The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)

The Evil of Frankenstein (1964) Directed by Freddie Francis

A buffoonish and flamboyant reinvention of the Frankenstein mythology that ruptures all the logic and continuity of its predecessors by venturing into the aesthetic hybridization between the Frankenstein of Universal Pictures and that of Hammer Film productions. The result of the synthesis is a creation even more erratic and uncontrolled than Frankenstein’s creature, but in its indomitable chaos is born one of the most bizarre Frankenstein movies ever made. It is kitschy and offbeat, precipitously misjudged for its heterodox proclivities and perhaps criminally underrated for its abrupt interruption of the sequel continuity established by the earlier productions. However, when deemed simply as a stand-alone Frankenstein film, one can actually see an autonomous potential to be an idiosyncratic piece of horror cinema.

By this time, the British Horror film production company Hammer was already a prestigious horror film machinery; what Universal Pictures meant for the horror films of the golden age of Hollywood, exactly the same thing Hammer meant for British horror films in the late 50’s and the whole decade of the 60’s. In the earlier Frankenstein films Hammer produced – to circumvent legal problems with copyrights – it decided to beget its own Frankenstein monster, artistically distancing itself from the celebrated horror iconography left by Universal’s Frankenstein. Hammer’s design department opted for a less robust, more flexible, less clumsy, more intuitive monster; Jack Pierce’s solemn, expressionistic makeup in Universal’s film differs drastically from Hammer’s. The latter gives Frankenstein’s creature an overall appearance more mummified than monstrous and zombified. Each Frankenstein monster conceived by both film studios has its merits. The Evil of Frankenstein, the third installment in Hammer’s Frankenstein series, is an amalgam of those merits.

This is the first and only film that Universal financed for Hammer. As such, it is the first time Hammer was permitted to experiment with the classic iconography of Frankenstein’s monster without fear of being sued for copyright. The story even borrows many narratological ideas from Universal’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. It is admittedly a mishmash, not entirely effective, but wit and passion abound in this film, and it manages to draw from its garish cartoonish charm an exceptional entertainment, very captivating for how heterogeneous it is. New plot, new script, new director, new characters, same Doctor Frankenstein, everything is renewed in this third sequel except the ubiquitous performance of Peter Cushing reprising his role as Frankenstein. Freddie Francis takes over the legacy of Terence Fisher -who would later return to helm other Frankenstein sequels- and directs The Evil of Frankenstein, Jimmy Sangster is substituted by screenwriter Anthony Hinds, who basically rewrites a recycled script that Hammer had drafted in 1958 for a Frankenstein TV series that never saw the light of day.

The plot is disastrous, but it is executed with so many novelistic contrivances that it persuades better than any other Hammer movie; here what matters is to intermingle a bizarre humor with a delirious horror drama, the plot is peripheral. Dr. Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) lives in frustration because he is banished from every town in which he settles to carry out his heretical experiments, his name is synonymous with the devil, and his presence is the equivalent of a curse. Frankenstein together with his faithful pupil Hans (Sandor El├Ęs) decides to return to where it all began, his hometown of Karlstaad. There he was sentenced for having committed murder and blasphemy. Yet many years have passed since that tragic episode, and according to him, everyone must have forgotten who he is by now. But to Frankenstein’s misfortune, his unorthodox experiments are something of a myth in the village and he is vividly remembered. Frankenstein is frantic to witness that the guys who ostracized him socially are now part of the town’s upper echelons. One of them is now the burgomaster of Karlstaad (David Hutcheson), who is nothing more than a corrupt perfidious crook living off the riches he stole from Frankenstein’s chateau. On their return to town, Hans and Dr. Frankenstein meet two peculiar characters, a deaf-mute vagabond woman (Katy Wild) and an eccentric and garrulous hypnotist named Zoltan (Peter Woodthorpe). Both characters play a fundamental role in the tragic core of the story.

The narrative uses flashbacks and time transitions to substantiate Frankenstein’s present situation. By mere chance, Dr. Frankenstein comes across the monster he created a decade ago frozen in one of the village’s mountains. However, when he tries to revive it, he realizes that the creature’s brain needs extra stimulation to wake it up. So, he makes a deal with the treacherous hypnotist Zoltan to control its psyche with his hypnotic powers. But as expected, it all goes wrong, as Zoltan’s ambitions are far from being as scientific as Frankenstein’s and Hans’ and he decides to use the monster to steal and unleash mayhem on the town. Each character fulfills a thematic function – the script of The Evil of Frankenstein poses a kind of theological battle between good and evil – this generates endless conflicts in which Frankenstein’s scientific atheism pseudo-philosophically argues with religious atavism. This is the first Frankenstein film that attempts to give Mary Shelley’s mythology a theological reading. At the beginning of the film, it is enough to see the religious diatribe of the town Reverend against Frankenstein’s unnatural experiments, seconds later Frankenstein throttles the priest in a psychotic rampage. Evidently, it is the battle of good versus evil, but the complexity increases when the narrative does not specify which is good and which is evil. Perhaps it is the battle between scientific rationalism and religious subjectivism. Be that as it may, the film treats these earnest issues with a ruthless humor, which can err on the side of tastelessness as well as passing as sophisticated black humor.

Amid the goofy style and aristocratic eroticism, the film devotes an ephemeral but striking space for a humanistic spirit. The Frankenstein monster played by Kiwi Kingston is clearly inspired by Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster, but Kiwi Kingston never tries to imitate or take over Karloff’s acting originality as the monster; with great emotional subtlety and simple gestures Kingston gives a memorable rendition of the monster. He always looks and feels like a victim, someone misunderstood who must be saved from the ambitions of Frankenstein and the uncouth Zoltan. Throughout the film there is one detail that stands out above everything else, and that is the delicate, humble and modestly perceptible relationship between the monster and the deaf-mute girl. Between these characters there emerges an emotional empathy, a tragic understanding that adds heart and human identity to the film, and ultimately, I believe, makes the film. It is true that Freddie Francis’ exquisite filmmaking is more concerned with being showy and colorful – after all Francis is one of the greatest cinematographers in the history of cinema, and here in the role of director you can see that with his visual obsessions, which are more pictorial than narrative – nevertheless the film never stops being riveting when you embrace its campy overindulgence. It’s a terrific, imperfect film, and I’m pretty sure it’s one of my all-time favorite Hammer films.

 

Matteo Bedon
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When I'm not watching films, I'm writing about them.
Editor and Official Film Critic at Celluloid Dimension

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