Egotistical young scientist Victor Frankenstein murders his stubborn, narrow-minded father to gain his inheritance and head off to college, where he begins his experiments in restoring life to dead tissue. When he impregnates the Dean’s daughter, he quits school and returns home to continue his work, becoming involved with a promiscuous housekeeper and several old friends from his youth. Using body parts acquired by a grave robber, Frankenstein builds a man.
HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN might be the most unfairly criticized, unjustly panned horror film ever made. The shadow cast by the legendary Peter Cushing in the role of the Baron in Hammer’s five prior Frankenstein films was so long that the decision to essentially restart the series with a new actor in the role seemed folly to many filmgoers. Further, Hammer chose to emphasize the dark humor inherent in the Frankenstein mythos, so this remake of CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is often wrongly categorized as a pure comedy. In reality, HORROR is a deliciously dark and engaging take on the classic Mary Shelley tale, deserving of a much better reputation.
Ralph Bates may lack the undercurrent of sympathetic charm or the outright stern menace of Peter Cushing, but he is still magnificent as the superior, ruthless Baron. Blunt, charismatic, manipulative and wholly without conscience, Bates’ version of the character is a dynamic presence in the film, a man who is always, always up to evil. Like Cushing in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED, he is really the villain of the story, and there appears no limit to what he will do to achieve his goals, nor one shred of remorse or compassion for those hurt or killed along the way. Unlike Cushing’s Baron, who only allows his physical desires to surface on rare occasion and behind closed doors, this Frankenstein’s sexual appetite is prominently displayed, his youthful “anatomical studies” and his choice of household servants clearly demonstrating a penchant for carnal recreation only surpassed by his arrogance and diligence in his research. What makes Bates so good in the part is the matter-of-fact way in which he treats everyone around him as an intellectual inferior. He isn’t a man embittered by years of vain struggle against snobbery or superstition, or a basically benevolent researcher willing to sacrifice ethics for the good of humanity. He is simply a self-centered egomaniac, someone who is aware that the rest of the world is several steps behind him and who is determined – presumably simply to satiate his own ego – to prove that he can create life. A charming and malevolent amalgamation of Casanova and H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West, Bates’ Frankenstein is a memorable cinematic antagonist.
The supporting cast is also quite good. Kate O’Mara is delightfully wicked and bawdy as Alys, the saucy servant girl who excels at tending to the master’s needs upstairs but is not particularly skilled in the kitchen. O’Mara’s character is as self-serving as her employer, her claws coming out when she feels threatened by Victor’s work or a new woman who has entered his life, and the tension between she and Bates drives much of the story outside the lab. She is essentially a more ruthless version of Valerie Gaunt’s servant girl in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, but O’Mara plays her with such vampish relish that she becomes as important to the story as the scientist or his monster. Dennis Price is a treat as the grave robber employed by Frankenstein to collect raw materials for his work, quipping and punning with macabre sensibility and bemoaning the difficulties of his job with the matter-of-factness of a grocery clerk or a construction worker. Graham James is solid as Victor’s college chum and predictably appalled – and ill-fated – lab assistant, and Jon Finch does a nice turn as a grave and serious policeman with a personal gripe against Frankenstein.
HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN was the third and final Hammer film for blonde beauty Veronica Carlson, having previously dealt with the Baron in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED and the Lord of Vampires in DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE. Here she plays Elizabeth Weiss, a stunning, virtuous young girl who is completely infatuated with Victor but can’t seem to attract his romantic attentions. Truthfully, Carlson is given less to do here than in her earlier roles for the studio, but she handles the material rather well and, as always, is breathtakingly attractive. In most versions of the Frankenstein story, the character of Elizabeth is the scientist’s beloved fiancée. In this telling, she is little more than a school chum who falls on hard luck (after, unbeknownst to her, Victor murders her father for his brain) and ends up a charity case residing in the Castle Frankenstein. The problem with Elizabeth in this film, however, is not the alteration of the character or Carlson’s performance. The trouble is that the film does not satisfactorily explain how a man with Victor’s considerable sexual appetites could be oblivious and indifferent to the amorous attentions of a woman so voluptuous and so clearly smitten. Judging by his handling of the prospect of marriage to the Dean’s daughter, it is possible Frankenstein finds the notion so unappealing that he isn’t willing to risk that entanglement by encouraging Elizabeth’s affection. It may also be that he feels so superior to all around him that the idea of actually loving someone is beyond him, or that – based on his other conquests in the movie – he simply prefers brunettes. It might have been interesting to briefly explore his ambivalence toward Elizabeth, but no such revelation is forthcoming. Instead, we are asked to believe that though he has apparently never missed a chance to deflower a willing virgin to date, he is somehow just not interested in the incredibly gorgeous Veronica Carlson – probably the only major flaw in the Jeremy Burnham-Jimmy Sangster script.
The two aspects of the film most often cited as failings by its detractors are the abundance of humor and the design of the monster (played by future Darth Vader, David Prowse). Sadly, these elements are both quite effective, leading one to wonder if many of the “critics” who have panned the movie have actually seen it. Despite what is so often written, HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN is, in fact, a horror film, replete with plenty of grisly and horrific moments. There is certainly a prevailing sense of black comedy throughout, but most of the deliberate humor is confined to the dialogue, with several of the characters prone to ribald or macabre quips. Like Stuart Gordon’s RE-ANIMATOR of the 1980s (and Terence Fisher’s FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED, just one year earlier), this film does skillfully embrace the wicked, comedic potential of its set-up. But over the years, reviewers have painted this as some sort of Zucker Brothers-style send-up of gothic horror, and nothing could be further from the truth. There is nothing humorous about Frankenstein electrocuting his protesting lab assistant or his creature hacking up a passing woodsman with an axe. The scientist may trade grim one-liners with the jovial grave robber, but he isn’t laughing when he throws the screaming man in a vat and bathes him in acid. There is plenty of outright terror and death to off-set the flippant wit in this film.
The monster is often criticized for its relative simplicity, but the design plays right into the overall presentation. Unlike past Hammer films, which relied heavily on lavish gothic settings for their atmosphere, this movie attempts to paint a somewhat more realistic picture of both everyday life and medical research of centuries past. The sets and costumes still look great here, but they are quite deliberately not as immaculate or gorgeous as those in previous outings. The monster himself is a rarity in this kind of film, a creature that looks exactly as it was intended to by its creator. Throughout the story, we see the Baron’s diagrams of his proposed man, and the end result is spot on, right up to the scars covering its muscular body. Of course, the creature’s brain is damaged, but that too works in the film’s favor, as the murderous scientist almost immediately puts his equally murderous offspring to work disposing of people who threaten to expose him to the authorities. One aspect of the Frankenstein mythos often lost on screenwriters is the father-son relationship between monster and maker. The monster is essentially a newborn child and, when portrayed correctly, is a grotesque reflection of the man who gave it life. This film may actually accomplish this analogous relationship better than any other, since Prowse’s hulking monster is every bit as vicious and unsympathetic as Bates’ Baron. In many ways, this creature is the most frightening and believable of any presented by Hammer.
It’s a pity that HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN did not catch the fancy of audiences when it was released, as it sets the stage perfectly for an ongoing series about a Victor Frankenstein completely devoid of moral or ethical reservations. Bates was terrific in the role and could easily have carried the franchise through the gory, flesh-laden 1970s, in the same way that Cushing headlined the previous, more conventional entries. While Cushing’s subsequent return in FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL was grisly fun, the decision to go in that direction rather than make a sequel to HORROR signified the demise of both the franchise and, ultimately, the studio itself. Unable (and, in the cases of the long-running Frankenstein and Dracula series, apparently unwilling) to keep pace with the blood and bare skin of American horror, Hammer met its undignified end in the 70s. HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN represents the best glimpse of what might have been. Its outward sexuality and macabre wit mesh perfectly with the more traditional gothic fright elements, and it richly deserves an objective re-examination by film critics and fans alike. Do yourself a favor and forget what you’ve always heard and read about this film. As a stand-alone feature, HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN is one of the most enjoyable variations on the classic Shelley story ever to hit the silver screen.