operation pioneered by the neurosurgeon Dr Maitland (Nigel Davenport). A literal baby in the body of a man, Soames has to catch up on years of education in the space of just a few months. Soames’ journey is captured by television cameras for a documentary series and attracts great interest from the medical community and the press. Soames’ education is overseen by Dr Maitland, who designs an intense training regimen in order to accelerate his mental growth. However, trapped in the institute and forced to study ceaselessly, Soames eventually becomes frustrated and acts out. Buoyed by his first encounter with the outside world, Soames finally realises his own strength and escapes…

The Amicus House of … Drama?

The Mind of Mr Soames represented a foray out of horror and into science fiction drama for Amicus, a production company known for their portmanteau horror films such as Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (Freddie Francis, 1965) and The House that Dripped Blood (Peter Duffell, 1970). Producers Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg had previously dabbled in science fiction with the modestly successful Dr Who and the Daleks (Gordon Flemyng, 1963), based on the popular BBC television show of the same name, and its sequel Daleks Invasion Earth 2150A.D. (Gordon Flemyng, 1966). They had also worked in the intersection between horror and science fiction (two genres that are often conflated) with The Projected Man (Ian Curteis, 1966), a film which follows the familiar trope of scientific-experiment-gone-wrong resulting in the physical and emotional disfigurement of the lead protagonist (played by Bryant Haliday).

Though science fiction had long been a part of the company’s oeuvre, The Mind of Mr Soames still represented something of a departure from type in terms of its dramatic ambitions; its subtle exploration of the human mind is a far cry from science fiction of the spaceships-and-aliens variety. The move into drama was one that the company had been pondering for some time. Subotsky had tried to buy Flowers for Algernon, the 1966 novel by Daniel Keys about a young man with a low IQ who participates in a scientific experiment that increases his intelligence (this became the successful film Charly [Ralph Nelson, 1968]). When this deal fell through, he decided to develop The Mind of Mr Soames from the 1961 novel of the same name by Charles Eric Mane.[1]

It’s Alive!

The Mind of Mr Soames may be a serious drama with a dash of science fiction, but the plot of the film seems somewhat horror-inspired, particularly as it adheres closely to various popular adaptations of Frankenstein (and in some ways, Soames is the Frankenstein film that Amicus’s Milton Subotsky was never able to make[2]). Soames is effectively ‘brought to life’ by advancements in medical science. His ‘creators’ do not understand his thought processes and as a result Soames is frustrated, escapes and causes mayhem in the local area. This is Mary Shelley’s story with a modern update: Soames’ life is fodder for popular entertainment, and his movement is restricted by the presence of cameras and reporters who are filming his progress for a television show. Soames is a romantic individual (romantic in the original sense of the word): he is sensitive and filled with wonder at the sublimity of the natural world, and he constantly delights in the discoveries of new feelings and experiences. The flashbulb that goes off in Soames' face when he is accosted by journalists in the final scene of the film is reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster acting out in response to sensory overload. Like Frankenstein's monster, Soames’ rare innocence is pulled through the wringer of modernity and all it entails: the suppression of the individual in favour of collective social and scientific progress.

The first half of the film is framed by an intellectual interplay between two competing schools of psychological thought. Dr Maitland believes in discipline and study, with a highly structured schedule that keeps Soames constantly learning. He becomes fatigued and irritable and acts out as a result. Dr Bergen (Robert Vaughn), a consultant on the project, believes in the power of play in shaping early childhood experiences, and with that in mind he allows Soames to briefly leave the confines of the institute. The scenes in which Soames discovers nature for the first time are beautifully shot, and the juxtaposition between the natural world and the sterile hospital environment (in which the camera remains relatively static) is striking. The hospital scenes have a particularly ‘televisual’ feel, and this is perhaps influenced by the pedigree of director Alan Cooke, a prolific and able television director who had previously worked on Theatre 625, Armchair Theatre, and The Wednesday Play, among others.

Whilst proceeding from an interesting premise, the plot of Soames often feels slightly underdeveloped, and this is surprising given the fact that producer Milton Subotsky was obsessed with script editing and would often direct much of his energies into sourcing and developing new material. Roger Greenspun of the New York Times agreed, writing, ‘The Mind of Mr. Soames is full of boldly introduced but ultimately undeveloped character clichés.’[3] There are many aspects of Soames that one feels could have offered thought-provoking perspectives on society and media culture if only they were developed more fully. Other plotlines were lost in the process of adaptation, but could have added some extra tension to the film had they been incorporated. For example, in the novel of the same name, a reporter locates Soames’ long lost mother and sister to cash in on his story, and a legal battle follows which overwhelms our protagonist.

That said, the scientific-experiment-gone-wrong trope is an exceptionally common one in science fiction – and often, as in Amicus’s previous production, The Projected Man, it can be a hackneyed device deployed in the service of advancing the plot. But The Mind of Mr Soames attempts to use its premise to go further. This is not the trite myth of the modern Prometheus, in which scientific progress results in the potential for dire widespread social consequences (after all, how many comatose-from-birth adults could possibly exist in the world?). Rather, Soames focuses in on one character in order to explore the human condition; but what the film seems to crave is the space to address this subject in a satisfying way.

Stamp Collection

Actors select roles for a variety of reasons and it is perhaps crass to be struck by the peculiar dissonance of seeing a favourite star departing from type. It is also difficult to assign a particular ‘star persona’ to Terence Stamp, a peripatetic artist who moved between a variety of eclectic leading roles throughout the height of his career. Nevertheless, it is a little disconcerting to witness Stamp, three years after he played Dave in Poor Cow (Ken Loach, 1967) wandering around a city dressed in a pink romper suit (an outfit that he reportedly chose for himself).[4] Though Stamp’s 1960s filmography was limited, he starred in some of the defining films of that decade: Billy Budd (Peter Ustinov, 1962) Poor Cow (Ken Loach, 1967) and Far From The Madding Crowd (John Schlesinger, 1967). He also made some bad decisions, turning down the role of Alfie (Lewis Gilbert, 1966) in order to star in the retina-burning camp spy-comedy flop Modesty Blaise (Joseph Losey, 1966).

Stamp worked with some of the greatest directors of the era, collaborating with Pasolini in Theorem (1968) and with Fellini in Spirits of the Dead (1968). His personal life was no less glamourous: he shared a house with Michael Caine and he dated two of the most beautiful, accomplished women of the 1960s, Julie Christie and Jean Shrimpton. Stamp acknowledges that the ‘work dried up after The Mind of Mr. Soames in 1969. Hu-Man (1975) was the only serious film I did [during those years], and that was really independent.’[5] In truth, the work had dried up a few years before: in 1969 a writer for the Chicago Tribune noted that it ‘seemed a long time, another era, since [Stamp] was being hailed as the golden boy of the British screen – though, in fact, it was only five years ago.’[6] Stamp, at a loss to explain why his success turned fallow, largely gave up on the idea of being a leading man by the 1970s, and by the time he was offered the role of General Zod in Superman (Richard Donner, 1978), he was finally ready to be, in his words, a ‘character actor’.[7]

For much of his early life Soames is unable to speak, but Stamp effectively manages to communicate his bewilderment at new sensations and his frustration with Maitland and his demands. At other times, Stamp plays the role with a vacant, wide-eyed naivety that is surprisingly convincing given the strangeness of this juxtaposition of a baby in the body of a mature adult. Some of the action here borders on the absurd. As Roger Greenspun notes, ‘Terence Stamp must have the best fun in the movie. Not only does he get to cry a lot and to play with toys, but he also is allowed at one time or another to dump baby food on all his doctors and keepers.’ The Mind of Mr Soames brings together a cast of distinguished actors: Robert Vaughn is excellent as the caring and compassionate Dr Bergen, while Nigel Davenport’s Dr Maitland is a compelling foil to Bergen’s more progressive teaching style. The Mind of Mr Soames never achieved the success or acclaim of Ralph Nelson’s Charly, and according to the fanzine Little Shoppe of Horrors this was because the distributors, Columbia, did not give it enough of a ‘push’.[8] This must have come as something of a disappointment to Amicus at the time, but we can still appreciate the film today for its fascinating themes, its excellent all-star cast and, of course, that gloriously absurd image of Terence Stamp in a pink romper suit.

Reference list:


[1] 'Amicus: Two's A Company', Little Shoppe of Horrors, Issue 2 (1973), p. 13. [2] In 1956 Subotsky had written a screenplay titled ‘Frankenstein and the Monster’ for Hammer Films, (then a fledgling company) but this was thought substandard by Hammer’s top executives, who scrapped it and commissioned a different screenplay to be directed by Jimmy Sangster. This became The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), and it launched Hammer as the company that became the last word British horror. In interviews, Subotsky denied being bitter, although in subsequent years he was frequently critical of Hammer’s horror productions. [3] Roger Greenspun, ‘Screen: Wild Child of 30’, New York Times, 13 October 1970. [4] The Courier Journal, 20 April 1969. [5] See [6] The Courier Journal, 20 April 1969. [7] Andrew Pulver, Interview: Terence Stamp, The Guardian 12 March 2015. [8] 'Amicus: Two's A Company', Little Shoppe of Horrors, Issue 2 (1973) p. 13

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