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.
Cave Hill in Louisville is, like Brooklyn’s Green-Wood, one of the finest, most beautiful public parks in the world. It also happens to be a sprawling cemetery, designed in the era of “garden cemeteries,” full of opulent and/or spooky monuments and historic figures. Chartered in 1848 (just ten years after Green-Wood), Cave Hill has become a popular destination for strollers and history buffs. It is the last resting place of local and international figures like Colonel Sanders, Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle, cult film director William Girdler, the Frito-Lay magician, and a vast assortment of local generals, mayors, captains of industry, and luminaries. I set myself loose on the grounds armed with a Lomo LCA and Holga to wander aimlessly and capture some of my favorite spots in a cemetery so huge that there are still, all these decades later, unknown corners.
If you brave the tourist-chocked nightmare that is the Penn Station/Madison Square Garden area of Manhattan and manage to push your way through the throngs of dazed people waiting for the budget Bolt Bus lined up along 33rd Street, and look for the small sign next to the larger signs for psychics and porno videos, you will find 421 7th Ave — Fantasma Magic. Through the nondescript office building lobby, on the 3rd floor, you will find a phantasmagorically decorated hallway lined with posters and reflective wallpaper that leads you to Fantasma’s small but absorbing Houdini Museum of New York. Inside, clerks and local magicians hang out with visitors at the counter, showing off and sometimes even exposing the secret behind sleight of hand magic tricks. Lining the walls is a small wealth of Houdini memorabilia. More is stored in a couple glass display cases. And the far wall showcases, among other things, some of the props from Houdini’s greatest escapes and even includes an animatronic Houdini that will escape from a straight jacket for you.
Hessler and Price are together again (for the first time) for a Poe adaptation that actually has a little something to do with Poe, or at least as much as any AIP Poe film has to do with Poe. Poe’s short story, “The Oblong Box,” has to do with a man who witnesses the obsession of an artist friend on a ship with an oblong shipping crate. So committed is the man, seeming delirious and mad, to this box that when the ship is wrecked during a storm, he sinks to the bottom of the ocean with the box rather than abandon it. Not to spoil the surprise, but it was a coffin containing his dead wife, though no one knew of the contents lest they refuse to travel overseas with a corpse. Hessler’s film does indeed contain a coffin that is referred to as an oblong box. And there is an artist, though he himself has no coffin. Beyond that, this film has as much to do with Poe as does the average movie in which someone inherits a wily, diaper-wearing ape that solves a crime.
Someone must have gotten the memo and said, “Jesus, another mummy movie?” After three Hammer mummy movies, which in turn had followed some nine thousand or so Universal mummy movies featuring the vengeful bag o’ rags known as Kharsis, the general consensus was that the world pretty much had all the movies it needed in which some expedition disturbs a tomb, gets yelled at by a guy in a fez, and then gets stalked by the mummy looking to avenge the desecration of the tomb. Even in as few as three films, Hammer Studio seemed to be flogging a dead…I don’t know…Pharaoh or something. Though their first film, The Mummy starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee was spectacular, subsequent Hammer mummy movies bore essentially the same plot, and I do mean “bore.”
“His two battered suitcases came and he unpacked leisurely and then ordered from Room Service a bottle of the Taittinger Blanc de Blancs that he had made his traditional drink at Royale. When the bottle, in its frosted silver bucket, came, he drank a quarter of it rather fast and then went into the bathroom and had an ice-cold shower and washed his hair with Pinaud Elixir, that prince among shampoos, to get the dust of the roads out of it.” — James Bond checks in, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
I reckon I’ve made the joke often enough about Pinaud Elixir, that prince among shampoos, that I should probably write a little about it beyond its role as my go-to joke whenever I mention James Bond. Pinaud is a venerable men’s grooming company, having been established — if you believe the label — in 1810 by French perfumer Edouard Pinaud. But since Pinaud himself wasn’t born until sometime around that year, one assumes a bit of poetic license is being taken by the brand. Still, it’s been around for a long time. Pinaud opened his first shop in Paris in 1830, and in 1833 his “lilac vegetal” product became so popular with the Emperor Napoleon that the ruler had Pinaud appointed “Royal Parfumer,” and the company’s Lilac Vegetal after-shave became the official facial pick-me-up of the Hungarian cavalry. Never mind that Napoleon had died in 1821, and that Napoleon III, while alive at the time, wasn’t in France and didn’t have much of anything to do with Hungary’s cavalrymen. But what can you do? Let truth get in the way of a good story?
Hammer beats George Romero to the zombie punch by a year, but needless to say their effort, though perfectly respectable, was overshadowed by Romero’s groundbreaking classic. I went into this film with mixed feelings. On the one hand, all the stills I’d seen from it looked incredible. Very spooky and atmospheric. On the other hand, my most recent experience with Hammer studio director John Gilling was the dry as a mummy’s shroud The Mummy’s Shroud. But I’m a sucker for pretty much any and every Hammer film that’s been released, and I figure it certainly can’t be any worse than Zombie Lake. It turns out, in fact, that Plague of the Zombies not only isn’t any worse than Zombie Lake; it’s much, much better. Okay, maybe saying something is better than Zombie Lake isn’t saying a whole lot, so let’s revise the praise. Plague of the Zombies is a damn good film, maybe not the caliber of film that is Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead, but certainly on par with other great zombie films like Let Sleeping Corpses Lie and easily one of the best of Hammer’s non-Dracula/Frankenstein films. Is that a mouthful?