The story to this point: the good doctor of questionable moral standards, one Baron Victor von Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) escaped the guillotine he was facing at the end of the first film, Curse of Frankenstein, only to find himself beaten to death by angry amputees at the end of the second film, Revenge of Frankenstein. Luckily, his apprentice in that film, Hans, turned out to be a most capable student and was able to bring Frankenstein back from the dead, making him, in effect, the first man to successfully pull off Frankenstein’s experiment with reanimating corpses. So there you have the first two Frankenstein films from England’s Hammer Studio, two of the company’s best films and two of the best horror films ever produced. Well, you can forget all that, because although the third film in the series, Evil of Frankenstein once again stars Cushing in the lead role, and although there is a helper named Hans, just about everything else established up to that point by the previous films is chucked out the window for some inexplicable reason. Perhaps if we step back and look at some of the events that lead up to this film, we can comprehend why it seems such an oddity in the overall Hammer Frankenstein series. Or maybe we won’t. Either way, you’re getting the story, so you might as well sit back and make yourself comfortable.
When Hammer made Curse of Frankenstein way back in…aww, heck now, when was that? Nineteen hundred and fifty-seven? Fifty-eight? You know, at my age the years all just sort of mix together. Anyway, when Hammer made that film, most folks were still thinking of Frankenstein not as a classic of gothic horror literature penned by Mary Shelley, but as a series of movies produced by Universal and starring Boris Karloff or a parade of actors attempting to look like Boris Karloff. Hammer was determined to remind people of the film’s literary origins, and besides, the Karloff monster make-up devised by Jack Pierce had been trademarked, so Hammer had to make certain their monster bore no resemblance to the Universal version. What they came up with in the end was spectacularly frightful, and while Christopher Lee’s monster may not be the instantly recognizable global icon that Karloff’s is, it is in my opinion the creepier and more nightmarish of the two.
After Revenge of Frankenstein, in which the monster was almost completely human in appearance save for his otherworldly Lyle Lovett hair, Hammer hatched some sort of a deal with Universal that gave them the rights to recreate the famous Karloff make-up. This would seem, thematically, to be incongruous with the progress set forth by the previous film in which we see that Frankenstein has mastered the procedure almost to the point of perfection. There’d be no reason for him to create anything as ungainly as a Karloff-type creature. But still, you can’t help but want to take advantage of the chance to use the Universal likeness, so Evil of Frankenstein devised a script in which the baron encounters a previous creation of his frozen in ice. This in itself would have been very easy to work into the timeline of events set down by the first two films. There is a gap between Curse and Revenge into which this creature could have slid nicely without wreaking havoc. Unfortunately, they chose to cast this new creature as the original creature despite looking nothing like the Lee incarnation. In addition, no mention of the death and rebirth of Frankenstein at the end of the second film is ever made, and this particular Hans seems to have none of the skills possessed by the previous Hans. And just to make matters even more confused, a flashback sequence retells the story of the original creature, but with a completely different ending, one in which Frankenstein is merely exiled from the town of Karlstadt rather than sent to the guillotine.
Ultimately, you either have to ignore some of the bits and pieces of plot in this third film, which would then allow you to accept the flashbacks as being to some adventure after Curse but before Revenge, or you have to think of Evil of Frankenstein as a completely self-contained story unrelated to the previous two films, which is irritating in a way. Or you can just not worry about any of this. It’s just that when you have two films as good as and as connected to one another as Curse and Revenge — which picks up exactly where the first film ends – you want the third in the series to fit into the puzzle instead of being some weird anomaly sitting off to the side. It could be that the chance to use the Universal appearance of the monster meant that Hammer figured they might as well make a little self-contained episode that is more of a salute to the old Universal films than a pure Hammer movie. Thus the revised back story, and thus, for that matter, the entire plot of this film, which feels much more like a throwback to the old Universal Frankenstein sequels than it does an entry into the Hammer canon. If anyone has simply asked someone from Hammer why the film was handled in this manner, I’ve yet to find the quote. But I’m confident it’s out there somewhere.
So there’s the behind-the-scenes gibberish. How about the movie itself? Well needless to say, it doesn’t measure up to the previous two films, but very few horror films can. As a self-contained “further adventures of Baron Frankenstein,” it’s acceptable at its best but has many things wrong with it that didn’t plague the other films. We’ll come to them in due time, but let’s dig into things properly. The film begins on a solid foot with a great body-snatching scene that culminates in Frankenstein being run out of whatever town he settled in this time. Strapped for cash and devoid of equipment, he decides the only course of action is to sneak back to his old home and gather up some of his priceless belongings to sell. Why, exactly, he assumes the manor of a mad scientist who was executed and/or run out of town after creating a monster out of the body parts of corpses and then letting that monster go on a rampage would still be intact is a bit unclear, but I figure he’s been inhaling a lot of fumes from all those mysterious beakers full of colored liquids mad scientists are so fond of, that he isn’t really thinking straight. Hans (this time played by Sandor Eles — an actor whose name sounds like a character from one of these movies) thinks that maybe going back home isn’t such a good idea, but Frankenstein is confident no one will even remember exactly what he looks like or be that interested in the arrival of two travelers. This seems in stark contrast to the fact that every time he gets caught dabbling in the domain of God, his persecutors all remember everything about his infamous story.
As one would guess, Castle Frankenstein has been looted, and the fact that a local mesmerist keeps mentioning the dreaded Frankenstein by name still doesn’t seem to convince Peter Cushing that people will recognize him. Eventually he discovers the local mayor is the proud owner of much of the stolen Frankenstein booty, which leads to the beleaguered doctor fleeing town once again, this time with the help of a beautiful wild deaf mute girl played, fittingly, by Katy Wild. It just so happens that in her cave is the frozen body of Frankenstein’s old monster, just waiting to be spirited away for revival. At this point, Frankenstein’s ransacked lab is miraculously in working order again, but we can ignore that since we’re going to be busy marveling at how monumentally godawful the monster make-up job is.
Look, I’m already being easier on this film than a lot of Hammer fans tend to be. It’s not up to the standards of the Frankenstein series, but taken on its own it isn’t really all that bad. But no amount of politeness can change the fact that this is some of the shoddiest make-up work Hammer has ever slapped together. You’d think with the rights to the Karloff look secured, they’d make some effort to make it look like something at least a little bit better than what a high school horror fan might come up with given ten minutes, ten dollars, and no materials other than paper mache, a packet of Quaker Oats, and a Sharpie marker. I mean, this is bad, bad stuff. Far worse than you might even guess if you haven’t seen it. It can stand up to neither the Jack Pierce original nor the Christopher Lee version Hammer dreamt up for their first Frankenstein film. If this is the best they could do, then it’s a shame they even tried at all. Come on, man! If all those crappy Universal sequels can get the make-up right, then surely Hammer could come up with something passable. This is the sort of garbage that never should have even been allowed into make-up test shots, let alone the finished product.
Saddled as he is with clunky, fake looking make-up, there’s not much Kiwi Kingston, the man under the mess, could do even if he had the talent to do it. Both Karloff and Lee proved how much you could do with the character without even having dialogue. In the previous Hammer entry, Michael Gwynn provided us with a fully human “monster.” Kingston and the disaster he has plastered to his face are a major step backward. The make-up allows for almost no facial expressions at all. We can’t seen anything but the actors lips and eyes, and Kingston doesn’t know what to do with those. The rest of his body language is hampered by bulky clothes and those big metal shoes, so there’s nothing worth noting there either. He is a completely unsympathetic creature who generates no emotional attachment, and as anyone who knows Frankenstein movies can tell you, that’s death for a movie. Even thought the Hammer films concentrate on the man more than the monster, you still have to have a good monster. In one scene where the monster is supposed to tumble through a railing and off a stairway, you can even see Kingston take a few steps back to get a running start before plowing intentionally into the railing like a football linebacker rather than some out-of-control creature in torment. The best Kingston can do is to stomp about and emit a shrill, irritating shriek that makes you long for the monster’s death simply so it’ll quit screeching.
He does a lot of that screeching because he was shot in the head, and apparently Frankenstein didn’t do as good a job fixing the ol’ brain up as he thought he did. When he finally quiets the big lug down, it’s only because the monster goes into a coma. Frankenstein and Hans decide to enlist that local mesmerist, himself in trouble with the law, to help reawaken the creature’s mind. This whole plot turn feels very similar to the sub par (but not entirely unenjoyable, mind you) Universal sequels that always had the monster getting involved with traveling carnivals and hypnotists and sideshow carnies carting around Dracula’s bones. Naturally, the hypnotist Zoltan has his own designs on controlling the creature to extract a little revenge upon the cops who keep hassling him. Are all carnival hypnotists named Zoltan or Zandor? It’s almost as chronic a problem as goth girls who call themselves Cassandra, or hippies who name their dog Zoe.
My beef with the whole hypnotist plot isn’t that it’s kind of corny or “Universal.” I don’t mind that. My problem is the fact that it causes Hammer to forget what made their first two movies great, and that’s Peter Cushing. In both of the previous films, Frankenstein is the main character, and the films focus on exploring the complexity of his personality and the mentality that leads him to abandon the concept of morality in favor of relentless pursuit of scientific research. Here, Cushing’s doctor takes on more of a supporting role with little more to do than Hans or the wild beggar girl. The focus shifts to Zoltan, played competently by Peter Woodthorpe, who later went on to star with Peter Cushing in The Skull before doing the voice of Gollum in the Ralph Bakshi animated version of The Lord of the Rings, which also featured Hammer stalwart Andre Morrell as Elrond. With too little Cushing and saddled with a load like Kingston’s unengaging and downright annoying monster, this plot simply collapses. There’s nothing to keep you interested. We know Zoltan will die for his treachery, and well, the creature always dies. There’s nothing intense, nothing to pull you in the way there is in exploring Frankenstein himself.
Despite being relegated to supporting player, Cushing performs up to his usual high standards. The most interesting twist on the character allowed to come out in this film is the few glances we see of Frankenstein as a tired man. We know him as driven, undefeatable in his own way, but from time to time we get to see in Evil of Frankenstein a man who simply wants to be left alone. There’s no real conflict in him here though, which keeps him from being as compelling as he has been in the past. In previous films we had to balance his charisma and good intentions with the fact that he was willing to murder or perform unnecessary amputations if it would advance his research. Here, he gets mad about the burgomaster stealing his stuff, but that’s about it. That does however lead to one good scene between him and the burgomaster’s hysterically screaming wife. Unfortunately, there is nothing urgent in the character. It’s almost as if Cushing could tell this film was little more than just a breather between official installments and decided, while he was still going to be the best thing about the movie, he could also afford to take a bit of a breather himself.
The primary reason, undoubtedly, for the shift in the focus of the story is the fact that Jimmy Sangster, who wrote the previous two films, was replaced this time around by Hammer producer-turned-writer Anthony Hinds. There’s no real faulting Hinds as a producer. He is, arguably, the man who defined Hammer, and once he left in 1970, the studio began it’s sharp downward spiral. As a scriptwriter, he was also quite accomplished, and the studio’s best films that weren’t penned by Sangster usually bear Hind’s name or one of his pseudonyms. Curse of the Werewolf, Kiss of the Vampire, some of the Dracula movies before the wheels fell off that franchise — damn good movies. And while he’s written a decent movie here, he hasn’t written a decent Hammer Frankenstein movie, if you know what I mean. It’s as if he simply missed the point of the series and took it in the wrong direction.
Also replaced was director Terence Fisher, who had helmed the first two films as well as the other films that helped define Hammer, Horror of Dracula and The Mummy (both written, incidentally, by Sangster). Cinematographer Freddie Francis took over with generally good results, though that special something Fisher brought to the table is notable in its absence. Still, Francis manages a number of memorable scenes, his best being the opening scene of body snatching. I can say that, as was par for the Hammer course, the film looks beautiful. The baron’s crumbling castle is gorgeously realized and the air of decay lends thematic gravity to the proceedings. Supporting players are uniformly good as well. Katy Wild gives of a strange Bjork vibe, but I guess any Bjork-type vibe is going to be strange. She gives the high-quality mute performance that should have been coming from Kiwi Kingston as the monster. It’s a shame she didn’t pop up more often. Her connection to the creature is only explored in a rudimentary fashion, but I reckon it’s better than nothing at all. As Hans II, Sandor Eles is fine. There would end up being as many Hanses in these movies as there were Kloves and Pauls in the Dracula films.
Evil of Frankenstein is a movie that is a bit hard to like if you are a fan of the previous two films. It just doesn’t make sense why they decided to conflict so heavily with the established continuity when one or two little changes would have made everything more or less into place. What’s done is done, though, and the result is that Evil of Frankenstein enjoys a rather rotten reputation as the worst of the Hammer Frankensteins, which I reckon is technically true. But the other films are all so good — though Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell does boast a monster design every bit as terrible as what’s on display here- – that you can be the worst of them and still be a decent film. I don’t think Evil of Frankenstein deserves quite as much venom as is sometimes flung its way. It’s a misstep, sure, and a disappointing experiment, sort of like one of the doctor’s many unsuccessful attempts at breathing life into the dead. But it has good performances from everyone who isn’t the monster, a good score, a decent amount of action, the usual brain surgery gore, and a few really wonderful moments. If all bad ideas were this watchable, we’d be better off.