Monday, February 25, 2019

The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)

Director: Terence Fisher                                    Writers: Jimmy Sangster & Herford Janes
Film Score: Leonard Salzedo                            Cinematography: Jack Asher
Starring: Peter Cushing, Francis Matthews, Eunice Gayson and Michael Gwynn

The Revenge of Frankenstein is one of the better sequels in the Hammer series of horror films. Unlike the latter Dracula films, this story picks up right where Curse of Frankenstein left off, with Peter Cushing as Dr. Frankenstein about to face the guillotine and beheaded as punishment for his monster’s crimes. The film is essentially a loose adaptation of a small subplot of Universal’s House of Frankenstein, with a disfigured hunchback falling in love with a beautiful nurse, and his desire to have his brain transplanted into a strong new body in the hopes of winning her love. But unlike Boris Karloff’s lies to J. Carrol Naish, Dr. Frankenstein is true to his word in this film. Interestingly, Michael Gwynn’s monster is the closest ever to Mary Shelley’s original conception, as he’s intelligent and well spoken, quite the opposite of the lumbering beasts in all of the previous Frankenstein movies. And that is the primary distinction between the two series. Where Universal focused on the monster, conveniently revived in every new incarnation by a different mad doctor, Hammer realized that Cushing was the real draw of the original film and made him the through character for their series. The film received mixed reviews, primarily because of the lack of real menace by Cushing, but the film has been consistently praised by fans who enjoy seeing the modulations of the character as he appears in each successive film.

The opening credits are seen over a silhouette of the guillotine, and then shifts to the preparations for the execution. Peter Cushing as Frankenstein is led out of his jail cell to the scaffold by a priest, Alex Gallier. The camera follows the blade up to the top of the mechanism, a brief struggle is heard below, and the blade comes down. The scream heard is then associated with a jump cut to a busy pub. Thief Lionel Jeffries attempts to get reluctant Michael Ripper to join him on a job, but the money is too much to resist and he finally agrees. The work involves digging up the freshly buried body of Cushing, but when they crack open the coffin lid it turns out to be the headless priest. Ripper runs away, but when Cushing his hunchbacked assistant Oscar Quitak show up, Quitak kills Jeffries and they bury him with the priest. Then a time shift brings the anonymous doctor to Carlsbruck where he has been practicing under the name of Stein. He manages to fund his work at a free clinic by taking away nearly all the female patients from the other doctors in town, and earning the enmity of the local medical society in the process. One of the younger doctors there, Francis Matthews, guesses Cushing’s identity and blackmails him into letting him become his student. The two work out of a disguised wine cellar beneath a beer hall along with Quitak, where Cushing is assembling a new monster, Michael Gwynn. Where Cushing believes he failed last time was in attempting to bring to life a dead brain. This time he intends on transplanting the live brain of the deformed Quitak into the body of Gwynn.

The love interest is Eunice Gayson, the new clinic assistant and the daughter of the president of the medical society, while Richard Wordsworth is the nosy janitor who helps her turn the monster loose on the town--with predictable results. The real brilliance of Peter Cushing in the role of Dr. Frankenstein is his incredible arrogance. He’s the greatest medical mind of his time, and he knows it. He refuses to feel sorry for those physicians less gifted than he, or to fell guilt about his amoral behavior. Anything that advances his--and by extension, mankind’s--knowledge is perfectly justified. Unlike Colin Clive’s continual moral hand wringing from the original Universal series, Cushing has ice water in his veins and doesn’t care who knows it. As a result, he’s remarkable to watch onscreen, and it makes the Frankenstein series much more powerful than the seemingly improvised stories of the Dracula films. Terence Fisher acquits himself well in directing the picture, and while the production does miss the demonstrative presence of James Bernard on the soundtrack, Leonard Salzedo’s subdued score is probably more reflective of the monster in this film. The ending, however, is what makes the story so good, so it wouldn’t do to give it away here, but there is a hint of it in the original novel as well as the stage play that was adapted from it before the title character began his movie career. It’s really what makes the picture and sets Jimmy Sangster’s story apart from everything that had gone before it. The Revenge of Frankenstein is a worthy successor to the original and a springboard for the continuation of Hammer’s most successful franchise.

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