For most of his life, Evan Dossey generally avoided horror films. The genre made him profoundly uncomfortable. This meant he had enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Over the years, he has asked family and friends which essential horror movies he needs to see and spent the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those folks — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
My first encounter with a horror film — or at least the first one I remember clearly — was with the guillotine blade dropping in Hammer Films’ The Revenge of Frankenstein. Sure, I had seen Abbott & Costello’s various comedic encounters with Universal’s stable of creatures, but Revenge was the first one I remember that kept a straight face.
Later, I would come to love the black-and-white American originals as I anxiously awaited the arrival of each issue of the Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine at my local newsstand. I even wrote a play, Popular Monsters, set at a similar publication. But Hammer Films and its color-saturated, British spin on the horror icons always seemed to hover in the background, tempting me into its rather inconsistent universe.
Over the years, I’d catch them here and there but never with the kind of diligence I gave the Universal Frankensteins. So with this, my third No Sleep October round of Frankenstein round-ups, I thought I’d revisit the entire Hammer lineup.
THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN
Some background: Founded in 1934 and known now primarily for its run of horror films, Hammer had cranked out films (mostly B-movies) for about three decades until the course changed a bit when, in an effort to excite audiences lured away by television, it stressed the “X” in the title of the science-fiction film The Quatermass Xperiment. Its success helped pave the way for 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein.
Without concern for loyalty to Mary Shelley’s original — and careful to avoid similarities to proprietary elements from the Universal flicks (all the better to avoid legal actions) — the Hammer crew set out to make a film that would add color to a genre traditionally presented in shades of black and white. While the idea of horror in color may have lured initial audiences, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (then relatively unknown journeymen actors) turned out to be its aces in the hole — Cushing demonstrating serious chops, both mutton and acting, while Lee brought to life a creature very different than the iconic one created by Boris Karloff.
The film opens with white credits on a blood-red background. OK, not exactly blood-red but really, really red. Enough to send the message loud and clear: This isn’t your father’s Universal horrors.
A bell tolls. A priest is keyed into a cell with a man who is “raving.” That resident is Baron Victor Frankenstein (Cushing) and he’s got a story to tell. Most of the rest is told in flashbacks, with much of the film building up to the big creature reveal. Up until then, it’s clear Victor is the center. He’s arrogant (“I’ve always had a brilliant intellect.”), violent and clearly desperate. His coldness applies to both his affair with chambermaid Justine and his method of gathering body parts. Here, rather than send an assistant out to claim a brain, the Baron gives a shove to a colleague off a balcony. Clearly, this is a creator as brutal, if not moreso, than his creation.
And, ah, that creation. Lee gets to rip off his own face covering a la the Phantom of the Opera, and his visage is a grotesque sight — a pasty mess with an offset eye. It’s accentuated by a pathetic stagger that reads as if his joints haven’t quite solidly fused yet. A failure? No, just a step in the process for Victor, who isn’t one to give up easily. When things don’t go to plan, he keeps insisting he can fix things. He also denies the humanity of what he has brought to life, treating the creature as an experiment that he’ll dispose of after it has served his purpose.
There’s a moment when Victor orders the creature to sit down, and Lee’s moves are subtly painful. A few more such scenes and Lee may have gotten more credit for his strong work here.
In hindsight, making Cushing’s Victor so loathsome was a gutsy choice. Such an unsympathetic central character could have pushed audiences away. But Hammer not only embraced the idea here, it opted to continue the series by following Victor rather than the creature. (While Cushing continued with Frankenstein, Lee became the thread in Hammer’s Dracula series).
What followed is a series of films of varying quality but always very different from the Universal film series. Where Universal had to squeeze other actors (including Lon Chaney, Jr., and Bela Lugosi) into the well-established Karloff creature makeup, Hammer could devise a different look for every experiment.
THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN
The Revenge of Frankenstein came next in 1958. One of its biggest challenges: Victor’s survival was necessary for the sake of the series, but the film had to get around the fact Victor was headed for the guillotine at the end of Curse. The solution further underlines Victor’s brutality, having him pull a switcheroo that sent the priest issuing last rites to the guillotine instead (all off-camera, of course, to seemingly minimize the unlikeliness of this absurd, but essential, device).
The monster effects are minimized in Revenge as Victor attempts a brain transplant. His motives seem positive at first, giving partially paralyzed sidekick Carl a new body. But the brain is damaged and Carl is reluctant to be put on display (soundtrack strings underlining his yearning for solitude). It’s a worthy follow-up, and while the ending is a bit of a stretch, it’s a rare conclusion that doesn’t require a convoluted rescue or revival to move into the series’ next film. While another creation has bitten the dust, Victor is alive and well and ready for more action.
THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN
By this time, Hammer was booming. Not only was the reteaming of Cushing and Lee in 1958’s Horror of Dracula a success, but Universal had seen the writing on the wall and worked out a deal with Hammer to go ahead with films involving its other core creatures. The result was Hammer’s take on the Wolf Man, the Phantom of the Opera, the Mummy and even The Old Dark House.
Thanks to these new business ties with Universal, Hammer’s next Frankenstein creation could have a look closer to the flat-head style of Karloff, which makes 1964’s The Evil of Frankenstein feel more derivative — and lesser — than Hammer’s previous, more independent offerings. Not helping matters is a script hastily built from elements from what was to be an episode of a proposed Hammer Frankenstein TV series that never launched. (Side note: The interesting pilot episode for that series, Tales of Frankenstein, can be found on YouTube. It has its moments).
In Evil, the Hammer crew no longer seems to care much about continuity. Unlike the previous sequels, this one is about reviving the old creature rather than creating a fresh one. Yes, Victor is still as driven but the threads aren’t connected. And there’s so much that feels beside the point. Victor’s search for a missing ring, a traveling carnival and its resident hypnotist, a hidden cave … all eventually take us to the discovery of the creature, frozen in ice. Soon, the hypnotist starts to dominate the plot and Victor almost becomes the hero — both downfalls for a misguided move that demonstrates a lack of understanding of the appeal of what came before. The direction by Freddie Francis helps but can’t save it.
FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN
Next up, 1967’s Frankenstein Created Woman proved a welcome return to a gutsier approach. In a utilitarian twist, it’s Victor who is revived after being dead for an hour. This gets him thinking that he might be able to trap the soul, as his own soul somehow never left his body.
This comes after a prelude in which a poor kid named Hans witnesses his father’s execution. Years later, the now-rusty guillotine that disconnected his papa is still standing and Hans is assisting the doctor who revived Victor Frankenstein.
We also meet Hans’s lover, Christina (Susan Denberg), who prefers to hide the scarred half of her face. She’s the daughter of an innkeeper, and a fight breaks out after she is harassed by locals (who, in a couple of decades, could be droogs). Hans attempts to come to her rescue but is later charged for crimes he didn’t commit. After his execution, Christina dies by suicide but Victor has plans for the body — repairing her face but also giving her Hans’s soul. The Christina / Hans combo then goes on a revenge spree, using her allure to lure victims to their doom.
In spite of the title, this is a long way from Bride of Frankenstein and there are terrific grace notes throughout: Christina turning off the light before bedding down with Hans; the way Victor casually flips through the Bible while on the witness stand at Hans’s trial; the odd feeling that these folks had seen My Fair Lady when concocting the plot; and the way in which it easily sets up a sequel since Cushing simply walks away in the end.
FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED
CW: Sexual Assault
Disembodied heads continue to roll out of the Hammer prop department for 1969’s Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. This time, Victor gets a gig at an asylum where a former assistant resides and blackmails a fellow doctor and his lover into his plan to access his former associate’s brain.
There are some interesting twists — including an early moment where a guy who looks like a cross between Dr. Phibes and that guy in the old Six Flags ads is revealed to just be Victor in a rubber mask. And there is certainly sympathy built up for the poor guy involved in the brain swap. But while previous films have prepared us for Victor to be selfish, driven and callous — recall that he did push a guy to his death in Curse, among a parade of other crimes — the inclusion of a scene where he rapes a woman drains away much of the film’s pleasures. (The story goes that Cushing, actress Veronica Carlson and director Terence Fisher objected but were overruled by Hammer studio execs.) Of lesser offense are unfunny attempts at humor courtesy of Inspector Frisch (Thorley Walters, a Terry-Thomas wannabe given far too much screen time).
THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN
At this point, Hammer decided on a reboot, only with more humor and without Cushing. 1970’s The Horror of Frankenstein now just feels like a sad attempt to make the saga hip.
Here, the hair is longer, the young doctor rebels against and kills his domineering father, and the bodices are riper. Of some interest for curious Star Wars fans may be seeing David Prowse, who provided the body but not the voice for Darth Vader, outside of his black metal suit. Here, he’s got more of a Rocky Horror than a Universal vibe as the creature.
FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL
1974 was essentially the last year of serious production at Hammer, and the studio brought Cushing back for a not-quite-victory lap with Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell.
It also features a David Prowse monster but one very different from the one in Horror. We’re in yet another asylum where Victor recruits yet another assistant to help with connecting yet more body parts. The patchwork creature this time is far more primitive, almost ape-like, than previous incarnations, and Cushing sports an unfortunate wig he later said made him look like Helen Hayes.
Faint praise: The movie is not as bad as Hammer’s truly awful contemporaneous Dracula outings, Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula. Instead, it’s a passable playing-out of the Frankenstein formula.
Oddly, unlike the Universal Frankenstein films, Hammer never bothered with mash-ups, which is a wonder to me. Rather than crank out some of the latter sequels to its Dracula and Frankenstein franchises, why not double down and see what would happen if one of Victor’s creations encountered Hammer’s mummy, gorgon, Dr. Jekyll and / or Sister Hyde, werewolf or horde of buxom vampires?
Alas, what we have is what we have. Since Hammer’s fadeout, the only one of the traditional Universal creatures that has spawned an extended series of linked films has been its most lumbering one, the Mummy. That begs the question: Have Freddy, Jason, Michael, Annabelle, Leatherface, the Kandarian demons and other more recent creatures done what mobs of torch-wielding villagers failed to do?