Thursday, December 10, 2009


DVD Review
The Hammer Frankenstein the Geeks Warned You About is Better than They Think


Reviewed Format: DVD
Rated: R
Stars: Ralph Bates, Kate O'Mara, Veronica Carlson, Dennis Price
Writer: Anthony Hinds (as “John Elder”)
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Distributor: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Original Year of Release: 1970
Retail Price: x
Extras: widescreen enhanced; audio commentary; trailers; bios; posters and still gallery; Veronica Carlson photo album and art collection; interview
Movie Grade: B+ Disc Grade: B

There's a sort of common law among film geeks, sets of rules you're supposed to know-- secret knowledge of which film is the best or the worst, which episode of a show we all agree to sneer at, etc. There wouldn't be a point without the sneering. HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN is a sneer target for Hammer fans: it's the ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE of the Hammer Horror set, without the revisionism that's over time turned OHMSS into a Bond favorite.

HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN is the inseparable companion of Hammer Studios' 1970 piece, SCARS OF DRACULA. Of the two films HORROR is definitely the more modern, the more sophisticated, and the more competently mounted. But it's just as generally reviled among Hammer aficionados (who else could possibly care?) and marks with SCARS that point when Hammer began to fall.

Hammer Horror had changed the face of horror with a Gothic wave that began in 1957 with CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and ruled the sixties. Hammer represented the rejection of the science-obsession of the fifties and a return to a fixation on magic and mystery. Even science fiction hero/villain Frankenstein found his place in the Hammerscape, a richly colored, heavily art-directed world seen again and again through the Hammer gothics.

But no spell can last; as the sixties drifted out, the studio lost momentum. And then: ROSEMARY'S BABY. THE EXORCIST. THE OMEN. The gothic period came to an end the moment horror came to the high-rise.

Ah, but HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN, bless it, came out in 1970, when the end was still uncertain. Hammer fans traditionally hate the movie because the beloved Peter Cushing, who had played Victor Frankenstein through five movies so far, is replaced by the dashing, petulant Ralph Bates. Like Sean Connery after the OHMSS fiasco, Cushing would pick up where he left off two years after HORROR with FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL, a genuinely moving and strange picture that brought the whole series to a close and ignored the Bates picture.

HORROR is of a piece by itself, almost a parody of the Hammer gothics directed by Jimmy Sangster, the man who wrote 1957's CURSE and knew the Hammerscape perhaps better than anybody. The movie drops entirely the creeping madness of the sensitive and noble Peter Cushing Frankenstein and starts over with Ralph Bates as a rude, snobbish, arrogant, narcissistic sociopath who casually slaughters anyone who gets in his way. Bates plays Victor from his years at primary school, when he talks a teacher into a mild heart attack, through the beginnings of his man-making career.

The trick of the film-- somehow dismissed for years-- is the nasty humor that runs through it. Sangster, a first-time director, needs no apologies-- he has a feel for framing absurd and dark situations in funny ways. The film is so subversive it's almost postmodern. I've seen the film insulted for years-- even referred to as "lowbrow," something it's almost completely not. It's just a bit nasty. At one point Victor has dinner with an old man whose brain he hopes to harvest for his creature; while the old man talks in silence we see through Victor's eyes, where the numeral "25" in grease paint appears on his forehead-- Victor numbers the parts he needs. He commissions a bodysnatcher whose grave-robbing scenes play like Tarantino, as the graverobber and his wife banter and dig. The graverobber and Victor are thrilled when a ferry wrecks (fresh bodies) without the slightest qualm that someone out there might want those bodies.

There's never really any explanation why exactly Victor needs to put the creature together from different parts, anyway, except that the guy seems to like making it complicated. Bates plays Victor like Hannibal Lector, always speaking in a bored sort of lilt that says he knows more than you. This is FRANKENSTEIN: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER.

When the monster finally arrives, it's David Prowse in a skullcap and loin-covering bandages. The brain was bad, so the monster is a homicidal maniac, leaving Frankenstein in the comic situation of trying to stop a monster of his own device not because he's remorseful but because it's inconvenient.

Sangster has Bates surrounded by beautiful and charming people he doesn't deserve-- Veronica Carlson, that strapping late Hammer queen, plays the doting, bubble-headed society girl Elizabeth, while Kate O'Mara is Victor's more suited mate, a lusty, double-crossing housekeeper. The rest of the world are Victor's casual playthings; he murders his father because the old man won't send him to college; he leaves college on the run from the dean whose daughter he impregnates; he murders his best friend when a conscience proves inconvenient. He smiles a lot.

HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN is a nihilistic movie played with a rigorously relished dark wit not seen since ARSENIC AND OLD LACE and rarely seen again until RESERVOIR DOGS. The strange part is it's still Hammer, lush and vibrant and full of German/cockney lawmen and buxom maids. It's well worth a look-- especially since it's now returned on DVD.

About the DVD. The version I saw was "widescreen enhanced for a 16X9 TV," or "anamorphic," as far as I'm concerned unhappily smashing what should be a letter-boxed image into the whole (non-widescreen) TV screen, leaving a sometimes-too-noticeable elongation of the characters. The nice thing is that if you have a widescreen TV, you won't have this problem. But the film is clean and rich, better than previous video versions.

Anchor Bay, champions of Hammer, have outfitted the DVD with assorted goodies. We get a commentary from writer/director Sangster, who stays interesting because of the smart use of writer Marcus Hearn as a facilitator to ask questions and steer the commentary. But more pleasing is the devotion of the DVD to Veronica Carlson. The movie's love interest (one of the most beautiful and charming actresses to grace Hammer) turns up for a 17-minute interview, accompanied by a gallery of her paintings (Carlson is now a portrait painter on Hilton Head) and an equally welcome gallery of her swinging-London-era pinups.

I enjoy all the extras, but I'm looking for the time when DVDs seem to be more organically designed. If Carlson merits her own set of extras why does the "Talent Bio" section include Bates and Sangster, but not Carlson? On the positive side, the designers have given more thought to usability than most and created a selection routine that for once makes it clear what you've selected. (God, but I'm sick of DVDs where I can't tell what I've selected until too late.)

But why does Anchor Bay continue to forget to include subtitles? Weren't most of these films captioned long ago?
All told: a fine addition to the Hammer legacy, presented better than it has been in years.

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