Friday, September 25, 2009

Frankenstein The Next Generation

HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN (1970)

  
“You’ve put on weight in a couple of places”; Alys (Kate O’Mara) is the bed-warming housekeeper of HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN.

JIMMY Sangster’s HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN is detested by Hammer purists for its comedic tone. Initiated as a start-over remake of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the film dispenses with Peter Cushing’s services and tries to introduce a younger generation. It opens with Victor Frankenstein (Ralph Bates) at school, with friends Elizabeth (Veronica Carlson), Stefan (Stephen Turner) and Henry (Jon Finch). Victor arranges for the accidental death of his father and travels to university in Vienna, where he acquires sidekick Wilhelm (Graham James) and impregnates the daughter of the Dean. Returning to Ingstad, Victor starts a series of experiments, using corpses delivered by a local body-snatcher (Dennis Price) - who lets his wife do the digging.
After electrocuting Wilhelm for complaining about his work, Victor poisons Elizabeth’s professor father (Bernard Archard) for his brain, but the organ is damaged and the resulting patchwork man is a mute thug (David Prowse).

Despite the traditional 19th Century setting, the film is very much of its time - witness Bates’ hair and puffy shirts - and quite anarchic, mixing side issues (Elizabeth’s financial worries, Stefan’s crush on Victor) with comic relief (a severed arm making a V-sign) and grue (the shot of Victor’s hands smearing his face with blood). Duelling femmes fatale O'Mara and Carlson are always watchable, but only Price has anything like the correct tone of eccentricity.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Brains That Wouldn't Die

THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958)
THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1964)
FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969)

Michael Gwynn suffers THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

HAMMER’s sardonic THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN - a direct sequel to THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) scripted by Jimmy Sangster - consolidated the feel of Hammer Horror. The Baron (Peter Cushing) has also undergone a rethink, changing from the aloof and self absorbed into a passionate visionary, becoming the obsessive that we would eventually become familiar. The film begins with hunchbacked Karl (Oscar Quitak) helping the Baron escape the guillotine, with Frankenstein promising him a new body for his efforts.

Michael Gwynn is cast as the physical form which incorporates the brain of Karl, remaining sympathetic even after developing cannibalistic tendencies. His emotional confrontation with Frankenstein at a dinner party, which ultimately exposes the Baron's true identity ("Frankenstein - help me!"), is as moving as anything Hammer ever achieved. Elsewhere, performances are equally solid, particularly from Francis Matthews as the Baron’s assistant Hans Kleve who, it's interesting to note, has the only real success in creating an artificial man in the entire cycle. Curiously, THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN has rarely achieved the level of praise and analysis bestowed on other films in the series, particularly in its pointed portrayal of the middle class medical elite callously using the impoverished working class as a mass donor bank, enacting a suspicion of the nurturing welfare state.

The “Cornflake Box” Creature of THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN.

The next film, THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1964), sits uncomfortably among the Hammer cannon, and the title is a complete misnomer, for the Baron was never less evil than here. Frankenstein (Cushing) discovers his original monster (Kiwi Kingston) perfectly preserved inside a mountain glacier attended by feral deaf-mute Rena (Katy Wild). The Baron gives his monster renewed life, but its brain has been traumatised by gunfire. A circus comes to Carlstaad, featuring the mesmerist Zoltan (Peter Woodthorpe), whom the Baron recruits to stimulate the creature’s brain. But when officials order Zoltan out of town for operating without a licence, he uses his mesmeric hold over the monster to exact revenge.

Both previous entries were skilfully directed by Terence Fisher; THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN was helmed by Freddie Francis, and legend has it that Fisher was temporarily relieved of his duties as punishment for the commercial failure of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962). Whatever the reason, it is a rogue entry which negates the genetic advancements made by Fisher by forcing an ill-advised return to the feel of Golden Age Horror. The film was made for Universal, and consequently has an emphasis on ruined castles, sparkling lab equipment, villagers and burgomasters, which recall the American studio rather than the bloody tragedies of Hammer (also the Creature make-up design is very Boris Karloffesque).

“Scientist … Surgeon … Madman … Murderer … Search the length and breadth of Europe … hunt him … track him down. No matter what the risk … FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED.”

The Hammer Frankensteins were always superior over the Christopher Lee Draculas thanks to Cushing; he was always the glue that held them together, his coldly articulate Baron pitch-perfect for FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED, which shows an England struggling under the environmental weight of lunatic asylums and abandoned estates. On the run from the police, Frankenstein blackmails Anna Spengler (Veronica Carlson) and her fiancĂ© Karl Holst (Simon Ward) into helping him kidnap his former colleague Dr Brandt (George Pravda) from a sanatorium. Anxious to exploit Brandt’s knowledge, the scientist cures his insanity and after death transplants his brain into the body of Dr Richter (Freddie Jones). Unable to communicate with his “widow” Ella (Maxine Audley), the “new” Brandt is determined to kill his tormentor.

Fisher’s FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED comes closest of all to Mary Shelley's original concept. For the first time, the Baron’s creation is a sensitive, misunderstood being who finally turns the tables on his maker. Here, Frankenstein avenges himself not only on the medical establishment but also on womanhood. Given that he is working on projects which, in effect, excludes women from the creation of life, it's perhaps understandable that he should treat women with increasing disdain. In the previous FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1966), it was a female who unsportingly terminated his experiment by taking her own life. Now he systematically turns on all women, raping and killing Anna and treating a traumatised Ella Brandt with emotional sadism. It is Cushing at his finest, a genuinely frightening performance matched in its quality by Jones’s moving turn as the bewildered Richer/Brandt. That Frankenstein himself is now the monster couldn’t be clearer.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Jesus Wept

HELLRAISER (1987)
HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II (1988)
 
The chamber of horrors that is HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II.

WRITER/DIRECTOR Clive Barker burst onto the scene with HELLRAISER, a raw meditation on human desire and sadomasochism. Unsatisfied with the pleasures available to him in our world, Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) purchases a puzzle box from a mysterious dealer in an unspecified Middle East location. Upon opening it, the Cenobites appear - demons from another dimension - who tear him apart. Larry (Andrew Robinson) moves into his brother Frank’s empty house in England with his frigid wife Julia (a glacial Clare Higgins) and before long Julia is reminiscing about her brief and torrid affair with Frank. When Larry accidentally cuts his hand and spills blood on the floor, his brother is resurrected, but not completely; the undead thrill-seeker convinces Julia to provide him with bodies on which to feed.

Barker's breakthrough arrived at a time when neither pleasure nor pain had much to do with the genre. The NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, FRIDAY THE 13th and HALLOWEEN franchises had turned the horror movie into a joyless but profitable procession. Yet here was a cutting-edge horror replete with adult, sexual tensions: the Cenobites are pallid-skinned fetishists, with “Lead Cenobite” Pinhead (Doug Bradley) possessing a gravely poise which made the character a relief from the wisecracks of Freddy Krueger. Greatly enhanced by Christopher Young’s majestic score, Barker's vision cribs equally from the mythos of vampires and zombies, and is an unwitting product of the AIDS crisis. Scenes of sexual intercourse are marked by the presence of blood - often gelatinous or recycled - and stagnant pools are constantly inhabited by insects. Ultimately, Julia's mission to gather plasma for her lover results in a libidinous, walking disease. The scenes in which she lures unsuspecting men into the house, stripping them to their Y-fronts only to hammer them to death, constitute the best parts of the film.


Angels to some, Demons to others; the "Chattering" Cenobite from HELLRAISER.

It was the flawed and damaged starkness that gave HELLRAISER real bite; its tone has been ransacked by post-punk artists such as Damien Hirst into a medieval torture-garden aesthetic. However groundbreaking, it suffers - like all 1980s horrors - with garish colour schemes, Modern Romantic looks, and outlandish special effects. In fact, the corridor-stalking “Engineer” and the cricket-eating vagrant who turns into a pterodactyl are perhaps two of the most notable examples.

Inevitably HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II followed, leaving the subsequent (at present count, six) sequels to be made in the United States. The only surviving human from the first film - teenage daughter of Larry, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) - is recuperating from her trauma in a sanatorium run by Dr Clannard (Kenneth Cranham). Channard is familiar with the “Lament Configuration” puzzle box and uses his knowledge to resurrect Julia (a returning Higgins). After procuring victims from his asylum to provide new skin for her, he uses autistic patient Tiffany (Imogen Boorman) to solve the configuration and unleash the Cenobites. Despite some harrowing imagery, this second outing directed by Tony Randall is a clear victim of Elm Street Syndrome, where screenwriters could dispense with motivation or logic when dealing with the supernatural. Without a firm narrative hook, HELLBOUND is just a collection of uneven set pieces and money shots, with the series already introducing some Kruegerisms (as in Channard’s “The doctor is in.”)