Sunday, 20 January 2013

Hammer Horror Head To Head: Frankenstein Vs Dracula (part 1)

In this two-part article we pit that most British of horror institutions Hammer Films' biggest series and biggest stars against each other in a battle for horror movie supremacy. Will it be Peter Cushing's Baron Victor Frankenstein or Christopher Lee's Count Dracula?

Part one: Frankenstein...


The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957)

1957's The Curse Of Frankenstein marked a turning point not only for Hammer Films, but also for horror cinema in general. Prior to the release of Hammer's first Frankenstein outing, horror cinema fell in to two camps: the classic American releases of the 1930s and the post war b-movie. What separated this very British take on horror from all that came before it was its sheer graphic content. A mixture of heaving bosoms and Kensington Gore were all presented in stunning technicolour as a visual feast. But it wasn't just the visuals that were different, a high calibre cast of actors such as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee delivered their lines with flair and brought a more physical style to the gothic horror films.

Hammer's take on the Frankenstein story was not a remake of the classic Universal version (starring Boris Karloff), instead there is a shift in emphasis from the monster to its creator. Peter Cushing's Baron Victor von Frankenstein is a despicable but sympathetic character in the sense that his relentless and pathological pursuit of his work leaves the audience aghast at his coldness, but also secretly rooting for him, if only to see the shocking end result of his ingenious experiment. Cushing plays the Baron with the panache and suaveness the character's breeding would no-doubt have had from birth, but his subtle form of homicidal obsessiveness is utterly compulsive to watch unfold.

The role of the creature in the film was filled by a then little known actor named Christopher Lee in his first major role for the company. Universal had threatened to sue if Hammer's monster in any way copied the look of their own, but this didn't matter in the least. Whereas Karloff's monster evokes apathy from the audience as he stumbles through a hostile world, Lee's creature is far more sinister. After his creation his first act is to try and murder Frankenstein. Lee performs his role in an almost marionette-like way, with his drooping arms and shuffling walk and with only the most basic of motor functions driving him. Lee's creature does not aspire to humanity as Karloff's had previously, only toward self-preservation at any cost.

Still one of Hammer's finest films and a turning point in cinema history, The Curse Of Frankenstein is a stand-out amongst adaptations of the novel. From the intricate detail of the baron's laboratory to the chilling soundtrack, this film sets the bar for all those that come after it.

The Revenge Of Frankenstein (1958)

This film was to be the only direct sequel in the series. Taking place only a short period of time after the original the baron has escaped execution for his crimes, changed his identity and fled his home town to set up a general practice in the town of Carlsbruck. As a respected local doctor and charitable figure in public again we can see Cushing as a noble if ultimately ruthless character who encounters hostility at every turn.

The creature that Frankenstein creates with the help of his new and eager assistant Dr Kleve (Francis Matthews – Dracula: Prince Of Darkness) is more human than Lee's depiction. It is in fact, aside from a few scars, “Perfect” and is to be used “solely” to repay the crippled gaoler Karl. The new body/creature is played by Michael Gwynn (The Camp On Blood Island, Scars Of Dracula) and rather than being a monster from the onset, the distress of his situation and the physical trauma he suffers cause him to slowly revert back to the crippled and now mentally disturbed state of his previous body.

The film ultimately sees Frankenstein have the last laugh though and along with the previous film (much like the first two Universal films), is very enjoyable to watch as a double feature. With the combination of director Terence Fisher, star Peter Cushing and writer Jimmy Sangster the film was one of the strongest of any sequel that Hammer would go on to produce.

The Evil Of Frankenstein (1964)

The third instalment provides the series with some major continuity issues with flashbacks to the original story being re-written to suit Christopher Lee's absence from the film. The absence of director Terrence Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster are very noticeable as the film back treads on itself in an attempt to reboot the series. However if the film is viewed as a one-off for the benefit of Hammers then new distributors, Universal films, things become much clearer especially in the case of the look of the monster and Frankenstein's laboratory.

In The Evil Of Frankenstein, set some years after the second film, we see the baron driven from his current hideout after the discovery of his latest experiment by the authorities and set out to return to his ancestral home of Kaarlstaad. The baron after confronting the townspeople who wronged him because they couldn’t understand the gravity of his work finds his original monster frozen in a glacier. He then re-re-animates it only for it to ultimately turn on him.

The monster, this time played by Kiwi Kingston (Hysteria), bears the more familiar flat-headed look that Boris Karloff originally depicted, but once again the monster lacks the redeeming qualities of Karloff's role and is instead a damaged and violent creation driven by the most basic of functions.

Due to the non-linear feel of the film and, to a degree, the abandonment of Hammer's differences from its American counterpart The Evil Of Frankenstein has not sat well with fans or critics. Though the passage of time has been kinder, this still feels like an oddity in the series. Though Cushing once again gives a faultless performance in the role that is now synonymous with him, it is folly to believe that one actor can carry a film. Where the film does make up ground though is in sheer gothic atmosphere with perhaps the series best efforts in the costume and set design departments.

Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)

Terence Fisher's return to the director's chair sees 1967's Frankenstein Created Woman pick up essentially (albeit with a change of setting) where he left off in 1964 and with the baron's permanently gloved hands as the only link to the climax of the previous film. There is also a significant shift in the emphasis of the baron's work this time round as he looks beyond the purely physical aspects of his previous work and into more metaphysical dimensions of experimentation.

The creature of the film's title is Christina played by Susan Denberg (An American Dream), a deformed girl who had killed herself after witnessing the execution by Guillotine of her lover (and Frankenstein's assistant) Hans. Frankenstein, using he newly devised apparatus, stores the soul of Hans while he heals the deformities of the dead Christina before transferring Hans' soul into her. The result is an apparently healthy and stable human being who only has no memories of her previous life. Of course in the grand tradition of the series things go catastrophically wrong and the baron's work once again unravels before he has a chance to fix things. As in The Revenge Of Frankenstein, Cushing's Frankenstein again shows himself to be cold and logical, but ultimately noble in a roundabout way whose genius is the victim of forces beyond his control.

With an emphasis on more philosophical musings on the soul and it's interaction with the physical, the horror aspect of the film feels a lot more refined with no hideous monster, but in grand Hammer tradition there is plenty of Kensington Gore to make up for this. It is the philosophical aspects of the film though that make this a compelling watch and as such has become a firm favourite for fans and critics which more than makes up for the previous film.

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)

Frankenstein's 1969 outing also sees another shift in emphasis. This time though it is within the baron himself rather than his work. Once again directed by Fisher, we now see a much darker depiction of Frankenstein since The Curse Of... over a decade before. The baron blackmails a young couple into helping him secure a colleague, Dr. Brandt (George Pravda – Thunderball), confined to an asylum with the intention of transplanting his brain into a haphazardly acquired body so that the baron may learn of his discovery hinted at in his correspondence with him.

For the first time since Hammer's début Frankenstein film do we see the selfish “at any cost” nature of the baron. He is cold, irredeemably psychotic, and arguably more monster than his latest monster. If that wasn't enough it is even implied that her rapes his young and unwilling female assistant leaving little doubt that Frankenstein must indeed be destroyed.

The creature of this film, played by Freddie Jones (The Elephant Man, Dune), harks back to the more purpose-built and incomplete creatures of The Curse Of Frankenstein and The Evil Of Frankenstein. Though capable of more complex thought and motor skills, he is still a quick “cut and shut” vessel for the brain of Brandt purely to pass on his knowledge to the baron. Once again things don't turn out according to the Baron's plans and it is the monster that this time doles out justice with the phrase "...You must choose between the flames and the police, Frankenstein..."

While impeccably directed, technically well executed and played with faultless conviction by the crew Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed feels more generic and reliant upon violence than its predecessor, Frankenstein Created Woman. However it still stands out as a fine example of Hammer's work in the late 60's/early 70's.

The Horror Of Frankenstein (1970)

Another oddity in the canon, 1970's The Horror Of Frankenstein was Hammer's second and this time more obvious attempt to reboot the Frankenstein series. This version of the original tale of the baron was in lighter vein than its predecessors, this may be in part due to the choice of a new and untested director in Jimmy Sangster, who had previously written some of the films.

Ralph Bates (Taste The Blood Of Dracula, Lust For A Vampire) plays the young Baron Victor Frankenstein, replacing the series then only mainstay Peter Cushing. Bates' version of the baron is not dissimilar to the one we see in The Curse Of Frankenstein, although with this being Hammer's latter period the baron's womanising side as well as his homicidal side are played up a little more. Bates adequately captures the wit and charm of Cushing's role, however he never really fully takes control of it and subsequently it feels like he doesn't make the part his own.

The monster in this film is, like The Evil Of Frankenstein, more reminiscent of the classic Karloff role. Played by David Prowse (Star Wars, Vampire Circus) the monster is a silent killing machine completely controlled by Frankenstein to carry out his dirty work. Aside from The Evil Of Frankenstein it is the most two-dimensionally written of all the creatures. Had it not been for some subtle comic timing in places from Prowse it may have proved a disastrous role.

While this film has been maligned for numerous years. Time has been kind to The Horror Of Frankenstein and the benefit of hindsight allows modern audiences to view this as another one-off in the series that has a bit of fun with the format. Although as a directorial début this film possesses some glaring issues such as some awkward looking sequences, as well as clunky and tongue-in-cheek script. But while not blatantly funny it does possess a sly charm that still makes it somewhat endearing.

Frankenstein And The Monster From Hell (1974)

The seventh film in the Hammer franchise, Frankenstein And The Monster From Hell, sees the returns of Peter Cushing as Frankenstein, Terence Fisher as director and an unprecedented second monster role for David Prowse. This would ultimately be the final chapter in the series and, as some may argue, an epitaph for Hammer Horror as a whole.

Cushing brings his usual high calibre execution back to the role and the film as a whole seems to reflect the first two films in terms of the baron's demeanour. Even at the age of 59 and looking somewhat frail, Cushing shows his commitment to the role, packing the character full of energy when necessary and even manages a stunt or two. Interestingly it is also the first time that the baron explicitly refers to his hands having been burned (in either The Evil Of Frankenstein or Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed).

David Prowse's creature this time is a lot more well rounded – although the make-up looks cheaper (apparently it only took thirty minutes to put on each morning) and allows for less facial expression, he instils a lot of pathos in the the role making this one of the most melancholic, bitter and perhaps sympathetic of all Frankenstein's creations.

The claustrophobic atmosphere created by the asylum setting is exploited wonderfully by director Terrence Fisher as he covers up a myriad of budget constraints. While the supporting cast of lunatics act almost as a Greek chorus to the tragedy unfolding before the viewers eyes.

This is another film that was unfairly criticized at the time of release, and even retrospective reviews are quick to jump on the film's weaknesses rather than look at the dark story and strong acting. But with Hammer fans it remains an underrated gem.

That's the end of part one. We've looked at the Frankenstein series and aside from two shaky outings Cushing's portrayal of the Baron consistently delivers a deep and compelling story. But what do you think? Have your say on the Intravenous Magazine Facebook page HERE.

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