The Horror of Frankenstein [DVD]
Screenplay : Jeremy Burnham and Jimmy Sangster (based on characters created by Mary Shelley)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1970
Stars : Ralph Bates (Victor Frankenstein), Kate O'Mara (Alys), Veronica Carlson (Elizabeth Heiss), Dennis Price (The Graverobber), Jon Finch (Lt. Henry Becker), Bernard Archard (Prof. Heiss), Graham James (Wilhelm Kassner)
In the late 1960s, Britain-based Hammer Studios, having gained fame and fortune in the late 1950s by reimagining old Universal horror flicks as gaudy, full-color Gothic shockers, was in trouble. The mood in horror and science fiction films had shifted to either dense psychology (e.g., Repulsion, 1965), increasingly explicit gore (e.g., Night of the Living Dead, 1968), or irony (e.g., The Fearless Vampire Killers, 1968). The dabbles of Technicolor blood and reliance on over-the-top madness and melodrama that had made Hammer movies like The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958) into significant international hits was a formula that was looking creaky and out-dated in the era of Vietnam and social upheaval.
The Frankenstein myth is where it all started for Hammer, allowing it to evolve from a small, independent studio into a recognizable franchise, the successor to Universal as the most prolific and influential producer of horror films. Thus, it is not surprising that, in 1970, when things were looking bad, the studio would return to it. Originally conceived as a basic remake of The Curse of Frankenstein, The Horror of Frankenstein was significantly altered when first-time director Jimmy Sangster, one of Hammer's most proficient screenwriters, took the reigns.
Instead of treading on the same ground, Sangster ventured in new territory, turning The Horror of Frankenstein into a thinly veiled parody of the Hammer formula. All the elements were there—the highly detailed laboratory, a plethora of severed limbs, a maniacal scientist with a God complex, a couple of busty females in tight-fitting Victorian corsets—but Sangster twisted everything just slightly, injecting the formula with bits of black humor and irreverence that irked long-time Hammer fans and was lost on everyone else. Not surprisingly, the film failed at the box office and was ridiculed by most critics, and it is only in recent years that it has achieved any respect as an innovative and daring film.
Of course, it's not all that good. Parts of it work marvelously, particularly Ralph Bates' narcissistic turn as Baron Frankenstein, a heavy load for the young, stage-trained actor to take since he was following in the revered footsteps of Peter Cushing, who had played the role in five previous Hammer films. Other parts do not work so well, especially the creature himself (played by David Prowse, who would go on to faceless celebrity as the man behind Darth Vader's mask), who is neither frightening nor comical. As a first-time director, Sangster is competent, but he doesn't have the grandiose visual acuity and sense of timing that made Hammer favorite Terence Fisher so effective. The movie is right in step with the rising levels of graphic gore in the late '60s (although much of it looks quite tame today). The effects tend to vary, with severed limbs and a disembodied head looking quite realistic, while a brain is so obviously plastic as to be laughable.
Sangster is a solid writer, especially given his years of experience. Since he was involved with penning both The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, Hammer's foundational horror movies, it is only right that he was one of the first to dismantle the formula. He filled The Horror of Frankenstein with amusing one-liners and in-jokes aimed at Hammer fans (who apparently weren't ready to laugh at themselves yet) and youth audiences with an ironic frame of mind. For instance, at one point, when a colleague is suggesting that his work is too dangerous, Frankenstein quips that maybe he will move into more harmless scientific experiments, "like splitting the atom, perhaps."
The Horror of Frankenstein revisits Mary Shelley's modern Prometheus as a young man. We are first introduced to Frankenstein as a teenager who openly challenges his schoolteacher and brazenly seduces the schoolgirls. Frankenstein is a cocky, sexually voracious young man who is so wanton in moral aptitude that he causes his own father's death so he can inherit the old man's wealth and attend university in Vienna (where he, no surprise, gets the dean's daughter pregnant and then deserts her). He is as cold and calculating as they come, using and disposing of people at will, including his oversexed housekeeper (Kate O'Mara), a local girl who wants to marry him (Veronica Carlson), and a friend from the university (Graham James). Frankenstein electrocutes people, dumps them in vats of acid, and eventually uses his monstrous creation as an assassin to take out anyone who might get in his way (or even question his methods).
Part of the joke of The Horror of Frankenstein is the way Frankenstein's narcissism, a trait derived directly from Mary Shelley's original work, is taken to the outer extremes, resulting in a character who is morally repugnant, but whose soulless consistency is strangely compelling and sometimes quite funny. While other variations of Baron Frankenstein have depicted his murderous activities as being compelled by the euphoria of scientific discovery, Frankenstein here is just a murderous scoundrel who happens to be extremely intelligent.
Even though The Horror of Frankenstein doesn't always work as well as it should, it hardly deserves its bad reputation of being one of the films that caused the final collapse of Hammer Studios. If anything, Sangster's excursion into irony and black comedy under the guise of Gothic horror was a daring step in the right direction, even if that step was somewhat awkward and unsure.
|The Horror of Frankenstein DVD|
|Audio||Dolby 2.0 monaural|
|Supplements|| Audio commentary by writer-director Jimmy Sangster and Hammer Films historian Marcus Hearn|
"Frankenstein, Dracula, and Me: A Conversation With Veronica Carlson"
Poster and stills gallery
Veronica Carlson photo album
Gallery of fine art by Veronica Carlson
Original U.K. theatrical trailer
U.S. combo trailer with Scars of Dracula
Talent bios for Jimmy Sangster and Ralph Bates
|Distributor||Anchor Bay Entertainment|
|Release Date||November 20, 2001|
|The Horror of Frankenstein has been given a new anamorphic transfer in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio that looks quite good. The garish use of Technicolor that was the hallmark of Hammer Films is well rendered, with only slight hints of any fading—the blood looks especially red, rather than orangy as it tends to look on bad video copies. The print used for the transfer looked fairly clean. Black levels were good throughout with only moderate traces of grain, and the fine level of detail brings out all the particulars of the wonderful sets.|
|The soundtrack is presented in Dolby 2.0 monaural and sounds good throughout.|
| The audio commentary by writer-director Jimmy Sangster and Hammer Films historian Marcus Hearn is informative, but quite dry, running much like an interview, with Hearn soliciting anecdotes and memories from Sangster. The commentary is not screen-specific, as they rarely refer to what is happening on-screen at any given moment. Rather, Hearn's questions tend to focus more on Sangster's career and the evolution of the Hammer Films (although they do discuss the production of The Horror of Frankenstein and its less-than-exceptional reception). Long-time Hammer fans will likely enjoy the commentary for the sake of its existence, if nothing else, but it's not one the best I've heard. |
The rest of the supplements revolve primarily around costar Veronica Carlson, whose short acting career in the late '60s and '70s included several Hammer favorites. In the 14-minute video interview "Frankenstein, Dracula, and Me: A Conversation With Veronica Carlson," she speaks fondly of her years working with Hammer, although, ironically, she doesn't have particularly good things to say about the movie on this DVD. Also included is a gallery of cheesecake-style photographs of Carlson and a small gallery of her paintings (some of which are Hammer-influenced).
In addition, this disc includes a poster and stills gallery with about 35 images (it runs on its own, so you don't have control over the pace of presentation) and two theatrical trailers, one for the U.K. release of The Horror of the Frankenstein and the other for a U.S. double-bill with Scars of Dracula. Also included are talent bios for Sangster and star Ralph Bates (everything on the disc is presented in anamorphic widescreen).
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick