‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ (1957) was Hammer film productions’ first foray into gothic horror cinema. With its huge success came a revival of that very same brand first made commercially successful by Hollywood studio Universal in the 1930s and 1940s. Here though with British production company Hammer it was a gorier affair with more shock value. They would base much of their output on the iconic horror monsters made famous by the American studio. They resurrected Dracula a year later in ‘The Horror of Dracula’ (1958) and continuing with ‘The Mummy’ (1959) and ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (1962). The Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy franchises would have many sequels.
The very same year Christopher Lee would don Dracula’s cape for the first time under the helm of Terence Fisher the director would also shoot back to back with it ‘The Revenge of Frankenstein’ - the sequel to his first ghastly adventure with Peter Cushing as the evil doctor Baron Victor Frankenstein. What set apart Hammer’s Frankenstein series to the earlier Universal franchise was that the real recurring villain was the doctor and not the monster. Universal’s take was to have the original creature comeback constantly with new doctors but here the doctor returns creating new creatures.
It is because of this that the majority of the movies in Hammer’s series were all uniquely inventive and here the original film’s writer Jimmy Sangster creates a very different story to the first. Cushing’s Dr Frankenstein would go on to become one of the most memorable villains in cinematic horror history. It is a super strong companion piece to its fantastic predecessor and is up there with the other two best in the series ‘Frankenstein Created Woman’ (1967) and ‘Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed’ (1969). Picking up straight from where the previous movie left off it is the best sequel in the series in respect of continuity.
Frankenstein sentenced to death for his crimes in the last instalment escapes the guillotine with the help of Karl (Oscar Quitak) a deformed dwarf by having the priest overseeing the execution beheaded instead and his body buried in the Baron’s place. Some many years later, Victor has relocated to another town where he has become a successful physician assuming the identity of Dr Stein. He attracts the attention of the medical council jealous of Frankenstein for taking their patients and infuriated with him for shunning them and not wanting to be a member. Because of this though a young council member Dr Hans Kleve (Francis Matthews) recognizes him and blackmails the doctor so that he may become his apprentice to gain his valuable knowledge. Along with Karl, he helps with the Baron’s experiments. Frankenstein is pursuing the creation of an artificial brain but when concluding that this procedure is futile, he instead decides to transplant a living brain into a new body assembled from the body parts of his patients. The luckless deformed Karl willingly volunteers his brain so that he may have a new healthy body in peak physical condition and a chance at happiness with a better quality of life.
This film shows off Peter Cushing’s superior acting abilities just as well as any other entry with his portrayal of the evil doctor at his most complex. Jimmy Sangster’s script lavished with strong characterization is evident here. With a cunningly contradictive personality, Frankenstein uses communication skills to best suit his needs as he strives to fulfil his obsession of perfecting the creation of a human being. He shows a subtle unassuming nature. He hides his disdain for his elite medical peers of the council by being very polite as so not to attract any more unwanted attention from them other than their jealousy, which might interfere with his experiments and uncover his identity. On the surface, he appears to want to take care of his poverty-stricken patients. However, his practice is just a front as he uses it as a way of getting a continuing supply of body parts. He does show though a great genuine concern for his two partners especially towards Karl in wanting to repay him for saving his life. Compared to his mean spirited performance in ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ he is more sympathetic.
If there is another two performances other than Cushing’s that really stands out it is the supporting roles of Quitak as the deformed dwarf Karl and even more so playing the same character in Karl’s new body Michael Gwynn. When the transplantation of Karl’s brain into his handsome new body proves an initial success we are sadden by his panic-stricken reaction to the news that he will be a medical marvel and that people from all over the world will want to come and see him. Frightened by this as he has had people stare at him his whole life and he only wants to live a normal one he escapes the hospital. He goes to Frankenstein’s laboratory and destroys the evidence by burning his old deformed body in a furnace. A drunken caretaker discovers Karl and attacks him thinking he is a burglar. Karl’s brain damaged after many severe blows results in him turning homicidal and he kills the caretaker.
He develops a hunger for cannibalism a side effect of a brain transplant that Karl witnessed involving the laboratory’s caged chimpanzee. Another side effect with the primate was that his brain could not forget how the previous body functioned and Karl himself starts to experience problems with his arm and leg, which was the same great difficulty he had with his previous body. He also commits another murder and his deformities start to return. Never have any of Frankenstein’s creatures in this series drawn so much sympathy from the audience than this one, at least not again until ‘Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed’. Nonetheless, Karl is a truly tragic character here and the performance really tugs on our heartstrings.
It is a well-paced movie and Fisher directs some truly memorable scenes of drama. There is an unforgettable moment when Gwynn’s Kyle comes bursting through a ballroom window crying out “Frankenstein, help me!” exposing Dr Stein for who he really is. The director also maintains the stylistic traits of colour schemes transcended from his original film. The cinematography, set designs and musical score are of the usual high standards of a Hammer production. In fact, as the movie was shot back to back with ‘The Horror of Dracula’ the same sets were used: Dracula’s crypt is Frankenstein’s surgery and the exterior of Dracula’s castle became Frankenstein’s laboratory on the outside.
‘The Revenge of Frankenstein’ holds its own alongside the very best in Hammer’s gothic horror dynasty. This is one of four great films in their Frankenstein series. How many of today’s horror franchises can you say contain four exceptional pieces of filmmaking? I bet you cannot name one.
**** out of ****
Dave J. Wilson
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