The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)
Dir. Terrance Fisher
Written by Jimmy Sangster
Starring Peter Cushing, Francis Matthew, Eunice Gayson, Michael Gwyn
This solid, surprising direct follow-up to the original CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN --the first of Hammer’s horror series-- finds our nominal hero Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing again) an apparently changed fellow, seeming to have found a balance between his maniacal pursuit of science and helping his fellow man. Well, within reason, anyway. Turns out he escaped the guillotine that seemed to spell his doom in the last movie by paying off his guards to execute a priest instead. But fuck that guy, he looked like an asshole, he was probably diddling little kids or something, you don’t know. You can’t prove he wasn’t. All I’m saying is that if he wasn’t diddling kids, why isn’t he on the record denying it? Besides, let’s all be frank here, rich people are guaranteed at least one freebie murder every time they make a major life change.* So let’s all go into this new chapter with an open mind and see if Dr. Frankenstein learned a lesson about not being such a murderous corpse-snatching egomaniacal monster.
And indeed, things look pretty good at first. Under the clever assumed name of Dr. Frank N. Stein, Victor is now a popular doctor practicing in some backwater German town where everyone is named “Hans.” He’s doing so well that the local conspiracy of doctors wants to push him out for stealing all their patients. But we’re on his side, because he’s got a pretty good thing going, practicing medicine on rich, swooning women who want to get in his pants and then taking the money and using it to fund his free clinic for the poor. He’s like a medical Robin Hood, if Robin Hood also occasionally stole a body part or two for shady unorthodox medical experiments. Which isn’t in the Disney version, I’m pretty sure, but it’s been awhile since I read the original so maybe that’s in there too, I don’t know. Again, teach the controversy.
|Gentlemen, arm yourselves.|
But still, it’s hard to get too mad at him because even his nefarious brain-swapping body-snatching experiments are for a good cause: he’s trying to to give his capable but crippled assistant Karl (Michael Gwyn, Hermes in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS) a new and more capable body, and --get this-- with Karl’s consent! That sounds like a pretty justifiable reason for all the secrecy and organ-harvesting. In fact, it’s such impressive work that one young doctor named Hans (Francis Matthew, I think playing the same character who reappears in THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN) actually quits the doctor conspiracy to work with Victor. Also there’s a girl (Eunice Gayson, Sylvia Trench in DR. NO and FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE) in there somewhere, because lord knows you can’t have a Frankenstein movie without some heaving bosoms. These she supplies more than adequately, but the character has exactly nothing else to do.
At first, things go pretty well with the brain transplant. Karl is overwhelmingly happy to have a new body, and the procedure is an unmitigated success. I mean, this is a really fucking great thing Victor has done; Karl was a shy, highly intelligent man trapped in a crippled body that was keeping him for pursuing his dreams. One of the first things he does with his new body is take his old body and dump it in the furnace, and his sense of ecstasy and release at being given a chance at a new life is actually quite moving. Obviously, Victor’s motivations here are not wholly altruistic; he’s still much more interested in science than he is people. But so what? He’s gotta be the world’s nicest guy for his scientific breakthrough to be important? Fuck that, Victor has done more for this one guy than anyone could have imagined possible, even today. This is the happiest fucking Frankenstein story ever.
|Trapped in a glass box of emotion.|
As Karl adjusts to his new body, things go well... at first. Then they keep going well. And then they keep going well for awhile more. The problem with this movie is that it’s perfectly well made, and full of interesting ideas… but not very much actual horror. It’s a strong production (one of Hammer’s finest, in my opinion, full of great, evocative and detailed sets) and a terrific build up which unfortunately never really goes anywhere. Director Terence Fisher --so essential to the success and soul of Hammer's horror series-- does everything he can, but simply cannot overcome the script's lack of conflict. Eventually, at maybe the last 15 minutes, things start to go off the rails, and a series of random coincidences result in poor Karl’s new body going downhill. But it’s honestly more tragic than horrific; I think only one person dies, and it’s a minor character, off-screen and bloodlessly. Where is the horror movie here, I ask?
I assume the point is that it’s really Victor who’s the monster here; we’re supposed to be horrified and appalled by his coldly scientific approach to life, and deeply uncomfortable with his radical experiments on the body and brain. But I dunno, I’m pretty much on team Victor here. This is a medical breakthrough with staggering implications, and the idea that we should be horrified because it seems kinda icky is a little shortsighted in my humble opinion. There’s an irritating implication that he should never be “playing around in God’s realm” or “there are things man was not meant to know.” Bullshit. Frankenstein is an amoral obsessive, but so are lots of great geniuses, and at least on this particular adventure he’s really not hurting anyone, in fact he’s making a lot of lives a lot better on a number of different levels. Karl gets his desperately desired new body, poor people get free medical care, rich women get to flirt with sexy Peter Cushing. Everybody wins! You think Watson and Crick were the world’s warmest fuzziest teddybears ever? Ask Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin about that. Victor’s not a particularly nice guy, but his oft-repeated complaint that the real problem is the ignorant, backwards fuckheads (paraphrase) who don’t understand his work and have forced him underground… well, at least in this case it seems pretty valid. Fuck those guys. Science cannot move forward without body-snatching.**
|The monster flashes a gang sign.|
The monster is kinda a wash (well-acted, mostly wasted), but the movie does end up having a pretty good ironic ending, with Frankenstein arguably getting a taste of his own medicine. I’m not sure what to make of the very end, though; if I may be maddeningly vague about it to avoid spoilers, the climax sets up something which looks like it’s gonna change things significantly, but then the final shot includes a character who you would assume based on the climax should not be there, so maybe I misinterpreted it. It’s also weirdly unspecific about the ultimate fate of poor Karl; no one ever mentions him again, and in fact the big climax for Frankenstein is only tangentially related to his actual brain-swapping chicanery. It’s a good scene, though, so we’ll let it slide.
Anyway, this is one of Hammer’s very strongest scripts and productions ever, so it’s a shame they forgot to write the part at the end where Frankenstein actually gets the titular revenge. It’s a pretty interesting, philosophically rich setup which never actually develops into a real horror movie. I’ll still take it over the meandering, idiotic third sequel EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, but man, let’s up our ambition here a little, Hammer. Learn a little something from Victor Frankenstein and jump on the self-improvement wagon. Let’s get this brain into a hipper, sexier body.
*Two, if it’s hobos or prostitutes.
**EDIT: Reader Dan P points out that there is some talk of cannibal intra-species brain-swapping chimpanzees, which arguably makes the experiment a little more risky. As you can see from my comment below, I don't think this really shifts the blame to Victor, but I include it here as a concession to rigorous journalistic integrity and because I like to type the phrase "cannibal intra-species brain-swapping chimpanzees."
HAMMER'S FRANKENSTEIN SERIES:
2: THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN