Sunday, October 29, 2023

Ten Days of Terror!: The Revenge of Frankenstein

Film: The Revenge of Frankenstein
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

I do tend to like the Hammer versions of horror classics. They often build on the classic stories in interesting ways, retaining a lot of the old sense of the original tales, but with significant differences and new themes. The Revenge of Frankenstein is the second in the series of the seven Hammer Frankenstein films and arguably the best of them. It’s certainly the one that goes in the most interesting directions.

The film opens with what looks like the beheading of Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing). However, this is soon seen to be a ruse, as Frankenstein, under the not-very-clever pseudonym of Dr. Stein. In the three years since his evident execution, he has created a new reputation for himself as a physician for the wealthy, using their patronage to fund his work with the paupers’ hospital. When he is confronted by the local medical establishment, he balks, but also attracts the attention of Doctor Hans Kleve (Francis Matthews), a junior member of that council, who recognizes him and requests an apprenticeship.

Naturally, a lot of that apprenticeship is going to be pursuing the research that got Frankenstein in trouble in the first place. We learn that he has built a new body (Michael Gwynn), and has a volunteer to put his brain inside. That volunteer is his hunchbacked assistant Karl (Oscar Quitak), who saved Frankenstein from the headsman.

All is well and good up to and just after the transplantation of Karl’s brain into the new body. When Karl is told that he is a medial marvel and will soon be talked about and interviewed by scientists and medicos across Europe, he panics, since he has been stared at his entire life. He escapes, and in an application of the sort of science that we tend to find in movies of this type, Karl’s new body starts to manifest the deformities he exhibited in his old body, a sort of “the brain controls the body” belief that would be in line with the science of when this film takes place but not when it was made, or at least I’d like to think that is the case. The truth is that this sadly seems in line with a great deal of the more racist beliefs that are still prevalent.

Of course, in the third act, everything goes to hell, and we’re still working under the Hays Code, which requires that monsters always die by the end of the film. That’s not just Karl in this case, but also Victor Frankenstein, despite the fact that his motives were relatively pure and what happens with Karl could not really be called his own fault. However, since we are also going to eventually get five more Hammer Frankenstein films, we need a plausible way for the story to continue in a few more years with The Evil of Frankenstein.

There’s a lot to unpack with The Revenge of Frankenstein, especially in terms of what movies this to the top of the pack in the Hammer series. Most of this is not specifically the acting, casting, or set design (although all of these are as good as expected from the time and the studio), but the aspirations of the film. The basic Frankenstein film is about the idea of the creation of life and frequently about the fact that human hubris gets in the way of it. Both Frankenstein and his monster are tragic in different ways. Traditionally, the doctor is tragic due to his playing God; the monster is tragic for being unable to get what it wants and being abandoned by the man who created him.

Here, though, Frankenstein’s goals are much more pure and less about defeating death and playing God and more about the pure science of the endeavor. Things go wrong, as they always do, but not because of any specific character flaw, but by chance and circumstance. Karl panics because he’s told something he doesn’t want to hear, and he reacts from that panic. Frankenstein is outed as his real identity not because he wants the acclaim of his accomplishments, but because of Karl’s panic. Things go to hell because of circumstance, and it feels natural rather than contrived.

Honestly, this is how these classic stories should be approached when doing more than simply adapting the original story. If you’re going to make a Frankenstein movie that isn’t Mary Shelley’s story, do something original with it. This is original—this takes the basic story in a new direction and does something fun with it. This could have easily been just another film were the monster gets created and goes on a stupid rampage. There’s thought behind this one, and the tragedy comes from a different place, and for that, it’s worth seeing.

Why to watch The Revenge of Frankenstein: It’s a different take on the basic Frankenstein story.
Why not to watch: There’s a tiny hint of eugenics in the science.