The first sequel to the groundbreaking The Curse of Frankenstein - the film that absolutely secured Hammer Studios as the home for top-notch Gothic horror with cutting-edge gore effects in the late 1950s and early 1960s - took scarcely more than a year to reach theaters. A sign of greed, you might think; a sign of a studio seeing that they had a great thing and immediately running it into the ground. Nay, says I, for 1958's The Revenge of Frankenstein is a brilliant sequel, one of the most sophisticated and intelligent follow-ups to a horror classic that has ever been put to film; probably the single best horror sequel since Universal's Bride of Frankenstein, ironically enough, 23 years prior. Like its illustrious predecessor, The Revenge of Frankenstein is not just a worthy sequel to a truly excellent monster film; it is arguably even better than the already exceptional original (and one must point out that, unlike Bride, the makers of Revenge didn't get there by adding a huge dose of infectious, charming camp to what had been a deadly-serious horror scenario).
It starts almost to the second where Curse left off: Baron Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing), having been convicted of the crimes committed by the animate patchwork corpse he'd created, is about to be guillotined. So, alright, not exactly where the first one ended: that film of course suggested that Frankenstein was thought to be crazy, with all his babbling talk of an undead monster that had murdered so many people. But the little tweak ends up doing quite a lot of good for Revenge, so let's all be friends about it - and about the quiet indication at the end of the first movie that Frankenstein had been set up by his colleague and his fiancée, now apparently lovers. Because that would have led to a much wimpier revenge than the one we ultimately get, in which Frankenstein's wrath is not against any specific person who has wronged him, but against the cynical, skeptical, hand-wringingly moral community of scientists who have dismissed him as mad.
That's moving quite far ahead of what is an outstanding pair of opening scenes: even from the first static shot playing underneath the opening credits, a massively canted and quite Expressionist image of a guillotine against a weakening sky, being prepared for the imminent execution. When it comes the haggard Frankenstein is taciturn, as he well might be: he's endeavored to buy off the guards, who kill the priest reading the condemned man his last rites (though we aren't immediately shown this, instead having the image skillfully hidden by a dramatic tilt away from the action). Frankenstein and one of his new assistants, Karl (Oscar Quitak), return to steal the priest's body and dispose of the shambling Cockney grave-robber who dug the corpse up, and sneak off into the foggy dark night, which is oh so foggy, and oh so dark.
Three years pass; Frankenstein is now situated in Carlsbrück, Germany, operating under the name of Stein. A tricksy and wholly convincing nom de crime. Here, has has effortlessly become the most beloved doctor and chirurgeon in town, angering the local board of medical elders; but they are no match for "Stein's" rakish good looks or generosity of spirit, which brings him to the local poor population for free care - even free amputations when it's clear that their dissolute lifestyles have left them with an arm or leg that no longer works and may indeed present a threat to the owner's life. Hell, he's even willing to take limbs that don't apparently have anything wrong with them, such a paragon of charity he is!
We take all of 0.3 seconds to figure out why he wants those body parts, and we're only slightly ahead of the young Carlsbrück doctor Hans Kleve (Francis Matthews), who recognises Frankenstein immediately and- no, he does not threaten to reveal the wicked doctor's identity. In fact, he wants nothing more than to serve as Frankenstein's devoted assistant, soaking up all the knowledge he can of the power to create life from nothingness. And from here I will say no more of the plot, save that, if your only exposure to the Frankenstein mythos is the Universal series, or even the much more recent abortion by Kenneth Branagh, things don't go where you expect them to.
Its relatively innovative narrative - and I say "relatively"; it's still a Frankenstein film, and that obviously means that the titular doctor is going to bring a dead body to life, and it's not going to go altogether well - sets The Revenge of Frankenstein on a level rarely achieved by mad scientist pictures, horror films, or sequels generally: it is in no way the safe, obvious recap of the original that even the divine Bride was (we might uncharitably but not therefore inaccurately call that one "Frankenstein done over again with the gayest man in Ruritania as the villain"), but a sometimes tremendously unintuitive extension of the themes and and character arc that made Curse such a treat in the first place. As before, the chief draw of the film is Cushing's revelatory turn as Victor Frankenstein, conspicuously not played as a mad genius looking to play God, but as a consummate, morally bankrupt scientist, for whom the act of research is the only thing worth pursuing in life. With the whole first movie as the assumed background, the filmmakers and Cushing push ever deeper into Frankenstein's stunted mind, this time playing him against a younger, more charismatic version of himself, in the form of Kleve.
It's instructive to think of this character alongside Cushing's other big-deal performance in the summer of '58: Van Helsing in Hammer's first Dracula film, who like Frankenstein is an implacable man of science. The two characters, save for their intellectual rigor, could not be further apart: Van Helsing is all humanism and affection and self-abnegating bravery in contrast to Frankenstein's chilly, soulless tinkering with dead flesh. Besides showcasing just how damn versatile Cushing could be, the gap between the two films serves to set off just how invested the Frankenstein films were in exploring the lead character's warped but coherent mind. Van Helsing is a generic commonplace done terribly well in a terribly great vampire picture; Frankenstein is the rich and troubling centerpiece of an outstandingly nuanced character study in horror-picture clothes. When, ignorant of all hypocrisy, he snaps at Kleve for lacking a sense of human behavior (it's especially hypocritical in context); when he cheerfully saws off a perfectly healthy arm on the grounds that the poor don't deserve it, or stares at a powerfully rich mother of an eligible young lady with all-encompassing indifference, on the grounds that the rich are assholes; when he unhurriedly gets ready to die in the hope of escaping an angry mob; Frankenstein is something grandly intelligent and terrifyingly inhuman, played with just the right amount of dry amusement by Cushing that it's almost impossible not to be suckered into liking the bastard, despite the copious evidence that we shouldn't.
Cushing's performance would be enough to justify The Revenge of Frankenstein all these decades later; but he has behind him all the apparatus of Hammer Studios in its first flush of brilliance, to boot, including what might be, pound for pound, the finest cast in any of Hammer's Gothic films. Matthews, a studio regular, is infinitely better here than in anything else I've seen, playing off of Cushing's energy, perhaps; Eunice Gayson makes a fairly credible stab at the always thankless role of The Sex; women in Hammer films are noted neither for their dramatic necessity nor their psychological credibility, and yet Gayson almost manages to put across the feeling of a real person. But the best in show honors (after Cushing, naturally), must go to Michael Gwynn, playing this film's monster: and a very different monster than we're used to, one that hews a great deal closer to Mary Shelley's notion that the creature is articulate and highly self-aware. He's playing a version of another character, and he does it with excellent mimcry, but that's not the half of it. The performance, aided by little makeup and less "stalking and terrorising" drama, is full of tragedy and pathos, from his disgusted and heartrbroken consideration of his brain's old body, to the miserable "Help me, Frankenstein!" that he shrieks in his final scene. It is an immensely different take on the Frankensteinian creature than cinema had ever seen in 1958, and can, in its own way, stack up even to Boris Karloff's legendary performance.
The behind the scenes talent is much the same, meanwhile, as the crackerjack team that put together The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula - not to mention, the film was put together on some of the Dracula sets, redressed to look mostly unrecognisable. Tthe fact that the sets had to do double duty means that they were built quite a bit sturdier than in the first film, and look a great deal more evocative and moody than in the first film.
Back is the great, criminally underappreciated director Terence Fisher, continuing to skillfully wield his actors as just one element in the haunting, noir-meets-Victoriana vision that characterises all Hammer films, but Fisher's best of all; back is Jack Asher, ace cinematographer, whose use of murky, cobwebby shadows in every corner lends The Revenge of Frankenstein a grimy feel not entirely present in the original (one suspects that he was still stuck in Dracula mode); back, most importantly, is Jimmy Sangster, with one of his strongest screenplays ever, an impeccably smooth flow of incidents that hang together in exactly the right order, even when it's not the one you'd quite expect (for example, he delays a brief conversation about the effects of transferring an orangutan brain into a chimp - effects that are scientifically nonsensical even by the standards of Gothic horror, but whatever - to give it maximum dramatic impact, without seeming to be delaying it), and altogether being much smarter, and fuller of character and narrative cohesion than you'd expect from a movie with Frankenstein in the title. Effortlessly tying this film in with its predecessor, so that you'd never think they weren't written as one whole object, and leaving an ending that could in one swoop lead to a sequel or end on mystifying certainty, it's about as tight a horror screenplay as you could ever hope for; heavier with ideas than with scares, perhaps, but who in the 21st Century looks to 1950s horror for scares? Besides there's plenty of unexpectedly graphic gore effects for that, bright red stumps in that eerie, bright Eastmancolor of the first wave of Hammer horror.
Moreover, Sangster's scenario is absolutely uncompromising: bleaker by far than anything Hammer had yet produced, the world of this Revenge is entirely defined by Frankenstein's sour, hateful perspective. Curse was content to observe him as its protagonist; the sequel is yoked to his worldview, and that is a thrillingly uncomfortable place to be, with its class anger in both directions, its disdainful misogyny, and its blithe contempt for human life. There's something tremendously relieving when we aren't standing over his shoulder; and yet the character as written and played is so absorbing that it's exhilarating, in a black way, to spend that much time in the anti-hero's mind.
Frankly, it's about as close as Hammer ever came to an outright masterpiece: great mood combining with outstanding performances and writing, and at 89 minutes, the film understands the value of not screwing around. It is one of the great horror films, then and now, unerringly assembled by talented craftsmen who weren't looking to redefine cinema, and didn't; but in no small way, The Revenge of Frankenstein helped to set in stone the high standard of excellence that kept Hammer at the forefront of genre filmmaking for almost ten years; though Dracula probably did more to catapult the studio to financial acclaim, and it's great all around, Revenge trumps it across the board. Not an accident, I think, that when it came time for Dracula's own sequel two years later, it followed the Frankenstein mold of giving Peter Cushing's scientist the center stage, at the expense of the iconic Christopher Lee monster from the original.
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)