When last we saw Baron Victor Frankenstein, he was being marched to the guillotine to face a beheading for the murders committed by his man-made man, not to mention the murders in which he himself dabbled. Well, you can’t keep a good mad scientist down, and there are none better or madder than Cushing’s Frankenstein. With the help of a prison attendant who wants access to the Baron’s peculiar talents, Frankenstein escapes the execution and sets up a new identity and a new medical practice in another town. Hey, cheating death is what Frankenstein is all about, right? All seems to be going well for the doctor, who has a bustling private medical practice and a commendable public hospital for the poor. Sure he draws the ire of the local medical society when he refuses to join their ranks, but all in all, this new Dr. Stein (put a lot of thought into that one, didn’t ya, Victor? Better than Alucard, I reckon) seems to have turned over a new leaf and started working for the good of mankind. But wait…wasn’t that what he thought he was doing the last time around?
Sure enough, it doesn’t take long for Frankenstein to show us he’s still up to his old tricks. He’s unduly enthusiastic about amputating various body parts from his impoverished charity cases, even when the injuries seem unserious and, from time to time, not entirely existent. When a young doctor by the name of Hans Kleve (Francis Matthews, as one in a long line of Hans-es that will appear in these movies) recognizes Stein is really the legendary Frankenstein. Rather than wanting to turn him in, Hans practices a bit of friendly blackmail to get himself taken in as Frankenstein’s assistant. Kleve is an interesting opposite of the previous films moral crusader Paul, and the lack of Paul’s “tampering in God’s domain” speeches and self-righteous aggrandizing is welcome as Hans Kleve throws himself enthusiastically into Frankenstein’s work. Rounding out the office is Karl (Oscar Quitak), the crippled man who assisted Frankenstein’s escape from the guillotine in exchange for Frankenstein’s promise that he would transplant Karl’s brain into a healthy, custom-made body. And of course, since things have to be complicated and include some bosoms and a Cockney rapscallion, there’s Eunice Gayson as a woman working as an assistant at the charity hospital and George Woodbridge as the sleazy janitor.
With Hans’ help and Karl’s willing donation of a clever brain, things proceed successfully for Frankenstein. The brain transplant works well. Frankenstein’s man-made body sewn from the parts of unlucky hospital patients looks like an actual man, with only a few noticeable scars and no hideous hazy eye or rotting flesh. Well, things are proceeding successfully until Karl finds out that he’ll end up being paraded around like a zoo animal to be examined and prodded by various doctors and scientists. A tussle with a night watchman causes Karl, now played by Michael Gwynn, to start suffering side effects from his days-fresh operation. Among other things, he starts having homicidal rages, and his body begins to contort back into its original half-paralyzed shape.
As with the first film only more so, this is Peter Cushing’s show. This is a film about Frankenstein the doctor, the man of science who is forever blinded to morality by his singular dedication to research at any cost. Although the character was solid the first time around, here Cushing and the script invest even more depth in the doctor. He commits no murder, but he also mercilessly pillages the ranks of the lower class when he needs an arm or an eyeball. You would think with no one to reel him in a la Paul in the first film, he’d go even crazier, but having a willing accomplice in Hans seems to temper the doctor’s tendency to kill off the occasional human obstacle. But he’s no less obsessed, and once again it is merely the means that fascinate Frankenstein, not the ends. Everything bad that happens in the movie could have been avoided if Frankenstein had simply stuck around to keep an eye on his new creation. Instead, no sooner has Karl regained consciousness than Frankenstein takes off for his lab to continue tinkering on a new project. His interest isn’t in the discovery, but in the pursuit of the discovery. Cushing once again manages to make you sympathetic against your better judgment to a character who crosses the line time and time again without remorse or even awareness that what he’s doing might be wrong. Hammer was wise to stick with Cushing’s doctor as the main character rather than going the Universal route that focused on the monster with a cast of interchangeable and generally forgettable Frankenstein descendants. Cushing owns the film and the character and pulls you in completely.
The lack of Christopher Lee only seems important before you see the movie. It is, after all, a tale about the doctor, so it makes sense that we would see a procession of different “creatures.” And as Karl in his new body, Michael Gwynn is great. Where as Lee’s creature was a shambling mess who could not speak, Karl represents Frankenstein’s evolving skill and assistance from two sharp and willing accomplices. He is very nearly a regular man, so Gwynn is allowed to do a little more than Lee. In doing so he creates a fully sympathetic “creature” who is not a creature at all. The scene in which he desperately struggles to destroy his old body, both to wipe the memory of it from his mind and avoid being put on display next to it in Frankenstein’s “before and after” diorama, is among the best in the series. His inevitable degeneration into “the creature” is as heart-breaking as anything Hammer ever filmed, and his final appearance at a society event — the sort of appearance that cliche demands should end in some sort of a rampage or carrying off of the woman — instead turns into a poignant piece in which Karl simply stumbles weakly toward Stein and pleads with him, “Frankenstein — help me!”
Likewise, Matthew Francis is tiptop as Hans, a sort of “Frankenstein in training” only without the doctor’s acidic bad temper and lack of social graces. It’s perhaps worth noting that it could be his slightly more agreeable attitude that helps Hans become in effect the one and only man in the entire series who, during the film’s epilogue, successfully completes a brain transplant and the creation of a new man. Unlike Frankenstein, Hans cares as much for the outcome of his work as he does the process by which he achieves it. It’s a good part, and Francis is wonderful.
The supporting cast is up to the usual Hammer standards, though Eunice Gayson is given precious little to do, as was the case with the women in most Hammer Frankenstein films except, obviously, Frankenstein Created Woman. There’s a sexual dynamic to the film that was never fully explored in my opinion. Where as the Dracula movies make it more overt, the tale of a sexual predator with red eyes and fangs who seduces simply to destroy, in the Frankenstein movies it’s less animalistic and more political. Frankenstein is, after all, attempting to eliminate women from the process of making life. He shows open disdain for them most of the time, and at his best is merely tolerant of their existence. Where the Universal movies frequently took the “tampered in God’s domain” line of philosophy, Hammer films seem more secular in their life politics. It’s not God he’s upsetting; Frankenstein is tampering in motherhood’s domain. He sees Karl, ultimately, as just another experiment to be filed away once completed (Frankenstein talks of showcasing his creation but of course never gets the chance, and one wonders if he’d actually take the time or simply lose interest and launch off in pursuit of some other mad scheme instead). When Eunice Gayson’s Margaret discovers Karl recuperating in the hospital, her immediate instinct is to befriend and help him; if not to treat him as a mother would, then to at least treat him as a fellow human being.
While Revenge of Frankenstein is subtle (for Hammer) in its approach to this battle of the sexes, it definitely builds upon the concept and carries it over from the previous film. There, Frankenstein was kind but condescending and ultimately uninterested in his wife while using the maid purely for pleasure and, one would assume, her cooking and cleaning skills. He doesn’t go off and murder a woman in Revenge of Frankenstein, but he has a much more unpleasant opinion of them in general (and he would become worse as the series progressed).
If Margaret represents Frankenstein’s continuing battle against women, then the hospital’s janitor and the elitist members of the medical union represent his equal contempt for class. Frankenstein exists in a classless society, one in which the only people he truly respects are those who are smart and daring enough to embrace his work. Although initially introduced as a charitable doctor aiding the disenfranchised, we quickly learn that Frankenstein’s love of the lower class goes no further than seeing them as a cheap and easily accessible population of limb and organ donors. He is openly sneers at the hospital janitor and berates him for no good reason. The janitor isn’t a particularly nasty fellow. Unwashed, yes, and maybe a little sleazy, but he certainly doesn’t deserve the abuse that the doctor directs toward him. On the flip side are the doctors of the medical board and a local duchess, all of whom represent the high society Frankenstein plays at being a part of. In fact, he’s even more contemptuous of them than he is of the poor. He masquerades as one of their ranks simply so that he can get away with what he does and not be questioned. Status is his best disguise. He pretends to be an aristocrat so he can have access to their freedom from suspicion, but at heart he is a technocrat, a man who believes bold men of science should lead society via their technical prowess. In fact, he’s a technocrat in both the positive and negative sense of the word, encompassing both the romanticized notion that the best educated should lead while also fulfilling the criticism of technocracy that claims the decisions technocrats make are often inadequate because they are made based on science and theory and do not take into account the actual human parameters of a given situation.
Free from the obligation to adhere, if loosely, to a pre-existing novel, scriptwriter Jimmy Sangster is able to indulge in the doctor’s curious character and does so with grand results. As with the first film, Revenge of Frankenstein seems on the surface and if it was simply recounted to you, to move slowly. Most of the scenes consist of Frankenstein and Hans fiddling with strange scientific apparatus. The monster is very human looking. But none of this equals any degree of boredom. Fueled by the power of Cushing’s performance, by the earnestness in which he handles everything, and by the obvious adoration and sincerity he has for exploring the depths of this madman’s obsession, Revenge of Frankenstein moves at a fast pace without insulting its literary heritage. I appreciate any horror film, or any film in general, that doesn’t try and boil everything down to a series of dumb action sequences. Sangster’s crowning achievement is the twist ending. In keeping with the film’s overall theme of class conflict, Frankenstein’s final undoing (at least until the next movie) comes not in some fiery showdown with his monster gone mad, but instead with the poor house patience who realize he has been using them as nothing more than a body part farm. And of course the final shot of Hans’ own creation was just magnificent.
Terence Fisher’s direction is, again, beautiful. As one expects of a Hammer film, it’s simply gorgeous to behold. He never gets a chance to create anything as memorably chilling as the scene from Curse of Frankenstein in which Christopher Lee’s bandaged monster is initially revealed or the scene of the monster wandering through bleak late autumn woods, but his direction remains high quality and inventive, playing a lot with light and shadow. And he gives Peer a lot of stuff with which to fiddle, which I know must have deleted ol’ Props Cushing.
For my money, the double whammy of Curse of Frankenstein and Revenge of Frankenstein represents the high water mark for Hammer horror productions. They’re wonderful films, perfectly connected to one another without the sequel being a derivative rehash. I like Christopher Lee’s Dracula movies as much as any Hammer horror fan and there were plenty of non-series films of high quality, but there is such heart, such macabre beauty, and such craftsmanship in the Frankenstein movies that they are, in my opinion, the absolute best examples, past or present, of Gothic horror movie making. The Frankenstein series as a whole represents Hammer at their best.