Thursday 12 February 2015

The Horror of Frankenstein and the Politics of Boredom

The story goes that Hammer stalwart Jimmy Sangster, having written the screenplays of previous episodes in their Frankenstein franchise, was offered the chance to write the next instalment. Bored with the whole idea Sangster turned them down, only to be offered the chance to produce it as well. He half-heartedly replied that he only would do so if he was also made director. Twenty minutes later Hammer rung him back and, to his incredulity, agreed.

And so was 'The Horror of Frankenstein' (1970) born, written-produced-directed by Sangster, and released at a time when the Hammer hit machine was starting to become decidedly shonky (and with a production process like the above is it any wonder?). Despite having had a key role in some of Hammer's finest moments Sangster was now bored by the Frankenstein assembly line and as a result set out to – deliberately or otherwise – shake up the formula.

This is evident right from the opening scenes; rather than drown the film in stodgy exposition, we see scene after scene of Victor Frankenstein's brusque ascent through school and to medical college and eventually his return to the family estate – murder, quips, expulsion, sex, all follow in quick succession. Neither is there a remote sense of portentous hamminess either, replaced instead by a mischievous tongue placed firmly in cheek (and in Victor's case everywhere else too).

Even the young Frankenstein himself, with his smirk & sideburns and portrayed with snide perfection by Ralph Bates, has a sense of counter-cultural rebellion about him. This Frankenstein was 'wild in the streets' (or, at least, the estate grounds), and when his first attempt to resurrect dead bodies leads to a dismembered hand giving the finger then it's clear that the whole film is, in some sense, an 'up yours' to Hammer tradition.

But this rebellious use of his boredom by Sangster to creatively destroy is mirrored in the characterisations in the film. Victor is a genius, and as such is not stretched or challenged by his surroundings – we see him better educated than his teacher, un-intimidated by the Dean, fearless with the father and undaunted by women – and, being bored as he is, he rebels against practically everything in a nihilistic and snotty way. There is something almost punk rock in the way that Victor romps through the empire leaving a trail of mayhem in his wake. The one challenge and obsession that he has – to resurrect the dead - actually gives him some focus away from being generally cruel and indifferent; although, surely if he can combine the two then that would be even more preferable (and, not so say, fun).

So although the tale of the rebellious young Frankenstein may not be a classic (and bearing in mind it's origins who can they they're surprised?) it is still a robust example of snotty rebellion against stuffy orthodoxy, and is full of appropriate disrespect. Isn't this how any revolution begins? Bored young people rebelling, creating through destruction (or in Victor's case creating through destruction through creation)? Even the hammy world of Hammer is not immune from the Nietzschean twitching of the bored, restless coming race. The lesson we can draw from the film is that a little revolution is a good thing – and for God's sake give evil genius a project to work on (and preferably one that doesn't involve cadavers).

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