A NOTE FROM THE DOC! Frequent readers of these reviews will know that this review was previously posted a while. However, along with Scars Of Dracula I’m reposting it now with some amendments and additions because I received a bunch of Hammer films newly released on Blu-ray by Studio Canal to review. Doc’s Journey Into Hammer Films will resume its chronological order afterwards, and look out for more reviews of the Studio Canal releases in the next few weeks!
AVAILABLE ON DOUBLEPLAY BLU-RAY AND DVD: NOW, from STUDIO CANAL
RUNNING TIME: 95 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
When his anatomical doodlings over a picture are confiscated by his teacher, teenage Victor Frankenstein avoids being caned by exploiting his teacher’s hypochondria. His father won’t give him the monmey for medical equipment, so he murders him by sabotaging the old man’s shotgun, consequently inheriting the title of Baron von Frankenstein and the family fortune. He uses the money to go to Vienna university, but is forced to return home when he impregnates the daughter of the Dean. In his own castle, he sets up a laboratory and, with fellow student Wilhelm, sets about researching the revival of dead tissue…
Though I’d seen it on TV a great many years ago, The Horror Of Frankenstein was the only Hammer Frankenstein that I hadn’t bothered to buy on DVD prior to my commencing of this Hammer project, and within twenty minutes or so of watching it I realised why. It just isn’t very good. In fact it’s really rather poor, mostly lacking in the Hammer style and feel and not replacing it with much else. Extremely cheap looking, almost entirely without atmosphere, and not seeming to even attempt to be frightening, it seems that the studio didn’t even try with this misbegotten attempt to reboot [though I don’t think that word was in use back then] the Frankenstein series. Certain moments in what is basically a remake of The Curse Of Frankenstein [with a touch or two of The Evil Of Frankenstein], do provide hints of the black comedy retelling which writer/director/producer Jimmy Sangster was supposedly aiming for, but they’re few and far between, and generally it all feels very half-hearted except for Ralph Bates’s really very good performance as the new Victor Frankenstein, an even more amoral, cold-hearted bastard than Peter Cushing’s [okay, Bates’s doesn’t stoop to rape, but some prefer to ignore that tacked-on scene in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed anyway]. Little horror, hardly any thrills, little sex despite all the womanising that Victor does, little suspense – this film just offers very little, and apart from one dreadfully tasteless joke at the end, you’d think it was still 1957.
While the 1969 Cushing-starring entry mentioned above was otherwise very good, its mediocre box office takings led Hammer to decide to start all over again with the series. TV writer Jeremy Burnham wrote a story outline for The Horrors Of Frankenstein which contained a far more exciting final reel than what was actually filmed, of the Monster running amuck in the nearby village followed by a more elaborate version of The Curse Of Frankenstein’s climax. Hammer then asked Jimmy Sangster to turn it into a screenplay. He refused, then they told him he could produce the film, something which Sangster said he’d do if he could also direct. He also lightened the script. This was the first Hammer horror not financed by American money, the studio now having to rely on British funding.. It was the at-the-time-very -powerful EMI conglomerate which agreed to fund this one and Scars Of Dracula. Publicity shots were released of Cushing shaking hands with Bates, handing over the reigns. David Prowse, who played the Monster, had actually gone into the Hammer offices to express his desire to portray one of their movie monsters in 1965 before being dismissed, and appeared briefly in the Universal-style Monster makeup in 1967’s Casino Royale. Shot in and around Elstree back to back with the Dracula film, the double bill did decent UK box office but not so much in the US, where it was picked up by American Continental Films, a small company who couldn’t give it the kind of wide release Paramount and Warners would have done.
The titles unfold over shots of Victor’s pen drawing anatomical lines over a nude picture while distinctly happy, summery music plays. At least I suppose you could say that we’re being warned of what is to follow. The first scenes are supposed to have Frankenstein and his friends as 16 year olds but no attempt is made to make them look any younger. After using his superior intelligence and some psychology to play upon the teacher’s neurosis to have the class dismissed early, he goes off for some fun with fellow student Maggie, then murders his mean father, though we barely see the incident. This is one odd thing about this film – there’s plenty of severed body parts but very little onscreen violence or gore despite it now being 1970 [and unlike its companion Dracula outing]. After a brief time spent in Vienna, the womanising scoundrel returns home to find him welcomed by housekeeper Alys, who warmed his father’s bed and who now also begins to warm his, while being ignorant of the fact that ex-fellow student Elisabeth is clearly in love with him. Eventually he does commence his experiments, but the film is asking for trouble when it has Bates utter a variant on one of Cushing’s lines: “I can’t see why, he had no further use for it”, in answer to why somebody would take a man’s head away.
Things progress casually, not quite boring the viewer but not being at all riveting either. Ideas from Curse are either copied [like the brain being damaged by glass], or elaborated on [Alys’s role is much like that of Justine’s in the earlier film but is more prominent and this time she isn’t pregnant but just knows too much], and the structure is virtually the same. Eventually, after an increasingly tedious hour which even Dennis Price and Joan Hart as a husband-and-wife grave robber team [she digs, then he removes whatever parts his customers need] can’t save, the Monster wakes up and soon proves useful to have around when folk are no longer needed and may give the game away, though the female grave robber seems astoundingly stupid not to wonder why Victor is insisting so much that she takes: “The short cut through the woods”. Then there’s that odd bit when the Monster enters a house and we think he may have molested a small child: “He hurt me… nasty monster”, she cries, yet right at the end, after the Monster has been accidently dispatched off screen, she says “He was a nice monster really”. I’m guessing that we’re supposed to laugh, though I’m not really sure. Either way, it’s horribly misjudged. I did chuckle at a severed hand sticking two fingers up at Victor, and a comical electrocution, though Victor, who’s numbered all his body parts, imagining seeing a number 25 on the face of a victim-to-be, is just hopeless. Sangster just isn’t good at this sort of thing; while considering how there’s no attempt to create fear, there should have been far more laughs as otherwise these moments jar.
But then Sangster, who can certainly be held partly responsible for the success of Hammer Horror in the first place with his scripts for Curse, Dracula and others, just doesn’t seem to have a handle on the material. He doesn’t even give us an interesting Monster – he’s just a murderous brute with no pathos whatsoever – yet neither is he scary looking, just a big ugly bald man. Prowse barely acts, though he’s not really given any opportunity to. On the other hand I do like the portrayal of Frankenstein, who can’t even be bothered to try to save some people from highwaymen until his friend goes ahead to try on his own. As interested in sex as creating life, this Victor is clearly inspired by Cushing’s in the first film but is far more arrogant and Bates, perhaps building on his brief portrayal of Lord Courtley in Taste The Blood Of Dracula, does convince in the part and almost succeeds in making this film good in a few places but not quite. Then again, it’s clear that either the budget for this one was terribly low, or that the expertise Hammer used to have in making a meagre budget stretch far was gone. Interiors are dull and uninteresting, and even most of the outdoor scenes seem to be shot on highly obvious sets, while there was obviously neither no time or inclination to make the fakery artistic or even turn it into a blessing as, say, Mario Bava would have done. Everything just feels claustrophobic in the wrong way and looks flat and TV-like, in fact even some of the dialogue sounds tinny the way it often tended to sound in TV, and I’m talking TV from the 1950’s and 1960’s. Little care seems to have been given to this film.
At least it’s nice to see the gorgeous Veronica Carlson in her final appearance for Hammer, though her simpering, love-struck fool wasn’t a good character to go out on, and it’s a shame that none of her Hammer parts were especially interesting. Kate O’ Mara, who’d also been in The Vampire Lovers, is quite good in her part though again is undone a bit by the script which doesn’t really bother to try to make her role into an actual person. Harry Williamson’s score is decent if unmemorable. It sometimes seems overly cheerful though there are some exciting moments, and I wouldn’t blame him if he wasn’t sure how to approach the film. A tuba motif for the Monster is reminiscent of one in The Ghost Of Frankenstein. Generally there’s no getting away from it: The Horror Of Frankenstein is shoddy, misjudged and even rather dull. I’m finding so much to admire, appreciate and even love in the majority of these films even watching them with a more critical eye, but there were definitely times when Hammer really did get it wrong, and this was one of them.
It’s a shame that the first chronologically of the Studio-Canal Hammers on Blu-ray is such a poor film, but I have no complaints whatsoever on the presentation of the film. The same company released a few Hammers a few years ago and the releases were supposedly plagued with problems, but on the evidence of this particular disc that won’t happen this time. The transfer almost improves the dreary look of the film, and I was especially impressed with the skin tones on this one. Bravo Studio Canal! Sadly they weren’t able to carry over the good-ish Jimmy Sangster commentary on some of the DVDs, but there’s a good 18-minute featurette Gallows Humor: Inside The Horror Of Frankenstein where familiar Hammer scholars Jonathan Rigby and Alan Barnes are joined two film historians I hadn’t heard of before, Kevin Lyons and John J. Johnston. Each has a very different way of speaking which makes for a nice mix, and none other than Veronica Carlson appears a few times, looking amazingly good for her age and admitting that she didn’t like Hammer’s humorous approach to the film. There’s the odd background fact that I didn’t know so it’s certainly worth watching even if you read all of the above review, and Barnes really seems to like the film. Maybe one day I will, and as a Hammer lover I did own it on video and then DVD, so considering that this release is the best one so far of this film, on balance I’d still it’s probably something that die hard fans need to buy, but certainly not casual fans or newcomers!
*new featurette: Gallows Humour: Inside The Horror of Frankenstein