Monday, October 16, 2017

Dr. Frankenstein, I Presume

Peter Cushing and Francis Matthews in The Revenge of Frankenstein

It seems inconceivable to me that I'd never seen The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958, directed by Terence Fisher) before this week. I spent a lot of my youth watching Hammer films, particularly the Dracula series, yet this one somehow escaped me and I'm poorer for it. I know why I missed it. It's because a short passage in Carlos Clarens's An Illustrated History of the Horror Movie dismissed the film out of hand. Clarens noted that it was released on a double bill with Curse of the Demon, suggesting that Curse towers over The Revenge of Frankenstein, "which, in a wink, it eclipsed." It's hard to recover from that kind of dismissal. I think it's been in the back of my mind whenever The Revenge of Frankenstein has been presented to me. So I ignored the film for years. This is totally unfair to the film. I mean, Curse of the Demon is a masterpiece and you can't really compare any less than masterpiece to it and hope to have a fair comparison, but there's nothing inherently bad about The Revenge of Frankenstein. It's a handsome film. In its way, it might be the best of the Hammer Frankensteins, which is admittedly faint praise.

Peter Cushing in The Revenge of Frankenstein

The film opens with Baron Frankenstein's execution for the crimes he committed in The Curse of Frankenstein. The good Baron is brought to the guillotine, but it's not his head that rolls. His assistant, Karl, has paid off the executioner, who murders the priest giving last rites instead. Frankenstein makes off to Germany, where he takes up a popular private practice to finance his experiments, and tends to the charity ward where he finds his raw materials. The local medical board is suspicious of him, given that "Dr. Stein" has scorned their entreaties to join them,. One member of the board, Dr. Kleve recognizes him. Instead of turning him in to the authorities, Kleve approaches Frankenstein to take him on as an apprentice. He wants to know what Frankenstein knows. Frankenstein has been up to his usual experiments, building a body for his assistant, Karl, whose own body is misshapen and paralyzed. Karl will donate his brain for transplantation, an operation that comes off as a success at first. But Karl gets into it with the ruffians at the charity ward and winds up damaged before his body has completely engaged its new brain. He begins to deteriorate. His crimes unmask Frankenstein, who must content with angry mobs himself. Fortunately, Frankenstein has built a new body for himself, and Dr. Kleve now knows the procedure....

Peter Cushing and Francis Matthews in The Revenge of Frankenstein

There's an early shot in this film where, having frightened a graverobber into a heart attack, Baron Frankenstein bends over him to take his pulse. Peter Cushing looks back on his assistant and gives a little sideward cant of his head as if to say, "What can you do?" This shot encapsulates both Frankenstein's disdain for his fellow human beings, his arrogance, and his charm. There's another scene a bit later when Dr. Kleve intrudes on Frankenstein's private quarters. Kleve says, "You must pardon the intrusion," to which Frankenstein replies, "Must I?" Given who he is and of what he is capable, the threat is subtle. Cushing's dry line delivery is deliciously ambiguous. This is the core of what makes The Revenge of Frankenstein watchable. Cushing was never better in the role. His arrogance and his malevolence are a stark contrast to the moral rectitude he played as Van Helsing in the Dracula films. The other actors play familiar types. Francis Matthews seems a bit too clean cut to be a mad labs assistant, but here he is. Michael Gwynn's Karl seems a bit to healthy to be as desperate for a new body as he is. Eunice Gayson doesn't even get a romantic part in spite of being positioned for one. It's fun to spot Michael Ripper in his first Hammer Horror role, but he's sidelined very quickly. The supporting roles in this film are thankless. This is Cushing's film all the way through. There are no other actors to challenge him here.

Michael Gwynn in The Revenge of Frankenstein

This is one of Terence Fisher's most attractive films. True, it's hampered a bit by filming on Hammer's all too familiar Bray Studio sets, but the director makes the most of them. Jack Asher's cinematography lights the film in a way that distinguishes it from the more lurid designs of the vampire films, and Fisher knows where to put the camera to make the most of his actors. The scenes in the charity hospital look suitably grim, while the society ball near the end is lush and eye-pleasing. The conception of the monster here precludes the kind of walking accident victim of The Curse of Frankenstein and relies on performance and lighting more than anything. His time on stage is very brief, but the monster in Hammer's version of Frankenstein never really was the point. Hammer chose to center their film on the good doctor rather than on his creation(s). While there's a rich vein of material to mined from such a conception, one can't help but feel that these films are a bit unbalanced, that they don't provide the red meat for their audience, to say nothing of the other side of the moral argument one finds in Mary Shelly. Still, if you're looking for red meat, this film provides some. The apparatus with the eyeballs and the severed forearm is ghastly enough, as are the shenanigans with the doctor's latest spare part, an arm with an elaborate tattoo emblazoned upon it. This last shows a deficiency in the screen play, because the arm with the tattoo is set up to be a version of Chekhov's
Gun, the telling detail that will give away Frankenstein's plan in the end. The gun is never fired. The plot point is never triggered. That's this film's screenplay all over. There's a blackmail plot seeded in the first half of the film that never develops, there's a romance that never develops. Jimmy Sangster may have written a much longer screenplay where these elements bear fruit, but like most Hammer films, this one constrains its running time to a mere hour and a half. Fortunately, film is a director's medium and Fisher glosses over the defects in the script with nary a backwards glance. The Revenge of Frankenstein is a perfectly fine horror movie as it is, tantalizing hints of what it could have been and all, and if you don't demand that it be more than it is then its pleasures mostly outweigh its faults.

There are some more screen caps at my movie tumblr, The Cinema Panopticon.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 3

First Time Viewings: 1

(It's actually a bit more than this. I'm just running behind on writing about things at the moment).

Christianne Benedict on Patreon
This blog is supported on Patreon by wonderful subscribers. If you like what I do, please consider pledging your own support. It means the world to me.

No comments: