The Horror of Frankenstein
Review by Mike Finkelstein
The Hammer horror series of films had quite a long run. As we already saw with Dracula, these films could carry on long past when storylines would naturally end, often using reboots, side-stories, or any other device to milk a little extra material out of an ailing franchise, and Frankenstein was no different. We'd already seen one soft reboot of the mad doctor's material (1964's The Evil of Frankenstein, which threw out the previous two films' worth of continuity to remake the series into something more in line with the Universal Frankenstein films), so it came as no surprise to find that Hammer had decided to reboot their franchise again. The only surprising part of the plan was that the film wouldn't, in any way, feature Peter Cushing in the lead role of the mad doctor.
If you're a fan of Hammer horror, or have just read most of the articles on this site already, you know that Cushing was the soul of the Hammer Frankenstein series. In much the same way that Christopher Lee guided the Hammer Dracula series by taking on the lead role, Cushing played such a distinctive version of Frankenstein that he became the definitive mad doctor for an era. To think of anyone taking up the mantle of Victor Frankenstein would have been absolutely ghastly for the movie watching public. That might go some way to explaining why the sixth film in the series, The Horror of Frankenstein, failed to become a smash, instead becoming this one-off curiosity before Hammer went back to the Cushing well with its seventh film in the series, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell.
It is a pity, too, because this film (for much of its runtime, at least) had something interesting going for itself. After a couple of films in the main series it's fair to say that Hammer's Frankenstein films had found a bit of a shtick. Frankie would pop up in some new town, show a callous disregard for everyone around him, would start some hideous experiment (just because he could), and then everything would blow up in his face and he'd have to flee again (or fake his death, or whatever). While Cushing could absolutely crush it as Frankenstein, the movies around him had become rather rote and tired. It really was time for a bit of a refresh to the series, and The Horror of Frankenstein certainly does that, giving us a different interpretation of the material with a different actor, Ralph Bates, filling the mad doctor's lab coat. The film feels different, and fresh, and interesting all over again.
Not that the main story is anything outside the norm for Frankenstein. We catch up with the mad doctor when he's just a mad student, attending school in town while waiting for his father, the Baron, to allow the younger Frankenstein to attend university like he wants. The Baron, though, sees little point in high minded-education and demands his son stay in the town for the rest of his life. "You'll only go to university over my dead body," is the Baron's final statement on the matter, and final it will indeed be because the younger Frankenstein meddles with one of the Baron's rifles and, next time the elder Frankenstein goes hunting, the gun blows up in his face, killing him.
Now the Baron, Bates's Frankenstein is free to go to university as he likes, leaving his mansion in the care of beautiful housekeeper Alys (Kate O'Mara), the maid that his father had been sleeping with and, very soon, the younger Frankenstein begins sleeping with as well. Frankie abandons his friends back home for six years so he can study as he always dreamed, but he does make a new friend, Wilhelm Kassner (Graham James), and the two eventually return to Frankenstein's estate one long holiday so they can study the outer bounds of science (and also enjoy some time away from university). Frankenstein, though, really wants to push what science can do and, of course, has no desire to stay within the bounds of "morals" or "good taste". When Wilhelm balks at assembling a man out of pieces and bringing them to life, Victor kills him (and then, of course, uses his friend's body for parts). And all of this culminates in the creation of the Monster (David Prowse), a hulking beast assembled from everything Victor could gather. Now he just has to try and keep the beast from killing indiscriminately and drawing too much attention to Victor and his experiments (although killing in a targeted fashion is just fine).
Having tried (and failed, admittedly) to read through the original Frankenstein I do know that this movie at least takes some inspiration from the original novel (more so, arguably, than previous Hammer films in the series have managed). The biggest difference between source material and film is that Victor is a sociopathic, arrogant prick. No one and nothing is allowed to get in his way and he'll do anything to continue his experiments. The novel (and other adaptations outside the Hammer cycle) tend to paint Victor in a favorable light, that he was drawn to the idea of creating life so he could somehow cheat death and better the lives of all mankind. Hammer, though, really liked to have Frankenstein be the monster of his own films, so while there's always a beast in the movies that he creates, Frankenstein is the real villain time and time again.
I don't really mind that in this film because when you watch a Hammer horror film you at least know what you're going to get, tried and true formula and all the other trappings that come with. Maybe it's a little disappointing that the producers of The Horror of Frankenstein elected to keep Frankie as the villain of his story despite otherwise rebooting the series but the film at least uses the fresh setting to try and explore different aspects of the character, to find ways to mine fresh horror from the character and his actions. The movie might use the same ideas inherent in Hammer Frankenstein films, but at least it does new things with them.
The biggest difference is in the way Frankenstein is portrayed her by Ralph Bates. Cushing was a frothing mad man in the role, a scenery-chewing delight (even when he was being cold and aloof), but Bates brings a different angle to the character, playing the role not unlike a child poking at a dead animal with a stick. He's inquisitive, always looking to see what will happen next, but what he lacks is any kind of emotion, anything that grounds him to the characters around him. Cushing's mad doctor would froth and fume and be prone to bouts of anger, but Bates's version will faintly smile and nod right up until he murders you. Cushing might have had the bigger performance by Bates plays his Frankenstein like a true killer.
The horror in The Horror of Frankenstein comes from the mad doctor, watching him slowly change the world around him to suit his needs, dragging everyone around him along in his wake of destruction. Inevitably this leads to the creation of his Monster, but I'd argue that the film is at it's best when its just focused on Frankenstein and his need to experiment; once the Monster comes into being the film loses some of its edge, splitting its focus away from Frankenstein far to often so it can follow the vastly less interesting (and honestly pretty stupid looking) beast. It's a Frankenstein film so, of course, audiences expect a monster to show up, but the film worked best as an origin story simply studying the mad doctor as he, in turn, studied the world around him with his cold and callous eye.
For a good length of its runtime, then, The Horror of Frankenstein succeeds in its goal to provide a new, varied take on the material. Were it not for the last act of the film, with the Monster and his antics, this would be an absolute winner. But the Monster drags the film down, slowing the pace and making for a less dynamic movie than what came before. This is then followed by a cop-out ending (really, it's barely an ending at all), with the monster dead, the Baron safe from any repercussions from his actions, and absolutely no lessons learned at all. A lot of people died, largely at Victor's own hands, but he doesn't pay a price at all for anything he's done. Say what you will about any of the previous (or succeeding) films in the series but at least, each time, Cushing's mad doctor paid some kind of price for his actions. The fact that this film doesn't punish Bates's Victor at all blunts the film considerably.
Even with these issues, though, I really did enjoy this movie. I've seen a lot of Hammer horror at this point so getting me interested in one of these films at this point does take a fairly special movie. Even with the less thrilling last act (and a pretty bad ending) I still would have liked to have seen more films in this version of the series. Sadly audiences didn't show up and, after this, Hammer felt it best to bring back Cushing again. I do wonder what the films would have been like, though, if we could have seen another tale or two in the Horror of Frankenstein universe. Those could have been very interesting indeed.