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The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)

In the various cinematic incarnations of Mary Shelley’s novel, Dr. Frankenstein’s record for creating life is one of overall failure, for one reason or another. He fails spectacularly, wreaking havoc both on society and the pathetic monsters that he creates. The 1958 Hammer Horror film, The Revenge of Frankenstein, stands out as something of an anomaly, however. Frankenstein actually succeeds in his experiments, only not in the way one expects.

The Revenge of Frankenstein is actually a sequel to The Curse of Frankenstein (starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee), though it is not necessary to have seen the original to enjoy the sequel. In Curse, Baron Frankenstein is played by Peter Cushing as an out-and-out psychopath and the film ends with him being executed for his crimes. Revenge opens with Baron Frankenstein (still played by Cushing) about to be executed. He is saved, however, at the last minute, by Karl, a man with a hunched back and paralyzed arm and leg.

Years pass and the action moves to Carlsbruck, where Baron Frankenstein lives as Dr. Stein and has a flourishing practice, much to the dismay of his fellow doctors whose business he has attracted. He has both rich patients with imaginary illnesses and poor patients, who he treats at a pauper’s hospital. One doctor, Dr. Hans Kleve (Francis Matthews) recognizes Dr. Stein as Baron Frankenstein and blackmails him into allowing him to become his assistant. Frankenstein is not unwilling to have a new assistant, however (thus avoiding the classic movie scientist mistake of working alone), and shows Hans his life’s work.

He has figured out how to put a body together from scraps of human anatomy, but has discovered that the only way to animate the body is to insert a living brain. Thus Karl is willing to allow Frankenstein to insert his brain into a new and better body, with the eager assistance of Dr. Kleve.

(Spoilers contained in final analysis) The plot in The Revenge of Dr. Frankenstein definitely took me by surprise. Cushing’s second incarnation of Frankenstein is a little less overtly psychopathic, but nevertheless still obsessively driven. As in the original The Curse of Frankenstein, the true monster is him. Karl is simply a victim.

Karl’s body is successfully transferred into a new and better body (played movingly by Michael Gwynn, who nicely plays a conscious that feels alien to the body he is now in) and at first I was disappointed when a simple blow to the head renders Karl the presumed monster of the film, terrorizing the city. But it soon becomes clear that Karl is simply a tragic accident in Frankenstein’s unstoppable quest to create life. It brings up the question of what life is. What sets Karl off initially is his fear that Frankenstein is going to display both him and Karl’s previous body as scientific proof of his achievements and Karl poignantly protests that he’s always been an object people stare. He doesn’t want to be a figure of study again. He only wants to live his life.

Peter Cushing treating the poor

But it brings up the interesting question of Frankenstein’s desire to create life. Does he really wish to create life? Since to create life is presumably to create a living, autonomous being. If one truly creates life, then isn’t one obligated to let that new life free? Frankenstein’s plan to put Karl on show, to essentially possess him, is a denial of Karl’s life. One of the fascinating themes of many Frankenstein films is the sense of ownership and possession that Frankenstein feels towards his creation (or subsequent rejection of them).

Frankenstein repeatedly demonstrates a lack of respect for life, even animal life. He transfers lizard brains into frogs, frog brains into lizards, orangutan brain’s into chimpanzees. Unlike the other snooty doctors of the city, he treats the poor, but it turns out that he does so partly to obtain body parts to create new bodies to house fresh brains.

(Big spoiler)The ending in particular took me by surprise. With seven minutes to go in the film, Frankenstein is beaten nearly to death by angry patients whose body parts he as collected for his experiments. They kill his body, but Hans has learned from the master and, much to my surprise, is able to place Frankenstein’s brain into the second body that Frankenstein had cobbled together from the patient’s body parts (a rather macabre reflection that seems to bother Frankenstein not at all).

The new body is really just played by Peter Cushing, looking rather more piratical with mustache and tattoo on his right arm (taken from a pickpocket), but apparently healthy and determined to continue his experiments, apparently fully vindicated in his work. He just can’t show anyone what he has achieved. It rather took my breath away. The monster lives. And he has learned nothing from his previous experiments.

This has been my contribution to “The Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon.” Many thanks to Cinematic Catharsis and Reekweegiemidget for hosting! To read the rest of the posts, click here for Days 1, 2, and 3.

 
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Posted by on June 4, 2018 in Movies

 

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Frankenstein vs. God?

There’s a joke I once heard as a child (paraphrased by me):

The earth had reached a state of perfection where scientists had solved all their problems: war, famine and hunger, global warming, disease – life was now perfect and ideal. So they sent a delegation of scientists to see God and tell him that they no longer required his services. “We can do anything you can do,” they told him. God listened to them politely.

“Name something,” they said. “Name anything and we’ll show you we can do it as well as you.”

“Why don’t you create life,” God said.

“Oh, that’s easy!” one scientist said and bent down to grab a handful of dust. God stopped them.

“Wait a moment,” God said, “Get your own dust!”

UntitledBut in all seriousness, as much as Frankenstein movies warn about trespassing on the realm of God (and if you think about it, Frankenstein’s not even in the ballpark), I never found they made a very convincing case. The pertinent message ends up being more about scientific ethics and the nature of humanity. Though, admittedly, Frankenstein does have a colossal god complex.

But if the movies had really been about trespassing on the realm of God, there shouldn’t have been any careless accidents (like using the wrong brain?). There should have been divine retribution (the proverbial zapped by lightning). Either that or it simply shouldn’t have been possible to create life. Interestingly enough, in the 2015 Victor Frankenstein, that is exactly what happens. Victor Frankenstein creates a being that breathes, but it has no soul and Frankenstein concludes that what he has created is not really life – just a carcass with a heart pumping (or hearts, in this case).

But in the Frankenstein films, an unspoken question is asked – what makes someone alive?

In the original 1931 Frankenstein and the 1957 Hammer Studio The Curse of Frankenstein, they do succeed in creating a living human being. Both “monsters,” played by Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee, have damaged brains (caused by careless or bickering scientists and their assistants), but they feel pain, suffering, longing, confusion. But the fact that both “monsters” have damaged brains is something of a side-issue in the films. It wouldn’t have mattered if both of them had been fully functioning, thinking adult creations. Their very appearance and the way in which Frankenstein treats them would have caused problems.

In the original Frankenstein, Colin Clive plays an obsessed scientist – not so much evil as totally consumed by what he is doing. In the 1957 version, Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein is an out-and-out psychopath (like Beauty and the Beast, he’s the real monster in the story). But what they both have in common is a casual attitude towards their creation. In fact, that is part of the problem. They think of the “monster” as their creation – something to experiment upon, study and destroy in a way that wouldn’t be acceptable if their creations were animals. They talk of creating life, but they don’t treat them as life.

this image perfectly illustrates Frankenstein's attitude to his creation

this image pretty much sums up Frankenstein’s attitude to his creation

Actually, it makes me think, of all things, of George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion.” Because Henry Higgins thinks he’s created Eliza Doolittle, the perfect lady, he thinks he can control her and treats her as though she had no feelings. Except in the end she asserts her independence and waltzes out. But she has options in life that aren’t exactly available to Frankenstein’s monster.

So, if they’re not really trying to create life, what are they trying to do? Science for self-aggrandizement and fame – like a Greek hero who wants to be remembered after he has died? To exercise control and power? The thrill of discovery and the challenge? Maybe all these reasons and more? Perhaps they (or at least Colin Clive’s Frankenstein) even once wanted to do good.

But the Frankensteins’ treatment of their creations tends to be little better than their treatment of other people (especially in the case of Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein), who are the little people in their personal drama. Oddly enough, the creation of life ends up resulting in the isolation of the creator (I had to get the theme of loneliness in there somehow!) and a lack of sympathy for those already alive. In Frankenstein, creating life ends up a kind of nihilism.

This is my contribution to the Movie Scientist Blogathon, hosted by myself and Silver Screenings. Follow the links for the rest of the entries: Day 1 was devoted to Good Scientists, Day 2 went to the Mad ones, and Today comprises the Lonely ones.Scientist Blogathon Banners

 
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Posted by on February 21, 2016 in Movies

 

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Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein: A Double Feature

When I originally saw The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Frankenstein (1931) I watched them in reverse order, with many months in between, so I thought it would be instructive this October to watch both of them in one day, in their correct order, and see how the two films held up as one continuous story. Most of the Universal horror sequels do not work well as sequels, but these two films actually have reasonable continuity, perhaps because both of them were directed by the same man, James Whale. But despite having a similar theme, the tone of each is quite different.

In the original 1931 Frankenstein, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is obsessed with creating life and left the university because they had too many scruples about acquiring for him the bodies he needed for his great creation. Now on his own, in a creaky, decaying stone tower, he is helped by the hunchback Fritz (Dwight Frye) to steal fresh bodies just put in their grave or recently hung.

But his fiance, Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) is worried about him and recruits his friend, Victor Moritz (John Boles), and his former professor, Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) to help talk to Henry. But Henry won’t listen and brings his creation (Boris Karlodff) to life (“It’s alive!”). Now, he says, he knows what it feels like to be God. But Henry is an indifferent god. He intends to teach the monster, but when the monster kills Fritz (who was torturing him) Henry finally agrees with Dr. Waldman that the monster should be destroyed. But he underestimates the strength of the monster, who escapes and wanders around the countryside. the monster doesn’t really want to hurt anyone, but he’s disoriented and confused and when people come after him, he defends himself.

Boris Karloff

Boris Karloff

I have to say that Boris Karloff is incredible as the monster. He’s in heavy makeup, but his eyes express everything. He is pained, confused, moved by kindness and beauty (like a flower), angry, frustrated at his inability to communicate or people screaming and running and attacking him. His eyes express humanity. When he is first created, Henry keeps him in the dark, but when he opens a window, the monster doesn’t shrink, but stands up with his arms outstretched, straining to touch the light, feel it, embrace it. But then Henry closes the window.

Frankenstein, surprisingly, still retains the power to horrify a little, if not frighten. One is horrified when the monster throws a girl into a lake and she drowns. He doesn’t mean to hurt her, he just didn’t understand, but it is still horrible. And the ending still horrifies. Chased by mobs of people, the monster drags Henry into an old windmill, which is then set on fire and we see the monster’s terror as he waves his arms as if begging the flames to leave him alone.

In fact, the entire mood is one of slightly depressed madness. Henry is initially mad, but Elizabeth is gloomy and depressed. She has a foreboding from the beginning of the film, even on her wedding day to Henry. It’s all a bit of a downer, even if Henry does manage to survive the film and we are led to believe will be happy with Elizabeth. But the ending seems slightly out of sync with what came before. One feels that by all rights Henry ought to have died, too, if only to justify all that came before. And the film seems to demonstrate little of the unique James Whale humor that is found in abundance in his later films, The Old Dark HouseThe Invisible Man and The Bride of Frankenstein. But it’s still an effective film.

The Bride of Frankenstein has a completely different feel. It has the same themes – the dangers about trying to imitate God, the alienation of the monster, the inherent humanity of the monster contrasted with the mob mentality of the villagers – but suddenly there is a swell of music (there no music in the first film), the acting takes flight (the first film looks almost naturalistic in comparison), Elizabeth was evidently dying her hair from blonde to brunette while Henry and the monster were engaged in their epic struggle on the windmill (different actress, really), Henry’s father disappears, Henry’s friend Victor runs off (the only explanation, since his character, too, disappears), and Whale’s humor becomes dramatically evident, especially in the additions of the actors Una O’Connor and Ernest Thesiger.

Ernest Thesiger and COlin Clive working in The Bride

Ernest Thesiger and COlin Clive working in The Bride

The film begins with a prologue, with a massively over-the-top Lord Byron, rolling his r’s and making sweeping gestures, who marvels that such an innocent person as Mary Shelley could have written her novel, Frankenstein. But since Mary Shelley is played by Elsa Lanchester, she looks anything but innocent and tells Lord Byron and Shelley that there is more to the story after the monster is burned in the windmill.

In fact, he is not burned at all (if you watch all seven Universal films featuring the monster, you realize that he survives explosions, drowning, lava, being frozen, being burned and having somebody else’s brain swapped for his own). the monster is back, much to the fear of the villagers, but he is just looking for a friend. He temporarily finds one in a blind hermit (who teaches him to speak, which is a nice development from the first film, where the monster struggles repeatedly to communicate without words – now, he is learning how to interact with people), but some not-so-helpful villagers (led by John Carradine) come by and hustle the hermit away, accidentally causing the hermit’s cottage to burn down.

Meanwhile, Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) arrives on the scene and wants Henry to help him create more life. Henry says he’s learned his lesson, but Dr. Pretorius has the monster kidnap Elizabeth (now a brunette, played by Valerie Hobson) and Henry agrees to help create a bride for the monster.

Oddly enough, Boris Karloff is probably the most naturalistic character in the film (however naturalistic a monster can be) and brings the same deep feeling to the role. I cannot say enough about how good he is. And of course there is Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius, campy and fey. He dreams of a new world of “gods and monsters” and doesn’t scruple to blackmail Henry into helping him create a bride for the monster. He has a gleeful meal on top of a coffin and when he is suddenly confronted by the monster, he doesn’t blink an eye, but politely offers him a drink. He’s kind of mad, knows it and delights in it. But he’s mad with so much style and panache.

Elsa Lanchester and Colin Clive

Elsa Lanchester and Colin Clive

One favorite scene occurs at the beginning, which once again highlights Whale’s unique sense of humor. When the monster emerges from the charred windmill, he comes across Minnie (Una O’Connor), who works for Elizabeth, who takes one look at him and starts screaming with her hands raised in such an oddball fashion that even the monster is too puzzled to attack her. He just stares after her with a puzzled look on his face. She’s an outrageous character, taking a ghoulish interest in the monster, but runs about like a chicken with it’s head cut off whenever she encounters him.

I definitely find The Bride of Frankenstein to be a more entertaining film than Frankenstein. It’s rich with symbolism, grotesque characters, witty lines, unique hair, black humor. There are a similar number of deaths in both films, but somehow they seem incidental and not terribly upsetting in the sequel. It’s like Arsenic and Old Lace in terms of movie deaths. It’s almost a comedy, though one with a heart. Amazingly, despite all the humor, Karloff still manages to bring incredible heartbreak to his role and it remains at the center of the film.

Cast

Watching the two films in order made me very conscious of the cast.  There are three actors who manage to appear in both films: Colin Clive as Henry, Boris Karloff as the monster, and Dwight Frye, though he plays two different people in each film. He is Fritz, the hunchback assistant to Henry in the first film, and Karl, one of two criminals hired by Dr. Pretorius.

Two of the characters in both films stay the same, but have different actors playing them. Mae Clarke is Elizabeth in the first film, who I mentioned plays her as a slightly gloomy heroine with a firmly rooted conviction that something dreadful is going to happen. She seems destined for tragedy, somehow. By the time The Bride of Frankenstein was made four years later, Mae Clarke’s career had deteriorated and she was not recast. Instead, Elizabeth is played by Valerie Hobson, who definitely is acting in the mold of Ernest Thesiger. She practically glides across the floor as she approaches Henry, who’s been injured, with arms outstretched theatrically. She doesn’t carry the same air of tragedy, but definitely fits into the mood of the film

Another character who is changed is the burgomaster. In the original film he is played by Lionel Belmore, though he doesn’t get much to do except organize a search for the monster. In the sequel, he is replaced with E.E. Clive, who suddenly brings the character to life with more of Whale’s unique humor evident as a pompous and self-important man who flutters about importantly, but who is actually getting in the way of things being done.

New characters, of course, are Ernest Thesiger, who plays the inimitable Dr. Pretorius and Una O’Connor as Minnie, who I am always delighted to see. And the bride of Frankenstein (why didn’t Dr. Pretorius call her the bride of the monster? She’s not marrying Henry). Elsa Lanchester only gets to show up at the end and she doesn’t last very long, but she certainly makes a splash.

Elsa Lanchester

Elsa Lanchester

Dropped characters include Henry’s father, Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr). Since Henry is suddenly being referred to as the new Baron in the sequel, one can only assume that that terrible night with the burning windmill was too much for Henry’s father and that while Elizabeth was dying her hair, he expired unexpectedly. Also, Victor Moritz (John Boles), a friend of Henry’s who is also in love with Elizabeth, mysteriously disappears that night. The last we hear of him, Henry is telling him to look after Elizabeth while Henry chases after the monster and is dragged to the windmill. One can only assume that while Elizabeth was dying her hair and the Baron was dying that he decided that he’d had enough of the place and ran off somewhere, which makes him craven. Either that or he died unexpectedly, too. He wasn’t that interesting a character, though, so I don’t miss him in the sequel.

 
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Posted by on October 21, 2015 in Movies

 

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