Continuing our look back at Hammer Horror with the company’s clumsy attempt to blend their style with the Universal Monster movie.
The story so far: British B-movie producers Hammer Films have stumbled upon the formula to success with an unexpectedly ambitious and glossy colour version of the public domain Frankenstein story in 1956, bringing new life into a genre that had been considered dead and buried after the Universal horror films of the 1930 and 1940s had finally fizzled out in a series of Abbott and Costello comedies, replaced in the public affections by the more modernist thrills of post-atomic science fiction. Hammer’s full-blooded reinvention of the story not only revived the gothic and made it their own, but it also forever changed the emphasis of the Frankenstein movie from the monster to its creator. While The Curse of Frankenstein was very much made to be a stand-alone piece, its huge success demanded a sequel – and with Frankenstein’s creature dissolved in acid at the end of that film, it was the Baron/Doctor, played by Peter Cushing, who would carry on the series, creating a new monster with each film. This moment of enforced innovation proved to be the saving grace of the series – while the Universal films would eventually struggle to find something to do with the Frankenstein Monster in film after film and the familiarity of the monster and its transition into pop culture invariably made it a less terrifying figure over the years, Hammer could explore new ideas and new creations with each film, keeping the series fresh and new. Well, that was the theory anyway.
By 1964, Hammer was starting to repeat itself as it settled into a style and routine, and so sequels to earlier films began to appear with greater frequency. The Evil of Frankenstein was the third of the Frankenstein films, but the first since 1958. The previous film, The Revenge of Frankenstein, had been a direct sequel to The Curse of Frankenstein but with this third film, Hammer established a dubious precedent of essentially ignoring the other films and making each new Frankenstein movie a stand-alone story that had no continuity from what had gone before – and, in fact, often contradicted the events of the earlier films. There would sometimes be hints of continuity (Frankenstein’s burned hands in Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell may or may not be a reference to the ending of Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed) but often the films made no effort to be an actual series. These days, we are used to the idea of film franchises being constantly rebooted and returned to the start point as if allowing a character to build any sense of continuity with new actors and directors is somehow beyond the pale – even the Bond films, which were the very definition of a franchise that was bigger than any actor, any director and would just continue on regardless, are doing it now. But Hammer was not really doing this with these movies. With the exception of one misguided attempt to relaunch the series in 1970, all of the Hammer films shared the same star – Peter Cushing – as the titular character, which suggests some sort of connected, continuing series that, nevertheless, for some reason or other has no ongoing narrative. It’s a curious decision that smacks of creative laziness and complacency and never was it quite so obvious as in The Evil of Frankenstein.
This was one of a handful of Hammer films that was financed by Universal, and so there is an argument to be made that it is, therefore, a part of the Universal Frankenstein series as well. Famously, Hammer had been unable to use the familiar Jack Pierce make-up for their monster in The Curse of Frankenstein – in fact, they hadn’t even been allowed to call the creation ‘the monster’ – and while that doesn’t seem to matter now, in 1956 it was a big deal – everyone knew what the Frankenstein Monster looked like and you messed with that at your peril. That Christopher Lee as the ‘creature’ arguably looked more authentically like the result of meatball surgery than Boris Karloff ever did was neither here nor there – if you read almost any American monster magazine right into the 1980s you would’ve been told that The Curse of Frankenstein was inferior to all the Universal movies simply because the monster was not up to scratch.
The Evil of Frankenstein filmmakers didn’t have to worry about being sued for violating Universal copyright and so the film is the closest that Hammer ever came to remaking those earlier films. This is not, I would argue, a good thing. This is absolutely the worst Hammer Frankenstein movie – and it’s also the worst Universal Frankenstein movie, a lacklustre collision of styles that feels needlessly compromised. It’s not completely awful – frankly, I think by this stage, the Hammer crew could make this stuff with their eyes closed and even their most average films are at least watchable – but it feels oddly stilted, empty and old-fashioned.
Completely ignoring the previous films in the Hammer series, The Evil of Frankenstein opens with a spot of body snatching, as the Baron continues his experiments with heart transplants. When a fanatical priest objecting to crimes against God wrecks his lab, Frankenstein and assistant Hans decide to return to his old home town of Karlstaad, where he plans to sell the possessions in his old castle to finance a new laboratory. However, upon arrival, he discovers that his castle has been ransacked and looted by villagers.
However, thanks to help from a Bjork-like peasant girl Rena (Katy Wild), he finds the frozen body of his original monster. How is that, you might well ask, given that the only monster created in his castle had vanished into a vat of acid? Don’t ask. The idea of finding the monster frozen in ice is very much a Universal horror trope and sure enough, once thawed out his creation looks very familiar, with the flat head and protruding brow of the Karloff era. There’s something not quite right though. The Universal monster went through various incarnations and no one ever seemed as convincingly cadaverous as Karloff – but every one of those actors, from Bela Lugosi to Lon Chaney Jr to Glenn Strange – at least brought their own interpretation of the monster to their films. Here, we have Kiwi Kingston, who isn’t even an actor but a wrestler (and a wrestler from before the days when wrestling was a soap opera that required its grapplers to convincingly portray characters) and is buried under a cheap-looking mask. Kingston is not a skinny man and his monster is an expressionless, chunky oaf who stumbles around aimlessly. To be fair to Kingston, even Karloff might have struggled to display any character under this terrible, crude make-up.
Back to the story: Frankenstein’s attempts to revive his creation fail and so – as you might – he turns to a carnival hypnotist, Zoltan (sadly no relation to the Hound of Dracula), hoping that his powers will bring the creature back to consciousness. Zoltan, of course, turns out to be a bit of a bad egg and once he has successfully revived the monster, starts to use his hypnotic control of it for his own nefarious purposes.
As the above synopsis suggests, Anthony Hind/John Elder’s screenplay runs the gamut of genre clichés and it is this, more than anything, that ultimately lets the film down. There are a few moments of interest – the fact that Frankenstein is here shown almost as a sympathetic figure is unusual for the series (Cushing’s doctor was rarely anything but ruthless in his other films, and this too feels a bit like a throwback to Colin Clive’s idealistic and ineffectual Frankenstein of the Universal films) even if it also means that he is often a side player in his own story, and the film’s portrayal of both the inherent corruption of local officials and the blind, bigoted ignorance of religious figures is also notable. These attacks on authority are the most interesting aspect of the film and also feel like the moments that fit most with the other Hammer films, where Frankenstein might be a bit fanatical but where the failure of his experiments have as much to do with the interference – often motivated by religious moralising – of others as they do with his own failings. These are interesting ideas but ultimately not developed enough – and on the whole, the film’s story is depressingly slight, and simply moves from one predictable moment to another without any effort to involve the viewer in the developing story.
On the plus side, the film looks as gorgeous as any other Hammer film and is generally well-acted – Cushing obviously gives it his all, and Peter Woodthorpe as the sinister Zoltan is an effective foil. Freddie Francis, who was Hammer’s mid-Sixties replacement for Terence Fisher, is efficient but fails to lift the material beyond its limitations. He was never the most dynamic director and like Fisher, only seemed as good as the material he was given – but his best work for Hammer only ever reaches the same level as Fisher’s average efforts.
Whenever I watch The Evil of Frankenstein (and I don’t watch it often), I’m always curious. Who was it who decided on this monster, this narrative? Did Universal insist on a film that somehow resembled their old movies, essentially forcing Hammer to abandon series continuity and make this compromised production? Or did Hammer, given the chance to finally use the Universal make-up and plot devices, leap at the chance and happily throw aside everything that they had built up in the earlier films? Whatever the truth, the result is a bit of an indistinct mess, one that is only worth seeking out if you are a Hammer (or, indeed, Universal) horror completist.