Hammer was always searching for the best way to make a buck, or a pound. The powers that be decided to remake a science-fiction horror BBC series, and mix it with as much showmanship as they could manage, playing off of the new X certificate by naming their film, The Quatermass Xperiment. It was a hit, and Hammer Horror was born. But B&W SF was not the future of the company. Instead it would be lavish color in gothic tales. The first of these was The Curse of Frankenstein and it was a huge hit. Naturally, sequels followed.
Unlike the Universal films, the continuing character was not the monster, but the scientist, Victor Frankenstein. The role made Peter Cushing an icon and a star. He would add his talents to many Hammer films, usually as a dry, overly moral, representative of a rather bland version of social goodness. But not in the Frankenstein films. He was a villain, far worse than anything he created. It is a joy to see Cushing in full evil slime-bag mode. Who the Doctor was and what deeds he had done changed from film to film. There was little concern about consistency and Victor Frankenstein would change from a sociopath concerned only with his work, to a sad figure fighting cruel, systematic oppression, to a raping psychopath, to a hero. Normally he’s obsessed with bringing a body made from corpses to life, but even that changes just as his history changes. Finally, Hammer booted Cushing to bring in young blood, only to have that attempt fail miserably, so back came Cushing one last time.
Universal’s threatened law suit is partly responsible for the focus on the doctor. It is even more responsible for the horrendous monster design, though in the end that flaw has to be laid at the feet of Hammer’s makeup team. They were not allowed to make anything that looked close to Karloff’s creature, and no one at Hammer had the artistry or skill in makeup to create something to rival what had been done before. It is one of the greater failings of the Hammer Frankenstein films. The monsters (a new one for each film) always look comically bad, and are often a major distraction. They never are a bonus.
Besides Cushing, the most common reoccurring element was director Terence Fisher. Fisher had two skills essential for Hammer’s success: The ability to stretch a small budget and to pull the richness out of Eastmancolor film. He established the Hammer look that makes these film a joy to gaze upon. However, in other respects, Fisher was less of a standout. We was a very stage bound director, basically aiming the camera straight ahead into his box set. He had no eye for movement, nor was he adept at letting the frame tell the story or changing his style for theme. One frame of a Fisher film looked like every other frame.
Fisher, and Hammer in general, also had a view of women, society, and sexuality that does not echo with our times or with even the late ’50s. There were few parts for women at Hammer, and what there were consisted of proper virgins and evil sex fiends, that is if they had enough personality to even be classified. In two of the seven Frankenstein films, the only significant female character is mute. In only one does a woman matter, but then she’s one of Hammer’s sex fiends who must be destroyed.
The series was a rocky one overall, but things started well.
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
Arrogant Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) sets out to uncover the secrets of life with the aid of his tutor, Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart). Once he starts working on creating a man (Christopher Lee), Paul decides their work is evil, but insists on sticking around to protect Elizabeth (Hazel Court), Victor’s fiancée.
It is bizarre to think that Hammer planned for a B&W, three-week cheapy. Instead, they changed film history. Sure, the low budget is evident in the minimal sets, and I longed for the far more impressive laboratory that Colin Clive inhabited nearly thirty years earlier, but they did a lot with their budget, and color, vivid color, makes all the difference. Elaborate gothic horror with bright red splashes of blood had never been done before. The Curse of Frankenstein defined the Hammer look, and they rarely came close to it again. Lighting, sets, everything looks good. James Bernard’s pounding scores would overwhelm later Hammer pictures, approaching parody, but here the music is effective.
Once we get past the ambiance of the film, which is hard to do, it is Peter Cushing who catches the eye. This is his movie and he owns every frame. His Baron is not the obsessed, misguided, but basically good innocent of the book, but an evil, conniving middle-aged man who murders without hesitation or a drop of regret. Paul takes over the part of the romantic who sees the error of their ways.
While Cushing sings as the Doctor, the Monster is a mess. Forced to avoid anything close to Universal’s classic look, and unable to come up with a workable design, the make-up was splatted onto Lee’s face without any previous plan. It looked abysmal. The fear of a law suit also forced Hammer away from the haunted, sympathetic Karloff creation, resulting in a monster with no personality. He doesn’t speak, he doesn’t seem to matter, and he’s barely in the movie. The part does no favors for Lee, who really has nothing to work with. All he brings to the part is height, because that’s all he is allowed to bring.
Director Terence Fisher’s tendency to moralize about the cruelty just under polite society would wear out its welcome in later films, but in this first one, it’s intriguing. There’s no question that The Curse of Frankenstein doesn’t stand up to the multilayered James Whale films, but then few movies do. As a simpler film with no moral gray areas, and as the harbinger of a new kind of horror film, it does well.
Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)
Escaping the gallows he was destined for at the end of the last film, Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) sets up a lucrative medical practice, using the name Stein, in the city of Karlsbruck. His “good works” of aiding the poor allows him access to their body parts which he plans to use to make a new body for his crippled assistant. Doctor Hans Kleve recognizes Frankenstein from years ago, and presses his way into their little gang, because they couldn’t make a film without a good looking sidekick.
Whipped out quickly after the huge success of The Curse of Frankenstein, Revenge brings back director Terence Fisher and star Peter Cushing. It is hardly surprising that it looks and feels like its predecessor. The color is rich, the music is bombastic, and Frankenstein (the Doctor, not the Monster, as this movie doesn’t really have one of those) is arrogant and evil. It is a bit plodding—more of a medical drama than a horror story for its first hour. But it is a well done medical drama.
Unfortunately the plot only progresses based on characters acting far too stupidly—a common flaw in the worst kinds of scripts: Both Frankenstein and Kleve just leave their creation alone after the operation. It is the culmination of all of Frankenstein’s work, and instead of looking after his perfect man, he hangs out across town. Why? Because otherwise the creature wouldn’t escape and injure his brain and start causing trouble. That is also where we run into that fascinating scientific fact that cannibalism is a side-effect of brain damage—an idea straight out of the lowest of cheeseball ‘50s horror.
After such a slow buildup, I expected a big, loud, exhilarating—or perhaps frightening—climax. But Revenge of Frankenstein is content to be a lower key movie. Excitement never seemed to be a goal. At least the ending is clever.
The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)
Doctor Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) returns to his home with his assistant Hans (not the Hans from Revenge of Frankenstein, but another, random Hans), and finds the Monster he’d made years ago frozen in ice. As is the way of Frankensteins, he is driven to reanimate the creature, but finds it unresponsive. Zoltán, a traveling hypnotist, is the answer. He wakes the creatures, but then sets it to exact his revenge.
The money that Universal was making distributing The Curse of Frankenstein, The Revenge of Frankenstein, and Horror of Dracula in the US persuaded them to make a deal. They gave Hammer the rights to remake all of their films. Surprisingly, this was not a good thing. No longer forced to come up with their own ideas, Hammer borrowed. They also jettisoned the first two films. In a flashback we are informed that the nasty actions of Cushing’s Victor Frankenstein never happened. Instead, Frankenstein used electricity to make a flat-headed creature that was killed and he was then exiled. It draws comparisons to the laboratory in the 1931 film, as well as to Karloff, and those are not comparisons this film can handle. The set is a low rent recreation, but is workable. The monster, unfortunately is not workable. He’s a cheap Halloween mask version of the art done thirty years earlier. Hammer should have kept its distance.
The Evil of Frankenstein also swipes plot points from Son of Frankenstein and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, with Igor, I mean Zoltán, using the Monster to kill local dignitaries and the Monster being found frozen in ice.
After two films with an evil and cruel Victor Frankenstein as the main villain, it is odd to see Cushing tone it down, and disappointing. It makes him a less interesting character. He’s arrogant and foolish, but he is almost the hero here.
Still, there’s something likable in the film. After all, the movies it steals from are some of the best. If the monster had been designed better, allowing for us to feel its plight, this might have been a fine movie.
Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)
Things aren’t going well for lovers Hans and Christina. He isn’t liked in town as his father was executed for murder, and she is deformed (actually she’s quite attractive with some scratches on one side of her face). When the local libertines kill Christina’s father, Hans is blamed and the lovers end up dead. Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing), who has been spending his time capturing souls, creating force fields, and originating cryogenics, brings Christina back from the grave, but decides to stick Hans’s soul into her for no good reason. Naturally he/she sets out for revenge.
Frankenstein goes new age. Why worry about science when your professor can mumble about souls?
Hammer rebooted their Frankenstein series again. If there is a connection to the previous films, it is hard to spot. There is no indication that Frankenstein ever discovered the secret of life or made a man from corpses. He is not the hero of the previous film, nor the villain of the first two in the series. He’s an eccentric scientist, nearly comical. Certainly not the stuff of horror. And only a secondary character. Except for wanting to sell tickets by using the Frankenstein name, there was no reason to connect this film to the franchise at all. When he finally does act, it makes no sense, that is assuming his soul experiments make sense. Blurting out everything to the police isn’t just stupid, it is bizarre.
As this is a Terence Fisher film, and a Hammer one, women are treated questionably. A woman is either pure and repressed, or sexual and a bringer of death and destruction. Those are the rules of Hammer women. Fisher must have cried with joy when he learned he could have a female character be both simultaneously.
While a man is slipped into a woman’s body, nothing touches on gender confusion. There is no reason for Hans’s soul to have been saved. Christina has all the motivation she needs for revenge and it is, of course for Hammer, the feminine that is dangerous. In fact, the whole thing plays more like a rape and revenge film than a Hammer Horror one, with the mistreated woman using her feminine wiles to lure in each of her abuses one by one and eliminate them.
It’s a bit slow, nonsensical, thematically problematic, and has a breathtakingly stupid end, but at least it is different.
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed! (1969)
Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) is back, if it is indeed the same man. This time he’s lucked into a boarding house where the owner, Anna, has a convenient doctor boyfriend who happens to be stealing cocaine. With a bit of blackmail, Frankenstein has accomplices in his plan to break an insane scientist out of an asylum. When that doesn’t go as well as hoped, Frankenstein decides the obvious move is a brain transfer. Things don’t go well, again. All the while, a pair of comedy relief policemen are hot…or cold…on his tail.
Rebooted yet again, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed ignores most of the previous films and replaces them with a vague background of Frankenstein having experimented with brain transplantation before being run out of his country. His hands are no longer damaged and he is once again as evil as he is arrogant. Continuity was never big with Hammer.
While many Hammer Horror films are horror more in topic than effect, that’s not true here. This is as nasty a film as Hammer ever made. Frankenstein is crueler than he’s been before and things are bleak for his accomplices. I felt for them, a rarity in Hammer films. They are stuck in a horrible situation, with no way out. They might have made a few better choices (like murdering Frankenstein in his sleep), but that’s about as good as it could have gotten for them. The rape scene certainly darkens things up and makes every scene after it with Anna (Veronica Carlson) and Frankenstein just that extra bit more disturbing.
For returning director Terence Fisher, the film is a step up. Fisher always had a knack for color, but he had a stage bound eye, with no skill in camera movement. He would simply shoot what was before him, without the framing carrying any more. But here he, occasionally, did more. The pipe bursting, revealing the corpse and causing its arm to wave, is an unusually effective moment.
While one of the best made, acted, and scripted Hammer films, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed left me without any desire to see it again, and a mild desire not to have seen it already. It isn’t enjoyable nor is there any message to take away from it, besides sometimes the world is horrible. It isn’t fear that it elicits, but depression.
The Horror of Frankenstein (1970)
Young Victor Frankenstein (Ralph Bates) murders his father to inherit a fortune. After running into moral problems at the university, he uses his wealth and title to acquire body parts and make a man (Dave Prowse), which he brings to life. Along the way he dallies with his maid Alys (Kate O’Mara), is courted by his childhood friend, Elizabeth (Veronica Carlson), and is aided by his foolish friend Graham James (Wilhelm Kastner) and a grave robber (Dennis Price).
Just how devoid of ideas do you have to be to remake your own films (Hitchcock excluded)? And remake them with no glimmer of wit or originality? Hammer studios needed a hit, and felt that a new, young (at studio meetings, they undoubtedly said “hip”), Baron Frankenstein, replacing the aging Peter Cushing, would bring in the kids. So, they produced The Horror of Frankenstein, a new adaptation not of Shelley’s book, nor of the Universal classic, but of their own 1957 The Curse of Frankenstein. I’m happy to say that ’70s teens were not taken in by this farce, and the sixth Hammer Frankenstein flick went down in flames, resulting in Cushing’s return for Hammer’s seventh and final shot at the mad doctor.
Hammer had lost touch with its audience, and while it was innovative and shocking in the 1950s, it hadn’t changed since. The Horror of Frankenstein is devoid of frights, suspense, and blood. The multiple cleavage shots are too gratuitous for a serious film, but too tame to titillate. With the Italians poised to flood the market with topless vampires, Hammer’s work looked like something grandpa would watch.
As for the story, if anyone cares, it follows Victor as he cruelly, and oh so slowly, makes his monster for no particular reason. The Baron doesn’t come off as evil, but as a deeply unpleasant child who never grew up. He only gets away with his deeds because all the other characters are deeply stupid. Hint: if you know someone is a cold blooded killer, don’t threaten to reveal him, then happily accompany him to a secluded room in a castle.
The monster has little to do in the film and doesn’t show up for over an hour. Hardly an object of fright (or pity, or any other emotion unconnected to ridicule), this monster looks like a guy with a bit of rubber glued to his head. He doesn’t speak. He just stomps around a bit, and dies.
I can’t complain about the camera work, sets, and acting, but neither do they excite me. The attempt to stick the thirty-year-old actors into a school room with only bad wigs to disguise their age works as well as you might expect, but happily, the film skips ahead seven years and that charade can be forgotten. Still, the notion that the bosomy Kate O’Mara (my father would call her a very healthy girl) was sixteen at the film’s opening flows into the absurd.
For its concept, I should denounce The Horror of Frankenstein as a foul swamp toxin, but it has a few redeeming features. How poor Dennis Price, the masterful star of Kind Hearts and Coronets, sunk so far as to end up here is beyond me, but he brings talent and comedy to his small role of the gravedigger. I’d cheerfully watch a film about him and his contentedly put-upon wife, who digs up the bodies as he sits and snacks. It is in those characters, and other touches that the film is confusing, as it appears that at least one draft of the film was a comedy. There are quite a few almost-funny moments that make me wonder if it couldn’t have beaten out Young Frankenstein as a parody with a bit of work and altered direction. The demise of the monster should have been hilarious, but the mood is wrong; as drama, it fails miserably, but as a comedy, it had great potential. That’s true of the entire production.
But unfulfilled potential is that and nothing more. There are too many versions of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster for you to waste time with this one.
Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974)
Doctor Simon Helder (Shane Briant) has been attempting to recreate the experiments of Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) when he is arrested for sorcery. He is sentenced to an asylum, which by luck contains the Baron, who has managed to blackmail his way into running the place. Of course, he is making a new creature and Helder becomes his assistant.
After the disaster that was Horror of Frankenstein, Hammer realized that a younger Baron Frankenstein was not going to bring in the teen dollars, and brought Cushing back. He plays the evil Victor Frankenstein with a bit more ice to his performance than previously. There’s also nothing mentioned that specifically connects him to his other film incarnations. He’s a mad scientist, and that’s it, and we’re given no reason to believe that he ever brought a monster to life.
After their poor remake of The Curse of Frankenstein, the first half of this film is more or less a remake of Revenge of Frankenstein: A pretty young doctor (Shane Briant is about as pretty as a man can be) freely joins with the Baron in his research, and the two use the body parts of the inmates to make their man, instead of the parts from the poor of the clinic.
The plot is plodding, the reduced budget is obvious, and the creature design is horrendous, reminiscent of ape costumes from 1930s, but otherwise the movie is well done, for a time anyway. Briant and Cushing are good and their conversations are darkly humorous. Fisher was always a limited director, but his firm grasp of color again comes to his aid, and while the film looks cheap, it doesn’t look as cheap as it actually was.
Things only dissolve in the third act. The brain transplant is failing so Frankenstein comes up with some nonsense about breeding his monster with the hot girl and somehow getting a refreshed brain from that. Was he going to wait for the baby to grow up? The elderly Baron wouldn’t live to see that. Or would sex just fix the mind? Who knows. I’m pretty sure no one at Hammer did.
This was the last of the seven Frankenstein movies, the last film directed by Terence Fisher, and one of the last Hammer Horror films, and it all shows. The retro look, the repetition, and the ending which doesn’t finish anything but implies it will all go on forever, is more for fans to revel in nostalgia of the Hammer that was than to enjoy what is or will be.