Monday, 12 April 2010

The Essential Guide To Hammer Frankenstein

For the past couple of months I've been privy to a series of very exclusive screenings; that's right folks I've been watching flicks with my 87 year old nonna (that's gran to you non-tallys) every Sunday afternoon and she likes her a bit of classic horror!

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
Director: Terence Fisher

Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, etc.


"The Reboot!"

Well you didn't think reboots were a recent phenomenon did you? Due to Universal being pricks over the closely guarded rights to their 1930's square-headed-neckbolt-wearing creature Hammer studios had to get a wee bit creative here in bringing Frankenstein to the big British screen.

Peter Cushing makes his first appearance as Baron Victor Frankenstein. An amoral genius that gets his jollies by re-animating dead flesh, bothering the chambermaids and being all superior to his live-in tutor/assistant/boyfriend Robert Urquhart. After a big tiff about the ethics involved in copy and paste bodyshopping, particularly the killing of a lauded professor just so Cushing can use his brain for experimentation, Urquhart gets stroppy and the dead prof's brain gets irreperably damaged. But let's use it anyway!

The all-singing, all-dancing Christopher Lee wasn't too pleased at his lack of lines and must have been kicking himself for putting 'mime' on his CV but he is nevertheless memorable as the pitiful brain damaged awkwardly mobile creature. The oft imitated zombie on a chain moment being his best scene in the film.

Colour! Oh the colour hurts my eyes! The 50's audience used to tepid black and white kitchen sink dramas lapped it up despite critics rubbishing the film as being 'for sadists only' - what would they make of today's torture porn craze I wonder! Along with Dracula (which followed the year after) this was the starting point for Hammer's gothic horror phenomenon that would dominate their output for the next 20 years.

The Creature: Christopher Lee's scarred up anti-hero gets liquidated, literally!
The Baron: Gets stitched up and sent to the guillotine!
Granny says: "That Peter Cushing's a right bastard, but isn't he great!"

The Revenge Of Frankenstein (1958)
Director: Terence Fisher

Cast: Peter Cushing, etc.


"The Sequel!"

Hunchback Karl saves Cushing from the chop and they both leg it to Carlsbruck. FFW three years and they've set up a practice helping the poor and helping themselves to the inevitable amputation leftovers. To be fair Cushing has toned it down a bit this time, Baron Frankenstein's obviously had some PR consultations or something because he's turned into a kindly old nutter, still intent on re-animating the dead but not to the extent that he'd murder to do so. Plus the (scar free, actually perfect) body that he's created this time is for poor Karl, sick of being a special, he wants his brain transplanted into a proper functional body. It all goes quite well until post-op Karl goes walkies before he should and gets happy-slapped by an innkeeper. The brain hadn't fully healed yet y'see so now Karl's gone all feral and cannibalistic...........

Michael Gwynn's lanky matchstick man isn't very threatening as the cannibalistic creature but then he's still best known to me as Lord Melbury the con-man from Fawlty Towers, I couldn't quite get around that!

The Creature: Goes nuts, has a stroke.
The Baron: Beaten to death by an angry mob of amputees, then has brain transplanted into new body by assistant and heads to Harley Street to start all over again!
Granny says: "Bloody hunchback screwed it all up for Frankenstein!"

The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)
Director: Freddie Francis

Cast: Peter Cushing, etc.


"Frankie Goes To Hollywood!"

Yup Universal's hopped on the bandwagon at this point, striking a distribution deal with Hammer and telling em to go hard as you like on the Karloff look. Enter big booted, square headed Kiwi Kingston as Frankenstein's lost experiment, apparently fell off a cliff or something and frozen in ice, until Cushing stumbles upon him and gets defrosting. His brain's obviously a bit fried so the Baron hires travelling carnival hypnotist Zoltan to lay down some magic on the creature. Bad idea seeing as Zoltan's a greedy alcoholic thief who soon puts the big guy to work murdering and looting............

The Creature: Kiwi conehead/karloff mash-up gets incinerated.
The Baron: Castle falls on his head.
Granny says: "I hate carnies."

Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)
Director: Terence Fisher

Cast: Peter Cushing, Susan Denberg, etc.


"The kinky one!"

The titular Baron is frolicking down a new avenue of the insane this time; namely soul searching. For how long does the soul inhabit the body after death and can it be contained? But that's all put aside for a while as we're introuduced to Anton and his snooty droogs; botherers of scarred waitress Susan Denberg and her loverboy peasant Hans. In what seems like a b-plot that has invaded the main feature (it does just go on and on) the droogs kill Denberg's father and pin it on Hans. Hans gets guillotined and the Baron nabs the corpse to extract his soul. But where to put it? Ah yes, into the body of recent suicide victim (and Hans' lover) Denberg of course. After a bout of plastic surgery that would put the lads in Nip/Tuck to shame Denberg is reborn as a blonde chick with a metaphysical dick!

With a very british TV feel to it, this had to be the worst of the sequels for me. Disappointingly the popular publicity shot of Denberg wrapped in nothing but a couple of slim bandages does not correspond to a scene in the film. So despite the intriguing science and a few fun scenes I found this one to be deathly dull, but then Scorsese picked this movie as part of a 1987 National Film Theatre season of his favourite films so what the fuck do I know apparently! Have to hand it to Cushing though - he could be phoning it in by now but he gives it his all as if he's still on stage with Olivier - standing out like a gem in the middle of this snoozefest is a wonderful courtroom scene in which the Baron is called as a witness and just doesn't seem to understand why any of this 'murder nonsense' is really important.

The Creature: Mentally hermaphroditic!
The Baron: Gets all spiritual and chills the fuck out.
Granny says: "Is it over? I fell asleep."

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)
Director: Terence Fisher

Cast: Peter Cushing, etc.


"The return to form!"

In need of some vital info from mental patient/fellow re-animation specialist Dr Brandt, the Baron blackmails a young doctor (Simon Ward) and his fiancee into helping him kidnap Brandt from a mental asylum. Unfortunately Brandt suffers a heart attack during his kidnap and the Baron decides to transplant his brain into the nearest available dead body to preserve the knowledge he requires. The transplant (for once) goes perfectly, the brain undamaged, Dr Brandt awakens sane and finds himself in the body of another man.........

The best of the sequels by far. The plot goes along at a brilliant pace, there are very effective moments of suspense (the body being uncovered by the bust water main, the asylum kidnap) and Cushing is at the top of his game here. The Baron is no longer a kindly old misunderstood humanitarian, he's a driven amoral blackmailing murderer once again, change of character summed up perhaps in his callous rape of Veronica Carlson, a woman he doesn't even seem to lust after. But the real draw of this film is Dr Brandt, the creature, faculties intact for once and not looking to kill and eat everyone in sight, intellectually equal to the Baron himself. Unfortunately the woman he loves no longer recognises him and he begins to see himself as an abomination. Surely the best written and most sympathetic creature of the entire series.

The Creature: Mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore.
The Baron: Gets dragged kicking and screaming into a fiery inferno of destruction.
Granny says: "That little tease was asking for it!"

Horror Of Frankenstein (1970)
Director: Jimmy Sangster

Cast: Ralph Bates, Kate O'Mara, Dennis Price, David Prowse, etc.


"The comedy one!"

Essentially a remake of Curse Of Frankenstein, slotting in Ralph Bates in place of Cushing and cleavage in place of acting. Can't imagine how anyone ever thought this was a good idea. Young Frankenstein this ain't! I can count the jokes on one hand and they fall flat in their execution, juvenile nonsense epitomised by the amputated arm that when re-animated flips the libidinous Baron the V-sign. The fact that everyone plays it deadly serious doesn't help either. The creature is played by gurning bug eyed bodybuilder Darth Vader himself David Prowse. Kate O'Mara and/or Veronica Carlson could have at least had the decency to get naked but even that small pleasure is denied us........

The Creature: Pumps iron.
The Baron: Pumps the ladies.
Granny says: Very little as she didn't even want to watch this one.

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974)
Director: Terence Fisher

Cast: Peter Cushing, etc.


"The big hairy finale!"

Back in a mental asylum again this time essentially run by the blackmailing Baron Frankenstein himself. This final entry in the series features a particularly gaunt faced Peter Cushing (still giving it his all mind) mirroring perhaps the mental and physical decline of the Baron himself as he resorts to creating yet another hideously deformed creature with the brain of a scientist. The hairy beast is frankly ridiculous (played by Prowse again this time under heavy make-up) the story is tepid if somewhat gorier than previous entries. The plot finally jumps the shark (even for a Frankenstein film) by having the Baron declare that his creature should breed with his mute female assistant in order to preserve the essence of his creation which has started to go a bit barmy yet again.

The Creature: Gets ripped to shreds and eaten alive by mental patients.
The Baron: Calmly loses his mind, sweeping up his latest mess and proclaiming his intent to start all over again.
Granny says: "I still would!"

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