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Wednesday, July 29, 2020

‘Horror of Frankenstein’ and Hammer’s Attempt to Reboot a Classic for a Young Audience [Hammer Factory]

While Hammer Studios has been in business since 1934, it was between 1955 and 1979 that it towered as one of the premier sources of edgy, gothic horror. On top of ushering the famous monsters of Universal’s horror heyday back into the public eye, resurrecting the likes of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy in vivid color, the studio invited performers like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Ingrid Pitt and so many more to step into the genre limelight. Spanning a library housing over 300 films, Hammer Studios is a key part of horror history that until recently has been far too difficult to track down.

In late 2018, Shout Factory’s Scream Factory line began to focus on bringing Hammer’s titles to disc in the US, finally making many of the studio’s underseen gems available in packages that offered great visuals as well as insightful accompanying features. Over the course of this column, I will focus on these releases, gauging the films in context of the Hammer Studio story as well as analyzing the merits of the release. It’s time to highlight the power, impact and influence of Hammer Studios and ignite new conversation surrounding some forgotten classics.

Welcome to the Hammer Factory.

The Context

The over indulgence of the swinging sixties was drawing to a close in London as Hammer moved to adapt its output to a changing world audience. While the previous decade had been lucrative for the studio, American funding was drying up and their reliable stable of cast and crew were aging and, in some cases, moving on to other endeavors.

Despite the typically predictable success rates of their major franchises, the increasingly cynical and bitter nature of the studio’s Frankenstein cycle was resonating less and less with its target demographic. When Frankenstein Must be Destroyed hit theaters in 1969, it opened to lukewarm reviews and less than impressive box office receipts. It seemed the darkly mature nihilistic approach of the franchise was falling on deaf eyes and ears when it came to the “youth audience” the studio was so determined to appeal to.

Desperate for ideas, Hammer accepted an outline from British actor Jeremy Burnham which rewrote and repurposed the studio’s first Frankenstein entry, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). The treatment, simply titled Frankenstein, went through several rewrites, finally landing in the hands of longtime Hammer collaborator Jimmy Sangster. Despite his initial disinterest, he agreed to rewrite the script if the studio would bring him on as both producer and director in return. In what was a surprise to even Sangster himself, Hammer accepted his terms and handed him the reigns, thereby removing any and all checks and balances from the production.

Taking the film in a less classical and more modern direction, Sangster set out in the studio’s stead to appeal to a younger, more vivacious audience. Comprised of a young cast and backed by what ended up being a darkly comic script, this was a Frankenstein film that was less overtly violent and more frankly sexual than many Hammer productions that had come before. Released as a double feature with Scars of Dracula (1970), the film failed to connect with audiences who seemed to lament the lack of explicit violence while walking away largely unamused by the influx of subtle humor and brazen sexuality.

The result of Hammer’s one-shot, farcical remake was the reinstatement of Peter Cushing as the deranged doctor for one final installment some years later, reuniting him with Terence Fisher for what would be the iconic director’s last film. Its miscalculation marked an important misstep in Hammer’s model and foreshadowed the fate of what would be the final years of the studio’s feature production slate.

After all, there was to be little room for the wry wit of the old, gothic tale when it came to the grindhouse realism of ’70s horror, whether Hammer Studios was yet aware of it or not.

The Film

Wilhelm: “One moment you can be kind and charming, the next as cold as the grave— I sometimes wonder which is the real Victor Frankenstein.”

Victor: “Let me know when you find out.”

A picture of a woman posing in the nude graces the screen as classical, relatively pleasant music greets the title sequence. The image is familiar in the way that all Renaissance art feels to be so, an admirable thing of beauty that one might expect to glance in a textbook or in a collection celebrating the form. That’s when a hand enters the frame unceremoniously and begins to corrupt the picture, drawing dotted lines to and fro across the woman’s body, separating her into segmented parts as though she were a puzzle in reverse, waiting to be deconstructed.

The hand belongs to Victor Frankenstein, son of the Baron, a pompous, self-entitled and precocious boy who would just as soon defy his teacher’s authority as he would confidently demand a female co-ed disrobe so that he might study her “anatomy”. Handsome, glib and staggeringly brilliant, he is the most devilish and dangerous brand of sociopath.

Horror of Frankenstein (1970) is a beat for beat remake of Hammer’s seminal classic The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) but with a distinctly comic wit. It pivots from the heady magnetism of Peter Cushing’s foreboding baron to the lighthearted charisma Ralph Bates’ iteration of the infamous doctor serves up in droves. It’s a film that forgoes outward violence in an effort to take a more subtle path while still liberally employing the vice thematically. The result is a film which lands somewhere in the murky territory which lies between comedy and horror, undercutting the potency of both scares and laughs in the process.

Still, there is fun to be had in retreading the familiar ground of the Frankenstein mythos, especially given that much of the direness that had come to be so associated with the series is replaced here with buoyant playfulness. There’s something about Ralph Bates’ Victor Frankenstein rigging a severed arm to flip off his teacher that satisfies in a way that even Peter Cushing never did. His juvenile antics, callous sexual exploits, total apathy when it comes to life or death situations and impeccable people skills makes for a fascinatingly despicable protagonist who is undeniably enjoyable to watch.

The film’s plot runs along as expected, following Victor as he dispatches those who stand in the way of the completion of his life’s work— manufacturing life from death. Along for the ride is a host of Hammer staples, each toting an energy and edge along with them as they contribute to the well-worn tale.

Kate O’Mara stands out in particular as Victor’s housemaid, tackling the sexy, scheming usurper role with attitude and flourish. Dennis Price steals scenes as the grave robber, bringing unmatched comedic sharpness to each sniping jest he lobs. Veronica Carlson and Graham James round out the main cast, portraying Victor’s unrealized romance and scientific partner respectively. No stranger to Hammer Productions, Ms. Carlson plays the unrequited love interest with just the right amount of smolder and faint sorrow. Graham James is given far more to do in the role of Wilhelm Kassner, providing the film with a mix of polite naiveté and righteous indignation perfect for the manipulative doctor to play off of.

The film’s biggest flaw is the viewer’s familiarity with the proceedings. Put simply, a slight comic variant is not necessarily enough to warrant an entirely new venture. Having said that, it’s also a film featuring the diabolical doctor’s attempt to resurrect a tortoise, a sordid grave robber’s pontifications about the miracles of childbirth and the most down-to-Earth meet-cute that any mad scientist has ever had with their unholy creation: (reaching out to shake the thing’s hand) How do you do? I’m Victor Frankenstein.

The Frankenstein franchise was never known for its adherence to continuity. Indeed, almost every entry was a reinvention of the Doctor’s origin and aims. And yet Peter Cushing’s presence and emotional progression was a static throughline up until Horror of Frankenstein, and the deviation is certainly a jarring one. Reinventing the character as a disinterested youth, distrustful of authority and playing by his own rules makes sense on paper, especially given the time period and the young audience Hammer was hoping to appeal to. However, when such an idea is executed with all of the trappings that the classical gothic horror Hammer Studios is rooted in, the intended effect is diluted and, on some, lost entirely.

In retrospect and within the context of Hammer’s seven Frankenstein films, Horror of Frankenstein works as a witty, lighthearted send up of one of the studio’s most deeply disturbing and touching efforts. At the same time, its inability to connect with movie-goers and frequently discordant tonal shifts speaks to the disparity between what the studio thought its audiences wanted and the direction popular horror cinema was heading at the time.

What remains is a fascinating time capsule of Hammer’s ideologies, a tongue-in-cheek reflection on the property that catapulted them into genre importance decades earlier and the start of an audience rift that would eventually see the company undone. Too reserved for its raunchier intentions and not reserved enough for its understated, stylistic aims, it’s a film that comes as frustratingly close to greatness as Frankenstein himself comes to the realization of his scientific aspirations.

Like a hand tracing over someone else’s painting in an effort to make it more than the sum of its parts, Horror of Frankenstein is plagued with dotted lines running across and rearranging its better counterpart, ultimately distracting from what is new and reminding of what came before.

The Special Features

Previously released by Studiocanal in 2018 on Region B Blu-ray in the UK, this version comes equipped with the same studio master. The transfer, applied to both the revised 1.85:1 and the original 1.66:1 aspect ratios, is lush and detailed while keeping intended grain intact. The DTS-HD Master Mono track is impressive and clean, with dialogue, music and sound effects that are equal parts striking and affective.

Audio Commentary, by Film Historian Bruce G. Hallenbeck


Bruce G. Hallenbeck, film historian and author of the book The Hammer Frankenstein, offers insight and an encyclopedic knowledge of the film and Hammer Studios in general.

Beginning with the state of Hammer and its place in society at the time the film was made, Hallenbeck tracks the somewhat rocky road to Horror of Frankenstein’s creation in the wake of Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. Amongst other things, he discusses Hammer’s desperation for ideas, the internal studio belief that Dracula (not Frankestein) was the real money-maker and the dramatic tonal shifts the film underwent in the writing process.

Hallenbeck also provides a great deal of trivia regarding the various performers and crew members involved, more than proving his credentials as a Hammer historian. At times he segues a bit too much into plot description in his efforts to dissect the narrative, leading to occasional dullness and stagnancy. Still, any horror fan interested in Hammer or the context of what was happening around the time that the film was made will certainly find something of value to take away from this informative track.

Audio Commentary, by Director Jimmy Sangster and Hammer Film Historian Marcus Hearn

(2001 recording produced by Anchor Bay)

A ported-over commentary track from the original Anchor Bay DVD, it features director Jimmy Sangster discussing the making of the film and his career with Hammer. It’s apparent that his recollection of the specifics of the making of the film are murky at best, so he tends to jump around his general career more than he focuses on what’s occurring onscreen.

Still, what is very clear is that he thinks fondly of the production and his time spent with Hammer. Filled with interesting anecdotes, it’s a lively listen for the Hammer enthusiast.

Interview with Assistant Director Nicholas Granby (7:14)

(NEW: 2019, produced by Shout Factory)

A brief conversation with Nicholas Granby, an Assistant Director who worked on multiple Hammer productions in the 60s and 70s. He talks about the workman nature of the directors Hammer employed, the lack of time he generally had to do his job and the studio’s tendency to push away from artistic innovation in the stead of getting the work done on time. He makes his opinion clear that the atmosphere of the job was not always enjoyable, but his stories are interesting, providing insight into what it was like for the crew behind the scenes of Hammer’s output.

Veronica Carlson: A Portrait of Hammer (23:16)

(NEW: 2019, Produced and edited by Constantine Nasr)

An in depth, candid discussion with Veronica Carlson regarding her career and time with Hammer. Her charming, lovable personality shines in her stories and enthusiasm to talk about the work. This is particularly apparent as she discusses her tendency to sketch her co-workers, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing included, spending time with them on and off set. Her sincerity also translates to a certain forthrightness, unafraid to tackle her trauma along with her victories, even discussing her heartbreaking displeasure with the rape sequence in Frankenstein Must be Destroyed and how it was handled.

This is one of the best features on the disc and provides a window into the family-like nature of those working inside of Hammer studios at the time. Veronica Carlson’s charm and honesty serves as invaluable testimony to the legacy of the film and Hammer as a whole.

Vintage Interview with producer/Director Jimmy Sangster (15:52)

(1993 Interview conducted by John Stoker)

A video taped interview with Jimmy Sangster walking through his career. Not much is accomplished here as most of Jimmy’s answers consist of “I can’t remember” and “that was a long time ago”. While he does share some interesting stories about working on the films and the general direction of his output, overall the runtime here doesn’t necessarily justify what’s revealed.

Gallows Humor: Inside Horror of Frankenstein (18:19)

(2018 UK documentary produced by Studiocanal)

A series of interviews between film historians Jonathan Rigby, Kevin Lyons, John J. Johnston and several others that tracks the events which led to the making of the film and the state of the studio at the time. They discuss the film’s lack of checks and balances and its rocky-road to British funding, all the while dissecting its narrative elements to uncover Salanger’s intent behind them. The feature serves as a bite size history of the production coupled with the historians’ personal opinion on whether or not the picture was ultimately successful, a conclusion to which they provide no concrete answer.

Vintage Interview with Veronica Carlson aka Frankenstein, Dracula and Me: A Conversation with Vanessa Carlton (13:43)

(2001, produced by Anchor Bay)

An interview with Veronica Carlson ported over from the Anchor Bay DVD release, providing much of the same information heard in Veronica Carlson: A Portrait of Hammer. While Ms. Carlson is as affable and kinetic as always, this feels like a watered down version of the aforementioned interview. A feature included in the stead of the completist mindset, but not without its merits.

Theatrical Trailer (2:46)

The trailer for the film boasts about its “young Frankenstein” and promises audiences “the ultimate horror”.

Other than the inclusion of a few Dennis Price one liners, it’s no wonder audiences were somewhat confused with the decidedly non-frightening final production. This is especially true when considering the sentiment the preview finishes with:

Your ticket entitles you to be frightened out of your wits… at no extra charge.

Still Gallery (7:51)

Production stills, publicity shots, lobby cards and more! A fun, humanizing way to view the whole of the production and the cast, crew and memories associated with it.

Final Thoughts

Horror of Frankenstein is an experiment in reinvention, a studio’s reaction to a changing world which incidentally led to a new direction for a tried-and-true franchise. Ultimately the decision to shift tonality six movies into the successful Frankenstein cycle landed somewhere in between daring and foolhardy. Unfortunately for this one-shot deviation, audience opinion seemed to side with the latter.

Jimmy Sangster’s unchecked rule over the project resulted in a morally murky, genre-meandering film that often found its players unclear of how to proceed. There are times where two actors share the screen but feel as though they are in decidedly different films, unsure of whether their surroundings are intended to be comical or horrifying. Luckily, Ralph Bates is there to anchor the proceedings, providing a guiding thread which carries the picture from start to finish.

All in all, Sangster crafted a fun, self-aware send up that might’ve worked better a handful of years before or after the time of its formal release. Ralph Bates’ take on the character is a darkly humorist jaunt through charismatic and sociopathic manipulation and the roster of Hammer staples that appear throughout the film make it a rewarding watch for fans of the series and the studio at large. It may not all come together, suffering from its close adherence to its superior predecessor, but it’s an entertaining experiment none the less.

Scream Factory’s disc is the ultimate package, compiling features across multiple releases to provide the most comprehensive edition a fan could ask for. Insight, context and anecdote collide across the multiple commentaries and interviews, while the picture and audio quality is as good as one could hope for given the age and status of the film.

Horror of Frankenstein may not be the most important resident in Hammer’s stable, but it’s a telling anomaly which alludes to the creative and financial struggles the following decade would go on to bring. An endeavor of wit, class and gothic style that went underseen and underappreciated for far too long, despite its flaws.

Regardless of whether there’s a place for wealthy doctors Hellbent on godless scientific exploration in the 70’s grindhouse scene or not, the film represents Hammer’s most valuable story, character and stylistic assets. It’s a distillation of those elements with a biting sense of mindfulness that shows that those behind the camera were anything but clueless. Their vision may have lacked potency and impact, but it was a unique one that stands the test of time and exists as a worthwhile entry in one of horror’s best franchises.


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