Hammer Horror Retrospective: FRANKENSTEIN Series (1957 – 1974)

It's a little known fact that Hammer's first Frankenstein film was influenced more by their early 1952 production '4 Sided Triangle' than by Universal's black and white masterpiece. Directed by Terence Fisher, Triangle concerned scientists meddling with a machine that could duplicate human beings. The laboratory scene where an electromagnetic machine nukes two humans is an overt visual foresight of Dr Frankenstein's grisly experiments. Hammer's The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) marked the studio's first foray into British gothic horror and the first also to be painted in the lurid gloriously gory pastels of Eastmancolour. Boris Karloff, who had embodied the monster in James Whale's original 1931 film for Universal, was slated to return to the role. However this casting rumour subsequently alerted Universal to the possibility of an unauthorised 'remake'. Thus the threat of a lawsuit loomed over Hammer should they, in any shape or form, plagiarise elements distinct to Universal's movies; most notably Jack Pierce's copyrighted Monster design make-up. This is how Curse evolved from a simple re-telling of the classic Mary Shelley tale to a stunningly original departure by producer Anthony Hinds, writer Jimmy Sangster and director Terence Fisher. Peter Cushing made his titular debut as Baron Victor von Frankenstein; a role he would become synonymous with returning no less than five times, while Christopher Lee embodied the creature with pathos and menace for the first and only time, due to his equally committed association with the star-making role of Dracula. Set in mid-Victorian Switzerland the films boasts elaborately detailed sets, costumes and special make-up effects. The creature is miles away from Pierce's famed flat-headed bolt encrusted creation: a pale green hideously scared monster with paled out eye or 'a minstrel of monstrosity' as Terence Fisher labelled him at the time. Lee plays the character with gruesome relish exploding into fits of homicidal rage at a moment's notice. But it is Cushing who dominates the film bringing cold clinical distinction to the part. In less gifted hands the Baron could have simply lent on the pretences of a hysterical raving caricature but Cushing laces him with complex moral dimensions (which he would further expand in the sequels) ensuring the Baron is the star of the show. Curse of Frankenstein, which premièred at Leicester Square on 2nd May 1957, did exceptionally well commercially. As a result the sequel, Revenge of Frankenstein, was quickly thrust into production. The minor problem of resurrecting the Baron after his initial (off-screen) demise by guillotine at the close of Curse was overcome with quick-witted relish by Studio Head James Carreras: "Oh, we sew the head back on again!" It is quickly established in the opening scene of Revenge that in fact the Baron cheated death and escaped to Carlsbruck where he goes by the pseudonym of Dr Victor Stein and establishes an advantageous medical practise. The Evil of Frankenstein would follow in 1964 under the helm of famed cinematographer Freddie Francis. Despite a committed performance from Cushing (contributing most of his own stunts including a most impressive balcony jump), it proved a lesser entry in the series, sitting uncomfortably with the other entries in the series due to its stagy sets and leanings toward a decidedly Universal horror style creature make-up design. The atypical aesthetics were due to the film being made for Universal and thus it became the only film in the series which could adopt their copyrighted 'bolt encrusted fore-head' monster look, (as worn by 17 stone New Zealand wrestler Kiwi Kingston). Frankenstein Created Women (a 1967 titular play on Roger Vadim's classic And God Created Women) was arguably the most creatively ambitious and psychologically disturbing of the series, centring as it did on a drowned disfigured female who is resurrected with that of the soul of her wrongfully guillotined boyfriend; creating a radiantly beautiful but vengeful subhuman sexual being (the gorgeous Susan Denberg). It is a film particularly praised by Martin Scorsese who even included it as part of a 1987 NFT season of his favourite films, citing it's genius of "implied metaphysics {which were} close to something sublime." Terence Fisher returned to direct Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) which featured one of the most controversial scenes in Hammer's history: where the Baron (once again played by Cushing) uncharacteristically rapes a young girl. It was said that the scene was included on the insistence of James Carreras who decided to throw his weight around during a rare onset visit. However the film is lifted by a brilliantly charismatic turn by Freddie Jones as the Baron's tragic monster victim. The scene where he goes to visit his wife and she fails to recognise him and rejects him is laced with heartfelt pathos making the film one of the most memorable in the series. When Cushing fell ill the impressionable young star of Hammer's previous Taste the Blood of Dracula, actor Ralph Bates, took over the role of the Baron for The Horror of Frankenstein, a remake of Curse of Frankenstein. The film proved to be a misjudged foray into comedy-horror, where the cold Baron was granted a libido and spent more time bedding British beautiesthan tending to his monstrous creation. Jimmy Sangster's directorial debut also stared 6ft 7 former weight-lifting champion (and future 'Darth Vader' star) Dave Prowse as the creature. Prowse would return as Frankenstein's 'Monster From Hell' (resembling a cross between Brundlfly and Quasimodo) in the final instalment in the macabre series. Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell partially reinvents the Baron (Cushing reprising his role one final time) as a potentially misunderstood madman; a possible prisoner of his own fruitless experiments. He is notably 'kinder', acknowledges the help of others, conveys a sense of humour and is even presented with a surrogate son of sorts (Shane Briant plays his wide-eyed protégé /lab assistant). Though laced with moments of black humour, the film's hauntingly claustrophobic atmosphere, subdued lighting, superb performances, agreeably grisly surgical horrors (brain removal, eyeballs in jar et al) and inspired direction by Hammer steward Terence Fisher ensured that Monster from Hell would be an apt conclusion to the series; even though it closes with the suggestion that the Baron hasn't quite finished with his grisly experiments just yet.
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Contributor

Oliver Pfeiffer is a freelance writer who trained at the British Film Institute. He joined OWF in 2007 and now contributes as a Features Writer. Since becoming Obsessed with Film he has interviewed such diverse talents as actors Keanu Reeves, Tobin Bell, Dave Prowse and Naomie Harris, new Hammer Studios Head Simon Oakes and Hollywood filmmakers James Mangold, Scott Derrickson and Uk director Justin Chadwick. Previously he contributed to dimsum.co.uk and has had other articles published in Empire, Hecklerspray, Se7en Magazine, Pop Matters, The Fulham & Hammersmith Chronicle and more recently SciFiNow Magazine and The Guardian. He loves anything directed by Cronenberg, Lynch, Weir, Haneke, Herzog, Kubrick and Hitchcock and always has time for Hammer horror films, Ealing comedies and those twisted Giallo movies. His blog is: http://sites.google.com/site/oliverpfeiffer102/