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All that changed in 1957. In June, Hammer's first Gothic horror film, The Curse of Frankenstein, with its groundbreaking, in-color mixture of sex and blood, was released in America and proved spectacularly successful, grossing as much as $8 million against a production cost of just $270,000. Then in October Screen Gems, the television subsidiary arm of Columbia Pictures, released a 52-movie "Shock Theater" package of pre-1948 horror films, the bulk licensed from Universal. Although movies like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy had been reissued theatrically several times, this was the first time those movies were shown on television, and they were sensationally popular. Just four months after that, a new magazine called Famous Monsters of Filmland debuted, and several generations of lifelong "Monster Kids" were born.
Frankenstein 1970 was one of the first attempts to ride this monster wave. Like most of those early offerings, it dips its toes in the water more than a little too cautiously, adopting the flat, gray look of ‘50s sci-fi films, hedging its bets with that vaguely futuristic-sounding title and other sci-fi trappings. But it had one big selling point: it starred the great Boris Karloff who played the Monster in Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein, and Son of Frankenstein (1939). In Frankenstein 1970, Karloff plays not the monster but its creator, the only time he actually played "Frankenstein."
And yet, few movies disappointed me more than, as a kid, watching Frankenstein 1970 for the first time, only to find that a) it isn't futuristic at all; b) the monster is boring and featureless; and that c) the usually reliable Boris Karloff is unpardonably hammy.
I don't recall if Tom Weaver or Bob Burns discuss this in their audio commentary (I listened again to parts, but not all of it), but I suspect Frankenstein 1970's story may have rooted in a notorious 1952 live Armed Forces Radio broadcast, in which reporters supposedly explored Burg Frankenstein near Darmstadt. One of the reporters, "Carl Nelson," winds up in the crypt, where in the darkness he seems to sense something moving toward him, and suffers a primal panic attack that's genuinely creepy even now, and even if one is aware that the whole thing was faked.
In Frankenstein 1970, an American TV crew is ensconced in Frankenstein Castle in Germany to shoot an In Search Of-type documentary. (At least that's what it seems to be.) Baron Victor von Frankenstein (Karloff), the last of the family line, hates their intrusion, putting up with it only because he needs the money to finance his secret experiments. As the mostly crass, obnoxious Americans - director (Donald "Red" Barry), publicist (Tom Duggan), leading lady (Jana Lund), script girl and the director's ex-wife (Charlotte Austin) among them - mess about, Frankenstein is hard at work in his basement laboratory, its secret entrance through a sarcophagus in the family crypt. (How did the severely crippled doctor get all that equipment down there, unaided?)
Frankenstein quickly hypnotizes his nervous, elderly butler, Schutter (Norbert Schiller) to obtain a brain for his creation, but is almost comically inept trying to obtain eyes for the bandaged behemoth, wrapped like the Mummy from head-to-toe, with what resembles an upturned waste paper basket covering its head. Following a series of murders, Frankenstein eventually brings the creature to life, building to perhaps the most lifeless climax of any Frankenstein movie: (spoilers) both the monster and his creator effectively die from (radioactive) smoke inhalation.
The biggest problems with Frankenstein 1970 are its bland, overly-cautious visual style, partly the fault of the short (eight-day) shooting schedule, and a screenplay that hasn't a clue as to what story it wants to tell beyond its basic set-up, i.e., a TV crew shooting a program about Frankenstein while bona fide monster-making is happening under their noses.
To begin with, Karloff's character is all over the map, nearly schizophrenic, with Frankenstein petulant toward the film crew one minute, sinisterly charming the next. The audience never learns why he's so obsessed with creating such a creature, or what his plans are once that's accomplished. Much is made of Frankenstein's physical state, his face rife with scars and his body broken at the hands of the Nazis during the war, and there're even hints of castration, Frankenstein complaining the Nazis left him "less than a man" during his torture. Nonetheless, in other scenes he salaciously pursues the young leading lady, jealous of her kindness toward Schutter for no clear reason.
Unlike Lugosi, arguably a more limited film actor (in English) who nonetheless gave 100% to every role, no matter how demeaning, Boris Karloff's acting was variable, particularly in horror films. He put more thought and nuance into roles he felt worthy, such as his initial round of horror roles during 1931-35, the Val Lewton-produced RKO films, and occasional one-off projects like Mario Bava's Black Sabbath (1963). But in others his contempt for the script could barely be contained; he practically spits at the camera for most of The Climax (1944), a bigger-budgeted but terrible thriller. In Frankenstein 1970 Karloff, a theatrical performer to begin with, seemed to feel even more theatricality was called for, and in this he gives what may be the hammiest performance of his entire film career, floridly, leeringly villainous when not naked annoyed by those keeping him from his beloved atomic reactor.
The writers seemed to think they were being oh-so-clever by offering an effortlessly anticipatable "surprise" at the end, that Frankenstein's monster is made to resemble a younger, unscarred version of Frankenstein himself. There's much clumsy foreshadowing toward this, but his motivations can only be surmised, less so his point in wanting to achieve this. Hammer's follow-up to The Curse of Frankenstein, The Revenge of Frankenstein, released the same year as Frankenstein 1970, does something similar, but much more logically and the end of that film is an unsettling genuine surprise. Here, the big reveal makes no impact at all.
Except for Charlotte Austin, who's so good audiences aren't aware that she and ingenue Lund were about the same age, though Austin is playing a character 15 years older than she actually was. Donald Barry insufferably chews the scenery of every scene he's in, while the others range from barely-adequate to not adequate at all.
Though cheaply made, reportedly for around $110,000, the film looks more expensive than it was because it reused sets left over from the Diana and John Barrymore biopic Too Much, Too Soon (1958). However, the sets aren't lit with much flair, and never does the film feel like its characters are actually in Germany, partly also due to the extremely bad acting of Irwin Berke, playing a very un-Germanic police inspector.
Video & Audio
Warner Archive's Frankenstein 1970 comes from its Allied Artists holdings, which apparently are real hit-and-miss when it comes to surviving film elements. Shot in black-and-white CinemaScope, Frankenstein 1970 looks fairly good, but lacks the gloss and sharpness the best Blu-rays of B&W ‘scope titles have offered in the past, this looking a wee bit soft and washed out. The mono audio (DTS-HD 2.0) is adequate. Optional English subtitles are included.
There's an interesting TV spot, but the real gem among the supplements is a repurposed audio commentary track with Tom Weaver, Bob Burns, and actress Charlotte Austin that's as enjoyable as it is informative, a real treasure of interesting information, funny anecdotes, and personal reflections and assessments about what's up onscreen.
Not at all good, but a must for genre completists, especially for its commentary track, Frankenstein 1970 is Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.