The Evil of Frankenstein (1964) **
1964 was not a good year, creatively speaking, for Hammer Film Productions. That year’s lineup included both the tediously stupid The Gorgon and the stupidly tedious The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb. It also included a top contender for the title of Worst Hammer Frankenstein Film, The Evil of Frankenstein. Not only is the monster makeup unbelievably cheap and silly-looking (it’s almost as bad as its counterpart in Blackenstein), the script completely recasts the character of Baron Victor Frankenstein, and commits the nearly unforgivable sin of totally rewriting the backstory of the previous two films.
The opening scenes are surprisingly decent in light of what will follow. A body snatcher sneaks into the cottage of a family that has just lost its eldest son while the bereaved parents are away. After making off with the dead man’s body, the grave robber brings it to a millhouse, where Baron Frankenstein (at least they kept Peter Cushing...) and his assistant, Hans (Sandor Eles, from And Soon the Darkness and Countess Dracula), are busy with some ungodly experiment or other. Hans pays the grave robber, and then hastens him out the door, answering the man’s questions regarding what Frankenstein means to do with the body with a matter-of-fact, “He’s going to cut out his heart. Why not? It isn’t doing him any good now.” This heart then goes into a tank full of murky fluid, where it will be set to beating by means of elaborate hydroelectric machinery harnessed to the mill’s water wheel. But the dead man’s little sister witnessed the theft of his body, and with her help, the parish priest tracks down the miscreant responsible, and learns where he took the purloined stiff. Just barely has the experiment gotten underway when the priest, who had heard stories of what Frankenstein is up to in the mill, bursts in, berates the Baron for his blasphemy, and starts wrecking the equipment with his cane. After chasing the priest away, Frankenstein and Hans go on the run once again.
Their destination, oddly enough, is Frankenstein’s hometown of Karlstaad, from which he was banished nearly a decade ago because of his unholy research. The baron is taking this risk because he is flat broke; he hopes to be able to sneak back out of town with enough of his chateau’s plush appointments to raise money for yet another new lab. Frankenstein lucks out, in that Karlstaad is holding a carnival when he arrives, and there are enough people on the street that nobody will notice two strangers riding through town. But the baron’s luck runs only so far, for he finds that his castle has been stripped clean by burglars in the years since he was forced to vacate it. A weary, disgusted Frankenstein then explains to the curious Hans how he got himself into this mess in the first place. Those who have seen The Curse of Frankenstein and The Revenge of Frankenstein will note that the baron’s tale bears not the slightest resemblance to the course of events as depicted in those movies. This version has Frankenstein living and working alone, the monster escaping from his lab by mistake, and finally being shot off a cliff by the gendarmes after slaughtering a herd of sheep. Frankenstein was then arrested and exiled from Karlstaad, a rather more lenient punishment than that to which the previous films had him sentenced.
Back in town (Frankenstein and his assistant have decided to risk discovery once again in the name of dinner), it becomes obvious where at least some of the baron’s valuables went. In the inn where they take their meal, Frankenstein notices that his old foe, the burgomaster (David Hutcheson, whose character would come to an even stickier end in The Abominable Dr. Phibes), is unashamedly wearing a signet ring that belonged to the baron. This is absolutely the last fucking straw, and Frankenstein nearly gets Hans and himself arrested by making a scene in the pub. While trying to evade the police chief (Duncan Lamont, from The Creeping Flesh and Five Million Years to Earth) and his men, the two fugitives duck into a carnival tent where a hypnotist calling himself Professor Zoltan (Peter Woodthrope, of The Skull, who also supplied the voice of Gollum in Ralph Bakshi’s sorry-ass 1978 version of Lord of the Rings) is performing. The cops enter the tent, too, but the chief decides he’s much more interested in hassling the hypnotist than he is in catching the man who picked a fight with the mayor. Frankenstein and Hans steal away into the covering dark while the chief busts Zoltan for operating a carnival attraction without a license.
The baron does not give up so easily though, especially when someone’s gotten him good and pissed. Later that night, Frankenstein forces his way into the burgomaster’s mansion, where he is disgusted— but not surprised— to find the entire place furnished and decorated with stolen goods from Castle Frankenstein. It’s not Frankenstein’s day, though, and once again, the chief of police is close enough at hand to come to the burgomaster’s rescue. And to make matters worse, this time both honchos realize who their noisy new troublemaker is, so the chateau is obviously out of the question as a refuge— where better to start looking for a wanted man than at his own house? Victor and Hans flee instead to the mountains, where they are lucky enough to draw the attention of a deaf-mute beggar girl (Katy Wild, from Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and The Deadly Bees) who hangs out in one of the caves when she isn’t panhandling in Karlstaad. But there’s more in the girl’s cave than just a warm fire, shelter, and a pile of straw to sleep on. The deepest part of the cave connects with the glacier on the mountaintop, and in a coincidence that might have been acceptable the first time we’d seen it, what should our heroes find caught in the ice but Frankenstein’s old monster! Hans and the baron quickly build a fire to melt the creature free, and then haul it back to the chateau (it apparently having occurred to neither them nor the screenwriter that the only reason they’ve been hanging out in a cave for the past couple of days is that they couldn’t go back to the chateau!).
Frankenstein and his assistant soon have the old lab up and running again (never you mind that their entire purpose in coming to Karlstaad was that they have neither the replacement parts to make repairs nor the money with which to buy them), and before you know it, the sparks are flying, the machinery is humming, and everyone is gathered around the monster’s body in anticipation. The result is rather less than they’d hoped for. Oh, the monster’s alive, alright, but it’s in a catatonic state, and not even a lit candle under its hand (we all know how much Frankenstein monsters like fire) can rouse it. After a day or so of brainstorming, though, Frankenstein thinks he’s found the answer. At the earliest opportunity, the baron risks yet another excursion into Karlstaad, and seeks out Zoltan the hypnotist. Zoltan is in the process of packing his bags when Frankenstein arrives (he’s being run out of town, too, you may recall), and is in a mood to listen to somebody who’s willing to offer him a place to stay, even if that person is an infamous mad scientist. Frankenstein wants Zoltan to come home with him and hypnotize the monster, on the theory that Zoltan will then be able to turn its conscious mind back on. Of course, that’s not the kind of thing you can just lay on somebody up front, so the baron waits until he has Zoltan safely in his clutches before he explains the plan in detail. After that, a bottle of brandy and a few gentle prods in the direction of the hypnotist’s enormous ego are all Frankenstein needs to get his way.
But again there’s one little problem. The monster awakens as expected, but the only person it will obey is Zoltan. That means that if Frankenstein wants to conduct his research, he’ll have to play along with whatever cockamamie scheme the drunken mesmerist comes up with— like exhibiting the monster on the sideshow circuit, for example. Unfortunately for the audience, the plot never quite works its way around to that, though, because Zoltan gets sidetracked using the monster to line his pockets with gold heisted from Karlstaad’s wealthier denizens. A bit later, in the depths of an especially intense bender, Zoltan gets it into his head that he could use the monster to get back at the authority figures who have been harassing him, and he sends it into town with instructions to “punish” the burgomaster and the chief of police. Apparently, Zoltan is one dense motherfucker, because it never occurs to him that the monster is as likely as not to construe “punish” to mean “kill,” which is far more radical a revenge than the hypnotist actually wants to take. Add in the fact that the creature mistakes a lower-ranking cop for the police chief, leaving the genuine article alive to come looking for them, and I’d say life for Frankenstein, Zoltan, Hans, and their monster just got a whole lot more complicated. Torches and pitchforks, anyone?
The Evil of Frankenstein is a peculiar beast. In tone, treatment, and subject matter, it bears little resemblance to any other movie Hammer made, and a great deal of resemblance to the shabby, B-grade Universal Frankenstein flicks of the 1940’s. There’s a very good reason for this, as it happens. Hammer had entered into a distribution deal with Universal some time around 1958, when the folks in Hollywood realized just how much money they stood to make from those upstart Brits rekindling audience interest in gothic horror; with The Curse of Frankenstein, The Revenge of Frankenstein, and Horror of Dracula floating around, people were likely to want to revisit the originals, too. The first fruit of this alliance was the Hammer version of The Mummy, which was soon followed by more remakes of Universal films that had not been based on antique works of public-domain literature. By the time 1964 rolled around, Universal and Hammer had been in bed together so long that there was no longer any real chance that the Americans would raise a fuss if their English counterparts made a movie or two that closely toed the old Universal line.
That was where director Freddie Francis and screenwriter John Elder made their mistake. While Universalists often cite The Evil of Frankenstein as their favorite Hammer Frankenstein film, hardcore Hammerheads like myself tend to dislike it for the very same reasons. Much of the movie’s plot is lifted directly from the Universal series— the monster frozen in an ice-cave, the return to the ransacked castle, the exploding lab at the movie’s end— and there are deeper, more significant echoes of those films in nearly every aspect of the production. The most obvious is the monster makeup, which is patterned after Jack Pierce’s legendary character design for the Universal movies. This is unfortunate not only because of the discontinuity it creates with The Curse of Frankenstein (which had a very different, altogether grislier monster), but because it invites direct comparison between Pierce’s masterful work and this disgraceful creation. Poor, talentless Kiwi Kingston has his work cut out for him anyway, but task of portraying the monster is made even more difficult for him by the fact that his squared-off headpiece is so obviously made of cardboard and papier-mâché! But ultimately, the monster’s problems are less serious than his creator’s. The ruthless determination that made Cushing’s Frankenstein such a compelling character in the previous two films is nowhere to be seen in The Evil of Frankenstein; in fact, the baron has become such a good-hearted (if still obsessed and hubristic) guy that the movie’s title is rendered completely indefensible. Even the real villain of the piece, Professor Zoltan, isn’t truly an evil man— he’s just greedy, lecherous, and debauched. Peter Cushing is still a joy to watch, and there is some snappy dialogue to liven things up a bit (when Frankenstein challenges Zoltan to hypnotize his comatose creature, the mesmerist retorts, oblivious to the irony, “There’s no man born of woman that I can’t put under!”), but this is an awfully feeble film, on the whole, and it seems impossible that it was the most expensive Hammer Frankenstein movie to date in 1964. Fortunately, The Evil of Frankenstein was no indication of what the future held for the series.