by Steve Habrat
In 1957, Hammer Films first made contact with American audiences with The Curse of Frankenstein, an autumn-fused retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Starring Peter Cushing as Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as the monster, The Curse of Frankenstein was a leaner and meaner film when compared to James Whale’s 1931 classic. It also contained a bleak psychological edge that appeared to be inspired by J. Searle Dawley’s 1910 short film Frankenstein. In 1958, Hammer followed up The Curse of Frankenstein with The Revenge of Frankenstein, which directly addressed events from the first film. After striking a distribution deal with Universal Studios, Hammer was allowed to directly copy from Universal’s Boris Karloff classic. Hammer quickly got to work on The Evil of Frankenstein, which found the studio modeling their monster after the iconic Karloff version. Directed by Freddie Francis, The Evil of Frankenstein breaks from the first two films in the series and attempts to almost restart itself, disregarding any continuity simply to capitalize on the look of the monster. The result is a sporadically entertaining but surprisingly sluggish horror film that is glaringly devoid of serious creativity.
Ten years after being banished from his hometown of Karlstaad due to his unorthodox experiments, Baron Victor Frankenstein (played by Peter Cushing) returns to his hometown with his assistant, Hans (played by Sandor Eles), to restart his experiments. Under the cover of a town festival, Frankenstein and Hans slip through the village unnoticed and return to Frankenstein’s ransacked mansion. After spotting the town Burgomeister (played by David Hutcheson) wearing one of his rings, Frankenstein causes a scene that draws the attention of the authorities. Forced into hiding, Frankenstein and Hans take shelter in a cave with a local deaf-mute beggar girl (played by Katy Wild), but while exploring, Frankenstein makes a shocking discovery—his creature (played by Kiwi Kingston) that wandered off ten years ago frozen in a chunk of ice. Frankenstein, Hans, and the beggar girl remove the creature from the ice and take it back to Frankenstein’s castle where he restores the creature’s life. Despite being reanimated, the creature refuses to respond to commands, so Frankenstein hires the help of Zoltan (played by Peter Woodthorpe), a disgraced sideshow hypnotist that is also being forced out of town. Zoltan agrees to try to hypnotize the creature and his attempt is an excess, but Zoltan begins using the creature behind Frankenstein’s back to carry out his own revenge on those who disgraced him.
Under the talents of Freddie Francis, The Evil of Frankenstein manages to hold on to Hammer’s level of quality. Despite the fact that most of their films were made on small budgets, they consistently produced A-level work as far as the set design and art direction was concerned. Francis makes sure that the sets looks great even if a few of them have been lifted from Whale’s film, the costume design is detailed, and that familiar gothic atmosphere is still allowed to poke its head in every now and again. As far as visual fumbles go, The Evil of Frankenstein drops the ball on the overall look of the dreaded creature. Modeled after the famous make-up work by Jack Pierce, the creature here has the same flattened forehead, sagging eyes, and frowning mouth that Karloff’s creature did, but it looks slapped together in a rush. Putty lines are clearly visible and the prosthetics appear as thought they were just stuck on in globs. As a B-movie monster goes, this creature is a winner, but when compared to the effects on Christopher Lee’s monster in The Curse of Frankenstein, he doesn’t even belong in the same series. To further keep him in the vein of the Karloff monster, they slap a gray suit on him that is reminiscent of what the creature wore in Universal’s Son of Frankenstein and they complete the look with platform boots that boost his size and slow to a shaky stomp. The only thing Hammer chose to omit from their creature were the famous bolts that jutted out from Karloff’s neck.
As if reworking the story wasn’t doing enough damage, Peter Cushing was also forced to rework the character of Victor Frankenstein. Gone is the putrid little man who had affairs with his maid and seethed at his mentors from trying to put a stop to his gruesome experiments. In that man’s place is a kinder soul, one who only shows his sinister side when he rips a heart from a dead man’s chest and deadpans, “he won’t be needing it!” It’s a bit of black humor that shows his disregard for the dead. Besides the one scene, Frankenstein is a sympathetic character, constantly tormented by those who just simply don’t understand. Cushing plays him as a misfit cast out of normal God-fearing society and forced to suffer for fascination with scientific progression. “Why can’t they ever just leave me alone!,” he sighs melodramatically as he takes a dejected look around his trashed manor. In a way it works and there isn’t anything particularly faulty with Cushing’s portrayal, but you will certainly be left longing for that weasel we were forced to follow around in the first two films. Pitted against Cushing’s misunderstood protagonist is Woodthorpe’s Zoltan, a smirking baddie who likes to pick on the deaf-mute beggar girl and manipulate the creature into carrying out his sadistic orders. Woodthorpe is up to the task of playing a villain and he certainly turns his Zoltan into a slimy one, but his storyline seems out of place, making you wish that Francis would have omitted him from the action entirely.
Considering that this film is trying to replicate some of the finer aspects of Whale’s Frankenstein, you would think that Francis and screenwriter John Elder would have attempted to make us sympathize with Kingston’s creature. While Kingston largely lets the make-up do most of the work, there isn’t any of creature’s child-like wonder that we saw in Whale’s film. There is no “flower picking” scene or torment from a hunchback. No, The Evil of Frankenstein becomes more about playing the tiny violin for Frankenstein and lingering on Zoltan’s scumbag behavior. In a sunny flashback, we get a brief little glimpse of society rejecting the creature, running him down and putting a bullet on him. It’s basically the only time we ever are invited to really feel anything for the creature. Overall, for those who were wondering what it would be like if Hammer replicated what Universal had already done to popular effect, then The Evil of Frankenstein is the film for you. It never musters any memorable scares and the viewer will have a hard time empathizing with the creature. You also can’t help but wonder what the creature would have been like had Lee possibly taken the role (they probably could have made him unrecognizable in that make-up). Still, the film holds up to Hammer’s level of quality and Cushing does his best with what he has to work with. If there is a lesson to be found here, it’s that Hammer shouldn’t have tampered in the realm of cinematic gods like Universal Studios, James Whale, Boris Karloff, and Jack Pierce.
The Evil of Frankenstein is available on DVD.