After a week off for Christmas, The Movie Night Diaries is back! This time we’re looking into Hammer Horror’s The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), directed by Freddie Francis. The Evil of Frankenstein stars Peter Cushing as the cursed Baron Frankenstein and Kiwi Kingston as his hapless creature in a re-booting of Hammer’s Frankenstein mythology.
I enjoy Hammer’s original Frankenstein effort, The Curse of Frankenstein, as much as I enjoy the Universal Studios 1931 version with Boris Karloff and Colin Clive. It always impressed me how much of the terror of the Frankenstein story Hammer was able to resurrect after Universal had left its nearly indelible mark upon the story. Christopher Lee’s creature is among my favorites of his performances, and Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein was everything that Colin Clive’s wasn’t: His Frankenstein is calculating and cursed with a tragic drive towards the creation of life and the capturing of its mysteries, while Clive’s Doctor Frankenstein dramatically teeters on the edge of madness.
So it was with some excitement I finally tracked down The Evil of Frankenstein on my cable company’s Video-on-Demand service. I was treated to a digital version of the film, in HD, that preserved its original aspect ratio and succeeded in bringing the film to life with brilliant color and sound.
The Evil of Frankenstein sees Baron Frankenstein back at work on his lifelong project — once again he is in the forested countryside sending his minions to steal the bodies of the recently dead in order to revive them in his lab. Nearly destitute, Baron Frankenstein’s only companion is his assistant Hans (Sandor Elès). The Baron and Hans are discovered by the local clergy and driven out of the small town where they’d holed up in search of new bodies. The two are sent back to the only place where Frankenstein might reclaim some of his old wealth in order to continue with his experiments, the village of Karlstaad, the home of his original experiments. Having been driven from the village some ten years ago, Frankenstein and his assistant must secretly return to Castle Frankenstein. A quick series of unfortunate events later, and the two are once again driven into the mountainous countryside by the local authorities. There, Frankenstein discovers that his original monster has been preserved in a glacier since his original disappearance. Thought long dead, the creature is merely hibernating and waiting for the Baron to return to revive him. Frankenstein is elated, and with the help of his assistant Hans, he begins the work that will bring the creature back to life.
And so begins another entry in the Hammer Frankenstein series. In today’s media savvy environment, we’d be calling this a “re-boot,” the retro-fitting of the original mythology created by Hammer to breathe life (ahem) back into the flailing mess that Universal’s had become. In order to reclaim their own mythology, Hammer replaces Lee’s brilliant, ghastly, stitch-faced creature with one derivative of Universal’s — a blockishly browed, wooden-legged shuffler that is a distant cousin to Karloff’s creature. This may have been unavoidable, as Christopher Lee is not featured in this film, but it is still unfortunate. The most dramatic moment of Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein is the moment in which the creature is revealed to the audience — a new creature, one with an eye that is painfully alive and a cadaverous visage pieced together from the faces of the dead. I always imagined that this moment of revelation in the The Curse of Frankenstein was carefully chosen as a signal to the audience that they were watching a new universe for the re-imagining of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s creation. So it was with some disappointment I saw that Hammer was moving ahead with a creature that so closely resembles Universal’s.
Nevertheless, there is much to be enjoyed about this film. Peter Cushing is excellent as Baron Frankenstein, whom Hammer chose to portray in such a tragic fashion. And while the creature leaves a bit to be desired, Kiwi Kingston’s portrayal is still an effective one, because the audience finds the creature both pitiful and revolting. An interesting choice this film makes is the addition of the character Professor Zoltán, a hypnotist who helps the Baron bring the mind of the creature back to life. And the feral woman the Baron and his assistant Hans discover in the mountains, and her devotion to the creature, bring a new shade of humanity to the creature.