27 October 2010

FRANKENSTEIN'S TWO-HEADED MONSTER

The two major horror franchises born at Hammer Studios in the 1950s shared, for their first few entries, a curious number of similarities: in both cases, the first entry (The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula), directed by Terence Fisher from a Jimmy Sangster script, gave us Peter Cushing as the protagonist and Christopher Lee as the villain with hardly any screentime. The first sequel for each (The Revenge of Frankenstein and The Brides of Dracula), re-teaming Fisher and Sangster, dropped Lee's character to focus on Cushing's, and this led to a long period of dormancy. For both series, the next sequel came out after a six-year gap, with Lee's character returning (sort of; and thereon hangs a tale).

From here, I can no longer connect the two: for while the 1966 Dracula: Prince of Darkness (from the Fisher/Sangster duo) is a pretty great vampire movie, and I'd at least entertain the argument that it's the best of all Hammer's Dracula pictures, its analogue, 1964's The Evil of Frankenstein is not pretty great. It's pretty wan and spotty, in fact, though probably not as bad as the most rabid Hammer fanatics would have you believe. Certainly, it is a stunningly terrible sequel to Curse and Revenge, owing in no small part to the absence of both Fisher and Sangster from the creative team: they were replaced by Freddie Francis, whose work as director was never nearly as important as his career as a gifted, award-winning cinematographer (this was one of his earliest directorial efforts), and Anthony Hinds, the genius producer who did more than any other individual to bring Hammer to its heights, writing under his customary pseudonym "John Elder" - and by no means do I want to imply that Hinds/Elder was some kind of untalented hack. In point of fact, he was responsible for writing some truly excellent Hammer productions, and he managed to keep the Dracula franchise from sinking into out-and-out shit longer than anyone could fairly have expected.

Still, his first effort in the Frankenstein series was not one of his more solid efforts: lacking even the slightest trace of continuity with the earlier two, so tightly unified by Sangster's genius, although we could perhaps forgive this if it were the only problem. Continuity was hardly the hallmark of the Dracula films, to say nothing of Universal's cycle of movies in the 1930s and '40s with the same characters, and some of those turned out just fine. But that's not the only problem: The Evil of Frankenstein is littered with internal inconsistencies, lazy character motivations, and a dramatic arc that goes nowhere and does nothing. Then there are the non-script issues; but since I've started down this road, I'll continue.

At first, it seems like this might be a straightforward, if sloppy, continuation of The Revenge of Frankenstein: in an isolated woodland cabin, a dead body laid out for its funeral is stolen by a nasty little man (Tony Arpino), who is being secretly watched by an even more shadowy figure, revealed to us only briefly as the infamous Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing). Frankenstein has commissioned this body snatching, and after paying off the horrid little man, he and his assistant Hans - you remember Hans, from the last movie? The promising doctor who grew fascinated with Frankenstein's research and became his aide? The one who revived the baron after a mob of angry amputees beat him to death? Well, this isn't him, it doesn't seem, because he's substantially younger (and played now by Sandor El├Ęs, with a pronounced accent found nowhere in Francis Matthews's performance), and he seems to know little of Frankenstein's work. Which, right now, involves plunging the dead man's heart into a chamber of liquid, and massaging it until it starts beating on its own. This delights Frankenstein - until a meanie priest (James Maxwell) bursts in and wrecks the laboratory. Barely escaping, Frankenstein and Hans journey to the Baron's old home in Karlstaad, where he hopes to recover some of the fine art that he left behind when he was chased out, to sell it and thus pay to continue his research.

It's clear enough by now that any sort of real continuity between The Evil of Frankenstein and its predecessors is not on the table, but even so, the opening of this film is pretty damn good. The opening body snatching is impeccably moody, staged by Francis so that even though we know exactly who wants the corpse and why, it's still mysterious and unsettling what's going on. And it's all tremendously handsome: the Hammer Gothic aesthetic had been refined enough after the experiments in the late '50s that the dusty basement where Frankenstein conducts his hellish work is perhaps more convincing than any single set in either of the preceding movies. And Cushing's curt demeanor coupled with his scientific zeal is excellent, though not really at all the way he'd played the character before. Yessir, if this first scene were really the caliber of The Evil of Frankenstein, we'd all have quite a great movie on our hands.

Instead, the movie dives headlong into a flashback sequence that starts to explain just how wrong things could go, and why. Recalling to Hans why he had to flee Karlstaad, Frankenstein recounts the story of his artificial man, who escaped from the lab and went on a spree killing sheep (yes, sheep), until the local police forced it off of a cliff, and brought Frankenstein up on charges of it's not quite clear. First things first: I admire Francis and Hinds for conceiving of this lengthy sequence without dialogue. It gives it a hazy, pantomime feel, reflecting both the distant quality of the memories, and giving them a certain legendary scope.

The thing is, we get our first great look at Frankenstein's first monster here, and let's just say, it's not the mass of scar tissue and rot that Christopher Lee so memorably embodied seven years prior. Here's what happened: in between 1958 and 1964, Hammer entered into a distribution partnership with Universal Studios, which meant that the injunction against using anything remotely like the iconic makeup or set design that made Universal's Frankenstein a masterpiece had been lifted. Hammer made the most of this by copying the general design mentality behind Frankenstein's lab, and by recasting Frankenstein's monster to look somewhat like the legendary 1931 version created by Jack P. Pierce.

Somewhat.

The movie could be a stone-cold masterpiece of horror in every possible way but one, and that one would still be enough to more or less ruin the whole thing. Because this, dear reader, is what Hammer's best and brightest could pull together when using all of their not-insubstantial resources to pay tribute to the most famous monster design in cinema history:

It looks like a joke. It's so terrifically false - so inflexible, so rubbery, I honestly thought the first time we see the monster's eye in close-up, that his face was covered in some kind of swaddling. But no. It's just the make-up. And that shot, by virtue of being somewhat dark, hides the worst of it:

I can't imagine the filmmakers thought this was acceptable; I must assume that they just didn't have the time to get it right. At any rate, the film is stuck with that make-up hatchet job, and there's just no getting around how much that, by itself, drags The Evil of Frankenstein down. I have the most urgent pity for actor Kiwi Kingston, who had the damnable job of making that look alive and threatening.

Back to the plot: Frankenstein and Hans arrive in Karlstaad on a carnival day that looks rather more like the 1920s than the 19th Century, and sneak past anyone who might recognise the doctor to find his abandoned chateau, which has been stripped. A subsequent trip to town reveals that it was the burgomaster (David Hutcheson), who did most of the stripping. Right about now, Frankenstein is discovered, and the two mad scientists flee, finding refuge in the cave where a mute beggar girl (Katy Wild) lives when she's not be tormented by the locals. There, trapped in a permanent glacier, who should they find but the monster? And while Frankenstein is able to resurrect it, he can't bring it to consciousness. Back to the village, where he offers a deal to the only man more hated in Karlstaad than he is: the hypnotist Zoltan (Peter Woodthorpe). The theory goes that Zoltan can just mesmerise the monster into consciousness, which would seem like so much hot air to me, except that it works, with the ugly side effect that Zoltan alone can control the creature, and he has revenge on his mind. Cue the rampage, ending in a storm of villagers with pitchforks and torches.

Ice caves? Carnivals? Shady gypsy hypnotists? Raging mob? Frankenstein recast as something a lot more sympathetic and even heroic? This, as so many people have pointed out, is no Hammer Frankenstein film at all: it's a distaff Universal sequel, to go along with the distaff Universal visuals. It is, truthfully, better than a lot of the Universal movies: by no yardstick is The Evil of Frankenstein not greater by several orders of magnitude than the wobbly The Ghost of Frankenstein, or even more dubiously, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. But the genial corniness that is so much a part of the DNA of the later Universal horror films is a deadly mismatch to the refined savagery that was Hammer's bread and butter in 1964. The Evil of Frankenstein never comes within a country mile of resolving this essential conflict in its personality.

Simply put, Hinds didn't really think about what he was writing: a half-baked Frankenstein cobbler is the result. Lest I imply that this is all because the film is halfway between the Universal and Hammer narrative traditions, I should make it clear: the script is a mess. The financial crisis that spurs Frankenstein to visit Karlstaad in the first place is conveniently forgotten as soon as possible; this is the most glaring continuity error in a film pockmarked by smaller issues. It's also marked by a collection of desperately flat characters, which isn't altogether a problem, except that the first two films had spoiled us with their exceedingly full, complex depiction of Frankenstein himself.

Deprived of such a dense role, Cushing puts forth nowhere near the effort he did in the last two; but he's still Peter Cushing, and that counts for a lot. Unfortunately, he is surrounded by the sort of bland twerps that came to characterise the Hammer stock company in the second half of the 1960s: Woodthorpe is not remotely credible as a villain, nor are Hutcheson and Duncan Lamont (as the chief of police) believable opponents to Cushing's resolve. Poor Kiwi Kingston I mentioned already; but it's worth going back and just saying it again: poor, poor Kiwi Kingston.

At least the film looks like a Hammer production, though cinematographer John Wilcox (not one of the studio's regulars) isn't so adept at capturing the uncomfortably oversaturated colors that made the best of them look so lush. He is, though, a deft hand at the deep shadows and Expressionist angles that typify Hammer's Gothic films; between himself and Freddie Francis, they do a fine job of replicating the grim, rich atmosphere for which Hammer remains best known, though there's the odd scene here and there that's unattractively overlit.

That's not enough, of course: there are plenty of films that have that Hammer feeling, if that Hammer feeling is all you want. Without a tighter, darker story, and without any stronger central performance than Cushing's phoned-in parody of his own classic role, The Evil of Frankenstein simply does not work as well as most of its contemporaries, though it's not as aggressively bad as the studio's early-'70s lunges at relevance, and not as hateful as its most ardent detractors suggest. Still, I am glad that after this one-off failure, Terence Fisher returned to the series, this time never to depart.

A last point: that title is oddly inappropriate for a story in which Frankenstein objectively does less evil than in either of the preceding movies, don't you think?

Reviews in this series
The Curse of Frankenstein (Fisher, 1957)
The Revenge of Frankenstein (Fisher, 1958)
The Evil of Frankenstein (Francis, 1964)
Frankenstein Created Woman (Fisher, 1967)
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (Fisher, 1969)
Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (Fisher, 1974)

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