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Monday, April 30, 2012

The Horror of Frankenstein

Hammer Films' Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed ('69) was well received, but Hammer's revenue continued to decline. The studio sought to reinvigorate their Frankenstein franchise with a younger actor (Ralph Bates) instead of Peter Cushing. Hammer added more gore, and more sex, the later via the cleavagy Kate O'Mara and Veronica Carlson. HoF was written, produced and directed by Jimmy Sangster, a writer of the earlier Hammer Frankenstein films. Despite having "more" of what the studio executives imagined young 70s audiences wanted, The Horror of Frankenstein (HoF) was not all that well received by those audiences.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Young Victor wants to study anatomy, but his father, the Baron, says "over my dead body" (essentially). So, Victor arranges for one of his father's guns to explode in his face. Having inherited the title and wealth, Victor goes to Vienna to study anatomy, leaving behind his school friends: Henry, Elizabeth, Stephan and Louise. In Vienna, he makes a new friend, William. The two of them return to Castle Frankenstein for the summer to do experiments. The housekeeper, Alys, was the sex toy of the father, and carries on those duties with Victor. His equipment and experiments are benign enough at first. After reviving a dead turtle, Victor confesses his true plan, to build a person. This is too much for William. Victor employs a grave robber to bring him body parts. He does. William threatens to expose Victor for his horrors. Victor electrocutes William, and uses some of his body parts. The last part he needs is a brain. William poisons Elizabeth's father. Digger gets his brain after the funeral. When Digger brings it up to the lab, the assembled monster startles him, so he drops the brain. It is damaged. Victor pushes Digger into his vat of acid. He knew too much. Meanwhile, Elizabeth finds out her dead father was deep in debt. She is cast onto the streets by the creditors. She goes to Victor's castle for help (she has always loved Victor). Victor installs the damaged brain and jolts it alive with help from lightening. The monster knocks Victor out and goes out into the woods. There, he encounters a wood cutter, whom he kills with his own ax. Stephan, now Victor's cook, sees this and tells the police. Victor plays coy, but had knocked out his monster and brought him back to the castle. Chained in a dungeon, Victor trains the mute creature, using raw meat rewards. With no other suspect, the courts condemn Stephan for the crime. Digger's wife comes looking for her husband. She says she must tell the police about him delivering body parts and all. Victor says fine, take the short cut through the woods. She does, and Victor has his monster waiting. She dies. When the police come asking around, Alys tries to blackmail Victor for what she knows. Victor shows her the dungeon and tosses her in with the monster. She dies. Later, the monster breaks free and wanders off. He scares a young girl in another poor man's forest cabin. Victor anesthetizes the monster to hide him. When the police come to search his lab, the young girl pokes around the lab curiously. She pulls the ropes, dumping acid into the vat where Victor had hidden his monster. A win and a loss. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The visual charm of Hammer's Victorian gothic style is still much in evidence.

Saga Connection
HoF amounts to a remake of Hammer's hit Curse of… ('57). It follows young Victor, who inherits the title, has a servant as a mistress, who is killed by the monster. His monster also kills some other people. In the end, the monster is destroyed in a vat of acid, so there is no evidence of it. Sound familiar? Since JImmy Sangster wrote the screenplay for CoF, it's little surprise that the two stories are so much alike. As a remake of the first chapter, HoF is not really part of the larger epic.

Hammer Falls More -- HoF was supposed to appeal to the modern (70s) audience, especially young males. It had a younger star for the Baron, it had more blood and violence and more cleavage. Yet, the added bells and whistles did not help. HoF was not a box office hit. Perhaps Cushing's Baron was more important than youth. Hammer did bring him back for one last Frankenstein film. Perhaps the Victorian gothic style -- which sold so well in the 60s -- was just not the 70s' cup of tea. Perhaps word got out that the plot was just a rehash and nothing new.

More Sex, More Violence -- Hammer was trying to compete with the newer cheap gore films and blatant sex content. They tried to wedge more of both in a Frankenstein movie, but it still didn't help. They put Kate O'Mara (Alys) into an absurd costume that gave her a nearly bare chest. Director Jimmy Sangster kept having her curtsey deeply as if hoping to entrance (male) viewers into expecting overflow. Veronica Carlson (Elizabeth) had her amplitude threatening to spill over too, but with a bit more dignity. There are a few sex scenes too, though mild enough for 21st century television. The violence is cranked up a notch too, with the monster brutally chopping a victim with his own axe and more bloody body parts on tables and in jars. Boosting the sex and violence, however, did not help.

Buff Monster -- The monster in HoF is played by David Prowse. He would later gain fame playing Darth Vader (though with the mask, who'd know?). The makeup was confined to the upper head and vaguely reminiscent of Jack Pierce's famous Universal monster. The rest was just David's muscular physique. with de facto shorts made of bandages. This buff version of the monster is incongruous with the whole frightening-monster idiom begun by Shelley. It may have been another (desperate) attempt by Hammer to appeal to younger viewers. That didn't work either. Prowse came off more like a dim-witted jock than a monster.

Bottom line? HoF is considered by Hammer Frankenstein fans to be the weakest of the series. As a remake of CoF, it certainly lacks novelty. HoF isn't a bad film, per se, it just had bigger shoes to fill than it could manage. There is the usual small dabble of science via surgery, but this is even smaller in HoF.

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