Sunday, April 15, 2018

"New Thrills! New Faces! New Horror!"


In the same year that David Prowse became The Green Cross Code Man, the Bristol native appeared in the second of his three roles as Mary Shelley's most famous creation.

JIMMY Sangster's HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN is detested by Hammer purists for its comedic tone, and plays out as a parody of the previous respected entriesThe film opens with Victor Frankenstein (Ralph Bates) at school, accompanied by friends Elizabeth (Veronica Carlson), Stefan (Stephen Turner) and Henry (Jon Finch). Victor arranges for the 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 - which includes reanimating a tortoise - 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).

Initiated as a start-over remake of CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the picture dispenses with Peter Cushing's services and tries to introduce a younger generation (a failed attempt, as Cushing returned four years later in FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL). Despite the traditional 19th Century setting, HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN is very much of its time - as illustrated by Bates' hair and puffy shirts - and quite anarchic, mixing additional plot threads (Elizabeth's finances, Stefan's crush on Victor) with comic relief (a severed arm making a V-sign) and grue (Victor's hands smearing his face with blood). Duelling femmes fatale O'Mara and Carlson are always watchable, but only Price can deliver a performance at the correct pitch. Bates, at this point being groomed to become the studio's next big star, is not so much a mad scientist but a psycho scientist, enjoying the thrill of the kill and rejoicing in the fact that he has this powerful monster ready to do his bidding. And when the creature eventually appears - an hour in, and sporting white cycling shorts - Prowse goes through the motions with a checklist of victims and a perfect physique which bestows its fragmented origins.

"You’ve put on weight in a couple of places"; Kate O’Mara is the bed-warming housekeeper of Hammer's relaunch of its Frankenstein franchise.

Reusing the Karnstein Castle set from THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, and even shooting most of its forest scenes on Elstree stages, there is a distinctly cheap and recycled feel. Furthermore, HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN was not helped by a misleading marketing campaign, where it went out on a double bill with the sombre and gristly SCARS OF DRACULA (as Sangster states in Wayne Kinsey's Hammer Films: The Elstree Studio Years, "if people had gone to see it knowing it was shot light hearted they would have enjoyed it more [instead of] thinking it was a Gothic horror.") However, this twin feature did hold the distinction of the first Hammer movies to be totally financed by British companies, thanks to a deal between Sir James Carreras and ABPC/EMI. But Hammer's new partner would only distribute to England and the Commonwealth, leaving Carreras able to acquire just a small American distributor - Continental - to impossibly cover the whole of the United States market. 

The notion of deriving humour from such pseudo-scientific source material is an interesting one. Since Frankenstein was published in 1818, and Boris Karloff's seminal interpretation hit screens in 1931, Mary Shelley's serious text - and similar works - generate mythical themes and uncomfortable laughter. As the initial power of the book recedes in a collected consciousness, the tome gathers extraordinarily wide responses, snowballing a range of spoofs and humorous asides now over 200 years on. The level of comedic takes is mind-boggling, even to the point of delicious meta-levels: Mel Brooks' celebrated YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, for example, used many pieces from James Whale's original laboratory set, and even in The Beatles film YELLOW SUBMARINE we had the Monster drinking a potion and becoming John Lennon.