Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Hammer's first followup to its smash color debut feature, this thoughtful mix of mad surgery and tragic disfigurement is one of the best Frankenstein films ever, made when the studio was at the height of its creative powers. Peter Cushing alters his interpretation of the rash vivisectionist and Jimmy Sangster's intriguing script pulls in several freshideas.
Germany, 1860. After only three years in Carlsberg, Dr. Victor Stein (Peter Cushing)
has a flourishing private practice and a busy ward of poor charity patients. The jealous local medical council, who originally tried to keep out the new competition, are upset that Stein is taking all of their best patients. One of them, Dr. Hans Kleve (Francis Matthews), recognizes Stein as the Baron Victor Frankenstein, who was thought to have been
guillotined for a series of blasphemous murders. Instead of exposing the brilliant scientist Hans joins him in his latest venture. Using 'spare parts' from the charity ward, the Baron has fashioned a new, handsome body for his misshapen assistant, Karl (Oscar Quitak). Together, they put Karl's brain into the 'new' corpse and bring it to life.
Frankenstein's benign new ambitions are thwarted once again. An attempt to give the new Karl (Michael Gwynn) a calm recovery are spoiled by a scheming ward orderly (Richard Wordsworth) and a meddling socialite charity volunteer, the beautiful Margaret Conrad (Eunice Gayson). Already set on having a bright new life free of his old, twisted body, Karl blanches at the idea of being exhibited as a scientific freak. He escapes, risking the healing process, even though he knows Frankenstein's earlier Chimpanzee brain transplantees turned into cannibals when the operations didn't go perfectly.
Anchor Bay has been churning out most of the later Hammer library, the titles not held by major American studios. But only this last year have the majors begun to bring out the big Hammer guns, the titles that launched the studio and made it a huge international success story for the British film industry. Warner Bros. tested the swamp waters last Fall with the 1959 The Mummy and found it to be a big seller. They're due out with the crown jewels, Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula,
this October 1. Now Columbia has stepped up to the plate with its star offering, the 2nd in the Frankenstein series.
There's a marked de-emphasis on gore in this outing, although we're still given some graphic views of socketless eyes, crumbly-looking brains and meat-slabbed limbs. We also get a benevolent and rational Frankenstein who truly wants to help poor Karl have a new life. Frankenstein may have the same egotistic desire to vindicate his radical research but he's no longer an outright murderer. A stray arm or two might find its way into his freezer, but he's sworn off shoving kindly old professors from 2nd story balconies. His assistant in Curse was very aware that the Baron was a treacherous zealot who couldn't be trusted beyond his scalpel; Hans Kleve in Revenge joins Frankenstein in a mutual comradeship that for a while seems like a winning combination.
Peter Cushing gave a slightly different spin to each of his six outings as Baron Frankenstein. This version is the most humane of the bunch. He grew colder and less tolerant in future outings, until Frankenstein Must be Destroyed,
the third-best instalment, where he's become an irredeemable villain. The putative 'monster' there is just another pathetic brain transplantee; Frankenstein does all the killing, and even rapes the heroine.
But the Baron of Revenge is a kinder, gentler fellow. He's dropped his libidinous criminalities; he shrewdly fends off the attempts of a matronly countess to use her daughter as marriage bait. He also has no interest in ward candystriper Margaret Conrad, played by Eunice Gayson, the voluptuous Sylvia Trench of the first two James Bond
movies. Instead of skulking about he carefully places a flower in his lapel, and serves the poor, taking his meals alone in his clinic office.
Thematically, The Revenge of Frankenstein gets high marks even though it adheres to the frustratingly unchanging structure for mad surgery films: No matter what happens, the subject becomes a monster and all hell breaks loose. Jimmy Sangster was at this point one of the hottest pop screenwriters in the UK. He handles the story with a fresh approach that takes some great turns, and some very poor ones.
The best thing about this installment is that there's no blather at all about transgressing in God's domain. The Baron is a rational man in a world that falls back on superstition only when it needs an excuse for a lynch mob. He's gone undercover as 'Dr. Stein' and learned a few public relations lessons about how not to alienate his collaborators or doublecross his women. He and Dr. Kleve make no medical mistakes whatsoever, and the synthetic Karl gets a perfect new lease on life.
Having dispensed with old-fashioned moralizing to justify Frankenstein's downfall, Sangster doesn't really posit any reason for the doctor's failure except regrettable staffing decisions and plain bad luck. At the halfway point Revenge becomes almost bittersweet in its pathos. Audiences sincerely want the gentle, deserving Karl to get his second chance. Kids in the theaters who cheered every time Chris Lee got his head shotgunned off in Curse, here totally identified with Michael Gwynn's Karl and suffered along with his each and every trauma -- especially when he's severely beaten on his vulnerable skull. Gwynn twists and distorts himself to suggest regression to savagery, succeeding
where the script stumbles. 1
At its midpoint, The Revenge of Frankenstein has resisted the usual series of predictable murders and nonsense science, focusing instead on the Frankenstein character. 2 It generates some of the same appeal as David Lynch's The Elephant Man, a film that Savant always thought was an upscale Hammer horror freed from the need to be a monster movie. 4
But the 1958 market demanded a standard hulking menace so Jimmy Sangster complied. Karl becomes a creeping killer for the last reel.
Frankly, Sangster isn't the best screenwriter in horror film history and in Revenge he wastes a lot of screen time on characters who don't pan out, while also throwing his science for a loop. After being clubbed, Karl's damaged brain begins to deform his new body into the likeness of his old one, with a twisted arm, hunched back and lame leg. This is better fairytale logic than scientific sense but we can accept it, grudgingly. Then Sangster has Karl revert into cannibalism as well, regressing to a state of savagery lower than the even the brutalized street scum in Stein's public ward. After all his enlightened willingness to make Frankenstein a liberated surgeon free from
religious fundamentalism, Sangster invents a new version of the idea that cannibalism is some kind of nadir of human behavior, our animal atavism come through the evolutionary chain to haunt us. 3
The secondary characters are only partially integrated into the story. While Stein and Kleves work harmoniously, Sangster makes Margaret Conrad a ditzy idiot who frees Karl before he's healed and sets him up for tragedy. That's her entire function, as she makes no deeper connection with either doctor or contributes to the play in any other way except handing out free tobacco from her wicker basket. She gets some entirely unmotivated help from Richard Wordsworth's
sleazy orderly. The gaunt Wordsworth is well known for playing emaciated prisoners in the Blood Island war movies and for his famous role as spaceman Carroon in Hammer's first big hit The Quatermass Xperiment. The infected, shape-shifting Carroon has a lot in common with this movie's Karl, as both are pathetic fugitives who've lost contol of their bodies and roam the streets committing unintended murders. Here, Wordsworth establishes the grimy presence of the underclass and adds a note of comedy relief.
Also doing well in a brief stock part is the great Lionel Jeffries, who teams up with Michael Ripper to make a graverobbing team. Francis Matthews is fine as Kleves, a civilized and progressive soul who's probably quite an anachronism for 1860 Germany. As is usual, the Hammer Germany is populated with Cockneys in Bavarian clothing, spouting Anglicisms and inappropriate phrases. In the examining room, the Countess asks Stein to 'give her daughter an overhaul', as if Vera were a leaky exhaust manifold.
Visually stunning, The Revenge of Frankenstein overcomes the (petty?) reservations above by virtue of its inspired performances and the assured direction of Terence Fisher, here on his 3rd film of a six or seven-picture string of successes. He manages to make powerful drama out of Cannibal Karl's plight. The simple scene where the snarling but traumatized surgical failure crashes the Contessa's recital party is one of Hammer's best. Instead of the usual violence, we get a key image previously unseen in Frankenstein movies -- the monster stumbles in tears, begging for help at his creator's feet.
Columbia TriStar's DVD of The Revenge of Frankenstein is a handsome rendition of the Hammer classic that looks good but not exceptionally so. The colors are neither as bright nor as rich as original prints and the transfer has a bit too much grain. And there's also some annoying flecking and dirt that seems unnecessary. That said, on any but a large-screen television, the image looks fine (Savant's started checking on a 26-inch tube monitor as well, so as not to unfairly judge discs for not 'popping' on a 65-inch anamorphic set). There will doubtlessly be web voices crying
heresy because the show has not been transferred 1:66; as with the other Hammers, Revenge was framed
for American exhibition as wide as 1:85, so Savant still maintains that the framing here is appropriate.
Extras are limited to a trailer for the upcoming Earth vs. the Flying Saucers as well as an original for Revenge. It begins like a teaser with the Baron contemptously informing us that he's escaped the guillotine and is seeking his revenge! Peter Cushing fans will love it. A short still section has a few low-quality images framed in an irregular pattern, that won't find the same kind of favor. The cover art is the identical unattractive image recycled from the old laserdisc. Neither Peter Cushing nor Hammer is mentioned, which tells us that Columbia TriStar simply doesn't understand this market.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Revenge of Frankenstein rates:
Supplements: two trailers, still gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 21, 2002
1. Indeed, mainstream reviewers gave Revenge high marks based on Gywnn's sympathetic embodiment of the monster, often overlooking Cushing to praise the gaunt actor. Gwynn can be also seen in
Village of the Damned, Barabbas, and as Hermes in Jason and the Argonauts.
2. Not counting, I suppose, the silly Pavlovian experiment with plucked eyes that are magically able to move themselves in a tank of water.
3. While obviously not adhering to acceptable patterns of modern behavior, cannibalistic tribes were never more 'savage' than their neighbors, according to studies in New Guinea. This same assumption shows the religious limits of George Pal's thinking in The Time Machine. His Morlocks are atrocious and obscene because they actually eat another human race ... not specifically because they've enslaved them. Even satirist Jonathan Swift saw the ultimate labor-management logic in that!
The conservative message that Pal was pushing was that it was not H.G. Wells' social Darwinism that turned the Morlocks into monsters, but 'liberalism' and decadent behavior -- like Pinocchio's Lampwick who becomes a jackass. In Revenge, the cannibalism is a link in a partially-developed theme that class differences are like evolutionary stages. It's not a very enlightened message: The dirty poor, by 'rejecting' the civilized ways of the clean society people, are becoming animal-like. The ward orderly even makes a verbal case for behaving like an animal. Karl's plunge into savagery is simply more extreme.
4. The Elephant Man shares a lot of ground with The Revenge of Frankenstein. The doctor is by and large benevolent. Both doctors seek fame and acceptance through their discoveries. The monster in each case is hidden away in a secret room in a clinic, only to find misfortune through the interference of the hospital staff.
Other DVD Savant Hammer Films Reviews:
X the Unknown,
The Curse of Frankenstein,
Hound of the Baskervilles,
Horror of Dracula,
The Brides of Dracula,
The Curse of the Werewolf,
The Phantom of the Opera,
The Kiss of the Vampire,
The Evil of Frankenstein,
The Plague of the Zombies,
Die! Die! My Darling!,
Quatermass and the Pit,
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed,
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave,
The Vampire Lovers,
Taste the Blood of Dracula,
Demons of the Mind,
Straight on Till Morning
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson