(1958) Directed by Terence Fisher; Written by: Jimmy Sangster; Additional dialogue by: Hurford Jones and George Baxt (Uncredited); Starring: Peter Cushing, Francis Matthews, Eunice Gayson, Oscar Quitak and Michael Gwynn; Available on DVD.
Rating: *** ½
First things first: Many thanks to Pierre Fournier and Frankensteinia for hosting the week-long Peter Cushing Centennial Blogathon. As indicated by the blogathon title, today marks what would have been Mr. Cushing’s 100th birthday. He was the consummate professional, always putting forth his best effort, even if the material didn’t deserve it. Cushing brought a level of wit and sophistication to whatever he was dealt with, turning a film that was otherwise unwatchable into a movie worthy of your time and coin. Thankfully, today’s review covers a film that’s more than deserving of his prodigious talents.
The Revenge of Frankenstein picks up where The Curseof Frankenstein left off, with the disgraced Baron Frankenstein escorted to the guillotine to meet his fate. Since this is a sequel, and the filmmakers couldn’t very well kill off their title character, Frankenstein arranges his escape in the nick of time. Flash forward three years, and Frankenstein has established a new identity in the German town of Carlsbruck as…wait for it…Dr. Stein (wink, wink). True to the film’s title, he quickly proves the old adage that success is the best revenge by one-upping the town’s doctors. Before long, he’s built up a successful medical practice, but Carlsbruck’s medical counsel aren’t very thrilled by the fact that he’s snatched up half of their business in the process. As if to reinforce his seemingly unimpeachable moral character, Dr. Stein runs a poor hospital for the town’s less fortunate denizens. Lest we should believe he’s suddenly turned over a new leaf (this is a Frankenstein flick, after all), we quickly learn that his motives are far from altruistic. Dr. Stein finds the raw materials for continuing his experiments among his impoverished patients, who serve as a convenient source for fresh body parts.
One of the hallmarks of Hammer’s Frankenstein films is that it’s the doctor, not his creation that takes center stage. There’s never a moment of doubt that Peter Cushing is the star, as the unscrupulous, unrepentant Dr. Franken—er, Dr. Stein. He adheres to his own code, unhindered by societal laws or taboos. It’s a testament to Cushing’s skill as a performer that we continue to root for him, despite his reprehensible behavior. He’s convinced he has finally created the perfect being, and will stop at nothing to see that his plans come to fruition.
Compared side by side with The Curse of Frankenstein, the characterizations don’t hold up as favorably. Francis Matthews as Stein’s protégé Dr. Hans Kleve doesn’t quite provide the moral/ethical counterbalance that Robert Urquhart provided in the first film. Hans is too blinded by the idealistic rationalizations of Frankenstein’s experiments to contemplate the societal implications. Eunice Gayson’s character, Margaret Conrad doesn’t have much to do but look pretty and display sympathy for Frankenstein’s latest creation. Of the supporting performances, Oscar Quitak is a standout as Frankenstein’s loyal hunchbacked assistant Karl. For his complicity in saving the doctor from the guillotine, he’s repaid with the promise of a new body. There’s a sadness about Quitak, and by extension Michael Gwynn (who portrays Karl’s new body), that makes us understand that nothing good can come out of Karl’s association with Frankenstein.
After Philip Leakey’s terrific, corpse-like makeup for Christopher Lee’s monster in The Curse of Frankenstein, the appearance of Frankenstein’s latest creation is decidedly underwhelming. Although there are a few noteworthy Hammer gore moments,* this film seems somewhat subdued compared to its predecessor. I would hesitate to call the doctor’s latest creation a monster, in the typical sense. Instead, the horror resides in Karl’s predicament, as he discovers that occupying a new, “perfect” body isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. In the film’s most unsettling moment, Karl encounters his original, preserved body and disposes of it in an incinerator. His life in the new body takes a tragic turn after a scuffle with a sadistic janitor results in brain damage, and he starts reverting to the condition of his previous body.
* Fun fact: According to The Hammer Story’s authors Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes, sheep’s brain was used for the transplant scenes. The filmmakers had to scramble for another when the original was left out for a day, and became maggoty.
The Revenge of Frankenstein hits many of the right notes, but doesn’t quite live up to the original Hammer film. In spite of reuniting the original’s director Terence Fisher with screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, the results are uneven. In addition to the lack of a real monster, the film suffers from a slow middle. The hokey ending will probably stretch your suspension of disbelief to the breaking point, but ultimately proves that you can’t keep a bad man down. Even though The Revenge of Frankenstein falls short in a few areas, there’s still much to like about this follow-up, with nice visuals, creepy atmosphere, and Peter Cushing’s galvanizing performance. Overall it’s a solid entry in the Hammer Frankenstein franchise, which deserves to be grouped together with Cushing’s more noteworthy efforts.