25 October 2009

Movie Review: The Revenge of Frankenstein

The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)
Directed by Terence Fisher. Starring Peter Cushing, Francis Matthews, Eunice Gayson, Michael Gwynn, Oscar Quitak.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) was an enormous hit for Hammer Film Productions; it ignited the entire Anglo-Gothic movie cycle and made Hammer into the house of technicolor terror. A sequel was inevitable, although the studio first did their take on Dracula. The Revenge of Frankenstein was shot back-to-back with Dracula (you can spy many re-dressed sets) and again featured the successful creative team of director Terence Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster.

If The Brides of Dracula (1960) is an unusual sequel to Dracula, then The Revenge of Frankenstein is an equally unusual follow-up to The Curse of Frankenstein. Both sequels dropped an important figure from the first movie: Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster respectively. Peter Cushing continued as the lead character in both films. Christopher Lee would return in the next Dracula film and star in every entry except the last, Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974). The Frankenstein films, arguably the most consistently high quality of all of Hammer’s series, would star Peter Cushing in all but one of the entries, The Horror of Frankenstein (1970), a horrible attempt at a re-boot. Each film presents an entirely new “monster,” often far-removed from audiences’ previous conceptions about Frankenstein’s Monster.

The real monster of the series is Dr. Frankenstein himself. The Curse of Frankenstein radically altered the misguided and short-sighted Victor Frankenstein of Shelley’s novel and the first two Universal movies into an ethically oblivious mad scientist who’ll gladly murder to achieve his ends. The doctor of The Revenge of Frankenstein is turned down a notch from the first movie; he doesn’t commit outright murder, but still has zero empathy for other people and is only concerned about his creation’s rampage because it might reveal his own identity to authorities. Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein isn’t a man who feels any guilt at all. He sees himself as a superior intellect, and to hell with all the small-minded folks who want to slow him down. Victor Frankenstein’s only regrets about the mayhem in The Curse of Frankenstein is that he didn’t do it better. For the sequel, he plans to do it “right.”

Since the previous movie concluded with the bad doctor on his way to the guillotine, the sequel has to address this in the first scene. Frankenstein marches to the scaffold, the blade rises up, and then a scuffle happens off-screen before the blade falls. When two grave robbers (classic Terence Fisher working-class Victorian-types, one played by the ubiquitous Michael Ripper) break open the Baron’s freshly planted coffin, they discover . . . the body of the officiating priest! Dr. Frankenstein arranged his escape and the priest-switch by making a deal with the executioner and a deformed prison-worker named Karl (Oscar Quitak, credited as “The Dwarf” in the end titles despite being of average height).

Three years pass, and Frankenstein sets up a new practice in the town of Carlsbrück under the name “Dr. Stein.” This may sound a touch transparent, but “Stein” is a very common German name. The doctor divides his medical practice between serving rich society women and charity work at a poor hospital that mostly serves the criminal dregs of the city. We all know that Dr. Frankenstein isn’t doing this work from the pureness of his heart, and another Carlsbrück doctor, young Hans Kleve (Francis Matthews) soon finds out the truth. Hans recognizes Frankenstein and asks if he can assist his work—with the hint of blackmail if Frankenstein turns him down. Oddly, this isn’t going where you think it might, with Frankenstein immediately finding a way to off Hans. He takes the young man under his supervision and shows him the ways of limb and brain transplants. Already, this is a much mellower doctor.

Frankenstein’s plan is to bring life to a perfect human body (played by Michael Gwynn) constructed from parts he has amputated and collected from the poor. He also has a willing live donor for the brain: Karl “The Dwarf,” who wants an escape from his crippled and paralyzed body.

The brain gets put in, the body is brought to life . . . and everything goes wrong, of course. Not only does the transplant not exactly “take” the way the two doctors planned, but the meddling of a society lady who works at the hospital (Eunice Gayson, soon to appear in Dr. No and be the first woman to coax the line “Bond, James Bond” from 007) frees the slowly-maddening Karl-monster onto the city.

Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster originally intended to have cannibalism play a major part in the story. One of the side-effects of the brain-transplant is that the new body develops a lust for human flesh. Dr. Frankenstein still talks about this, but it only gets hinted at in the action and never plays out. Hammer must have wanted to back away from going too grisly; they were already pushing the limits of 1958 with scenes of doctors tooling around with bloody brains and disembodied eyes and hands. The crazed actions of the Karl-monster instead seem like consequences of Karl’s original paralytic condition and his mental incapability to handle the body change. Michael Gwynn does a good job at contorting his face and limbs to show how his condition is worsening, but it’s never quite clear what is happening to him.

Many fans of Anglo-horror often consider The Revenge of Frankenstein the best of its series. I don’t agree; I prefer The Curse of Frankenstein and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), another Terence Fisher entry that really pushes Dr. Frankenstein into vile villain territory. The Revenge of Frankenstein starts too slowly, not building up a clear danger until late, and then abruptly pulling away from it. But it’s always interesting, and with a performer like Peter Cushing leading the way it contains wonderful shades. The scene of the Karl-monster viciously fighting the janitor (George Woodbridge, another Hammer regular) at Frankenstein’s lab, and then later crashing into a society party to find his creator, are vivid moments showing Terence Fisher doing what he did best. The finale, a clever dark joke that makes the pop-culture confusion between the doctor and his creation into an actual merging, is also played superbly. If The Revenge of Frankenstein doesn’t completely succeed with me, it does impress me with its willingness to go outside expectations. And, as a very young Hammer Horror, it’s bursting with colorful visuals and great Gothic sets. As the British poster proclaims, it’s in “Supernatural Technicolor”—which sounds like a special process, but it’s just the usual vibrant Hammer movie palette.

Although The Revenge of Frankenstein concludes with a situation that seems ripe for a direct sequel, it didn’t happen. The next film the series, The Evil of Frankenstein, would appear eight years later, and although Cushing played the title role, the script created an entirely new backstory that has no plot connection to either earlier film. It’s also the only entry in the series with a monster that resembles the one from the Universal movies. I quite like The Evil of Frankenstein and its unusual “Dr. Caligari” angle, which puts me at odds with common opinion, but that’s another review entirely.