I pride myself on being a great fan, admirer and aficionado of Hammer horror--in a lot of ways superior to Universal, if I may be so bold (although that's a debate for a future post). Ever since I was a child, I've been entranced by the technicolor blood, buxom wenches, uproarious scores and quaint period designs of the Hammer classics. And yet, one which I had never before seen was Freddy Francis' The Evil of Frankenstein, a 1964 chestnut which was the third of six films made in Hammer's Frankenstein series.
It's included on Universal's Hammer box set, which I've had for a number of years now and also includes such gems as The Curse of the Werewolf and Kiss of the Vampire. Yet, this particular one I had never seen before, although I had always wanted to. And over the Thanksgiving weekend, I finally took the opportunity. Although not the best of the Hammer series, and certainly not the best Frankenstein-inspired motion picture, I'm glad I took the time.
One of the reasons I had always been drawn to seeing this film is that it was a bit of a departure from the rest of the studio's Frankenstein franchise. Starting with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, Hammer had made it a point to reinvent the classic monster series, without relying on the elements that had made the Universal entries of the 1930s and 1940s so iconic. However, although part of the reason for this was undoubtedly creative innovation, another part was also legal necessity, as Hammer could not infringe upon Universal's intellectual property.
That changed with The Evil of Frankenstein, however. Whereas the previous two films, Curse of and Revenge of, had been distributed in the United States by Warner Bros. and Columbia Pictures, respectively, the third entry was actually picked up for distribution by Universal Studios itself, which meant that for the first time, Hammer had carte blanche to rely upon the devices used previously in Universal's own Frankenstein series. And so, the classic Jack Pierce monster design could be used, and the recognizable laboratory sets could be duplicated.
While an interesting notion, the result is a mixed bag. It's fascinating to see Hammer take a crack at the Universal approach, but in the end, what made Hammer's efforts so memorable is that the studio always strove to make its own mark rather than ape someone else's work. As it is, old reliable Hammer makeup man Roy Ashton is just not in his element trying to tread in the footsteps of Jack Pierce. What we get here is a second-rate copy of the traditional Boris Karloff square-headed, platform-shoe wearing Creature, here played by legendary New Zealand wrestler Kiwi Kingston, whose zombie-like performance can only conjure up a fraction of the pathos even Glenn Strange put forth in the Universal days, let alone Karloff. Similarly, Hammer art director Don Mingaye's sets are lush and intriguing as always, but are only doing what Charles D. Hall's revolutionary work did for Universal some thirty years prior.
The plot follows the trail of Dr. Frankenstein and his assistant Hans, as they attempt to put their financial situation back on track so the doctor can return to his life's work of reanimating the dead. When he returns to his ancestral home in the village of Karlstaad, he inexplicably discovers his original creation buried in ice underneath his property. Equally inexplicable is the fact that the Creature now looks nothing like the Christopher Lee version from the original, and instead suddenly resembles the Creature of the Universal Frankenstein series. The origin of the Creature is also retold in flashback, once again retconned to more resemble the Colin Clive/Boris Karloff origin sequence of the 1931 film. It's worth noting, however, that this is the only Hammer Frankenstein film other than the original to feature the actual Frankenstein monster--but it's also obvious that this was only done to take advantage of the license granted the studio by Universal.
Still, as with any Hammer production, there is a lot to recommend the film. Peter Cushing is excellent as always as the good Dr. Frankenstein, and I'll submit that his interpretation is probably the most textured, complex and compelling of anyone who has ever tackled the role. The great Peter Woodthorpe, known to many as the voice of Gollum in both the landmark BBC Lord of the Rings radio adaptation as well as the Ralph Bakshi animated version, is a delight as the alcoholic, unscrupulous carnival hypnotist Prof. Zoltan, the film's lead heavy. Studio head Anthony Hinds, writing as he typically did under the pen name John Elder, turns in a taut script that is up to snuff with his work on such favorites as The Brides of Dracula, Night Creatures and The Reptile.
The picture probably could have benefited from the directorial leadership of Hammer standby Terence Fisher, who was set to helm the film before being injured in a car accident. In his place, the project as handed over to his cameraman Freddy Francis. Francis had previously directed minor Hammer faves Paranoiac and Nightmare, and was far from a tested commodity when he took on The Evil of Frankenstein. He would go on to direct other minor Hammer pictures, with his most notable work being Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, and his best known film would have to be Amicus Pictures' 1973 adaptation of Tales from the Crypt.
As a die-hard Hammer fan, I will always welcome the chance to curl up on a dark night with one of their evocative, atmospheric and intense films, no matter if its one of their very best or a lesser-known effort. There's no doubt the original Curse of Frankenstein is the high watermark of Hammer horror, and The Evil of Frankenstein is but a shadow of that film. An enjoyable shadow, but a shadow nonetheless. Hammer still put out a horror flick well worth seeing, but the bottom line is that the studio made its name by charting its own course in horror, not following someone else's lead. The Evil of Frankenstein is an interesting experiment, if an ill-advised one.
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